Book Review: ‘How Good Riders Get Good’

By Denny Emerson

Have you ever watched a really skilled rider and thought, “Wow. I want to be that good”?

But when you think of how to get there—moving at light speed with proficiency cross-country, racing through a pattern, rocketing up a mountain or tempi changing across the diagonal easy-peasy—it seems out of reach. We tell ourselves we need talent, the right horse and money. Well, in his book How Good Riders Get Good, Denny Emerson aims to knock those thoughts out of your head.

In this straightforward, engaging read, Emerson provides a map for how to get you where you want to be, and basically posits that it’s all about choices—choices about how we think, act and interact with horses, as well as real talk regarding rider fitness, instruction, choosing a horse and more. His advice throughout is warm, matter of fact and backed up by his own decades as a professional competitor and trainer. Additionally, profiles of successful riders that range a refreshing variety of equestrian disciplines are interspersed throughout. Each profile provides a snapshot into their life circumstances, what hooked them on horses, how they think they got good, along with their advice to riders on how to become good.

From the moment I opened How Good Riders Get Good, I was hooked. Emerson’s style makes the reader feel as if he or she is receiving information from a kindly, super-experienced mentor. I also enjoyed how he made everything relatable through anecdotes and references from pop culture and Greek philosophers.

How Good Riders Get Good isn’t just for people who dream of riding (and kicking butt) at the Land Rover Kentucky Three Day Event, World Equestrian Games, Tevis or the NRHA Derby. It’s for people like me, too. My goal hasn’t been about competing, it’s been about being the sort of rider who can skillfully pilot almost any horse at just about any stage of training into being the best version of itself.

In his book, Emerson in essence states that getting instruction isn’t just about learning how to do something—it also serves to keep you honest. And I cringed. Due to the pandemic and being furloughed from much of my freelance work, my family and I have had to cut costs. I haven’t had a lesson in MONTHS. While I’ve been riding regularly, no one is reminding me to use more leg or to stop driving with my seat, or to ask me if I am trying to ride half-pass, and, if so, why are their haunches leading?

The fact is, as I tool around on the horses I exercise, I let that stuff slide more than I care to admit. So, while lessons being on hold isn’t something I can change at the moment, that doesn’t mean I can’t try to hold myself to a higher standard and pretend my instructor is in my ear. I know better, but am simply being lazy. Incidentally, being lazy is a whole other section of the book that made me feel a bit cringy in a good way. The same goes for the fact that I haven’t made more of an effort lately to soak up knowledge from great riders by reading more books like How Good Riders Get Good.

The fitness section was a tough pill, though. I really, really dislike the idea that any woman needs to conform her body to suit anyone other than herself, and I reacted poorly to a man (who cares that he’s a USAE Hall of Famer!) that dared to address our bodies and their fitness. However, for the first time in years (ahem, try decades), last September I started strength training and have kept at it.

A month or so in, I started having more success in my lessons and riding in general. I chalked this up to things somehow finally clicking to a degree, but now, as much as I hate to say it, the strength training is probably why. Which irritates me for reasons that have nothing to do with this book review or Denny Emerson.

Anyway, it’s hard truths such as those which abound in How Good Riders Get Good, and thus, it’s very much worth a read. A little clear-eyed self-examination is a good thing. Plus, the aforementioned hard truths don’t only apply to equestrian excellence—there’s a lot that could be applied to excelling at work or being a better person. It’s a helpful, thought-provoking read no matter where you’re coming from.

You can purchase How Good Riders Get Good here.