Wednesday Book Review: ‘How Good Riders Get Good,’ or a lesson about choices

HN book critic Erin McCabe contemplates an insightful book by eventing legend Denny Emerson.

From Erin:

I picked up Denny Emerson’s book, How Good Riders Get Good, thinking it would be the perfect read to kick off the New Year. I mean, what better way to get motivated and inspired than reading advice from one of Eventing’s greats combined with profiles of top riders from all sorts disciplines (Beezie Madden, Gina Miles, Clinton Anderson, Sandy Collier, Meg Sleeper, Robin Groves, Louise Serio, Courtney King-Dye, to name a selection of the 23 riders profiled)? What I wasn’t really expecting (despite what the back flap copy *clearly* states) is that Emerson’s book is really about choices and how the choices you make either help you become a better rider or keep you stuck at the same level at which you’ve always ridden.



How Good Riders Get Good has almost nothing to offer in terms of practical riding how-to’s. Emerson does say that to teach himself to jump, he started with a one-foot jump and jumped it until he got bored, and then he bumped up the height and jumped two feet until he got bored and so on, which I suppose is a practical riding tip. He also pinpoints looking down as an instinct that must be trained out of pretty much every rider. But if you’re looking for a book that will tell you how to see a distance or how to braid or how to condition your horse for a 50-mile endurance ride, this is not the book for you. If, however, you’re ready to think about the choices you have already made and are about to make in your life, and how those choices support your life’s goals, then this is a fabulous book. It shows off Emerson’s skill as a coach in that he essentially gives the reader a practical life philosophy to work from, making the book a unique offering in the world of horse literature, which so often focuses on riding and training skills to the exclusion of all else.

The book forced me to look at all the choices I’ve made that took me away from the Olympic dream I had when I was 12 and started riding, a dream I joke about now but which I was dead serious about back then. In that sense, it was a bit depressing to realize that I have consistently made choices that took me the opposite direction. At the same time, it is also empowering to realize that with different choices going forward, and by implementing Emerson’s tips (building a strong support network, for example, or becoming a real student of the sport in which you hope to succeed), just about anyone can take the cards they’ve been dealt and become successful. It just depends on how willing you are to make succeeding with horses the most important goal in your life. The cool thing about Emerson’s advice though, is that it really applies to anything that you want to make a priority. Whether you have Olympic dreams or you want to become the best cook or parent or day-trader, you can implement the ideas in Emerson’s book to help you be a bit more thoughtful and methodical in how you pursue your goals.

If I’d read Emerson’s book 20 years ago, I probably still would have made all the same choices I did, even though it means I probably won’t ever ride in the Olympics (note I said probably—I guess I’m still hanging on to the dream just a tiny bit). That’s OK because I like how my life has turned out. I do often wish I were competing at a higher level (or just competing, period). Still, I aim to work at some of the areas Emerson points out—getting a strong support system in place, learning more, getting physically fit, riding more horses—because I do think it will help me achieve what Gina Miles says in the profile of her included in the book, “I plan to be a better rider in five years than I am now.” I like that philosophy. It feels much more attainable than the Olympics, and yet, it might lead to moving up the levels. Or riding really well at the same old level. Which would be OK with me too because it turns out my main goal is just to Go Riding.

Erin McCabe rides two OTTB mares and hopes to someday soon get back to competing at horse trials. Her first novel, I Shall Be Near To You, is forthcoming from Crown Publishing in January 2014. You can learn more at


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