Book excerpt: When are compromises ok with eventing horses? | versatility nation

In this excerpt from How good riders become goodDenny Emerson is open about what qualities an eventing horse needs to have and when it’s okay to compromise.

Photo courtesy of Denny Emerson.

New Zealand’s famous (and very great) eventer Mark Todd, FEI ‘Horseman of the Century’, traveled quite a distance to look at charisma in 1983 when he was offered to ride the gelding while his top horse was on the mood. He was surprised to find that the prospect he’d traveled so far to see was a chubby and unassuming 15.3 hands. Two Olympic gold medals later, Mark had gotten over the shock and he and Charisma were a legendary partnership.

Ben O’Meara didn’t leave the track until he was eleven, when the horse was untouchable, an age when most riders would have written him off. But Untouchable became one of the great Olympic Grand Prix jumpers.

Although it’s already a “Wow!” Jumper Theodore O’Connor, an Arabian/Shetland/Thoroughbred mix with just under 14.2 hands, was anything but my impression of a four-star horse when Christan Trainor brought him to my farm as a four-year-old. But Karen O’Connor saw something special in him a year later, and after finishing third at Rolex Kentucky in 2007, they won both team and individual gold at the Pan Am Games.

Victor Dakin was not the prototype of my ideal eventer when I looked at him in 1973. He was barely sixteen, his feet were narrow, his ankles erect. He was hot as hell to ride dressage, and the Canadian team’s trainer had dismissed him, saying, “That damn horse can’t gallop!” He was half Thoroughbred, one quarter Irish Draft, one half Eighth Arabian and one-eighth Morgan – hardly the usual mix for a top all-round contender.

But he could run and jump forever.

By deciding to “compromise” Victor, I was able to ride on a gold medal-winning USET team, win the US National Championship, and record five straight cross-country seasons on most of the toughest courses in the world . Victor is a good example of a compromise that was a good choice, but I also made my share of mistakes. I think many times I’ve made mistakes when buying horses because I wanted to get something for free – or to put it plainly, because I’m cheap! I wanted to buy champagne but I had a beer bag, so I often got a horse that had a problem instead of paying multiple times that for a better horse.

By “problem” I mean that I often bought horses that were difficult to ride, either too hot or too strong or very green. Of course, I always assumed that I could solve this horse’s particular problems, and that often turned out to be wrong. Hot horses tend to stay hot, and tough, aggressive horses sometimes calm down, but most of the time they don’t. Green is fixable; it just takes time. But my worst buying mistakes happened when I compromised on quality, a word that has different meanings for different riders, even if they’re in the same discipline – and especially if they’re in different disciplines.

In eventing, horses with “quality” are fancy moves. They trot with an elastic “flow” and their canter is lively and uphill. Her canter is silky and long-range, her leap is sharp and full of width and power. Whoever starts with a horse of excellent quality has realistic hopes. But if you sacrifice basic quality, you’ll never get there – no matter how hard you try and how much riding skill you bring into the equation.

This excerpt from How good drivers become good by Denny Emerson is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

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