“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” – Aristotle

This past weekend I had the incredible privilege to travel to Tamarack Hill Farm in North Carolina with two of my best friends (one of whom is also my trainer), their two OTTB’s, as well as an additional OTTB, Bos’N Alwyne, who is up for adoption through their retraining program (Enter shameless plug here: New Beginnings Thoroughbreds, Howell NJ. ) to train with Denny Emerson and Daryl Kinney.

I only rode in two lessons, one with Daryl and one with Denny, but I had the double experience of learning from the ground while my friends lessoned, and also from horseback. The most amazing thing about both Denny and Daryl is that regardless if you are on a horse or on the ground, you are learning and participating. I learned just as much while on the ground taking photos of my friends as I did when I was riding.

On the first day that we were there, my friends took a lesson with Denny on their personal horses. The third horse we brought is too much horse for me (coincidentally, a concept I learned to accept through Denny’s postings of finding the right horse for the rider), so I listened in on the lesson.

There is something special about a man who has been teaching for so many years and has met so many people, yet takes the time to look you directly in the eye, ask you your name, and use your name every time he addresses you from then on. While my friends were on their horses, I was asked multiple times to come into the ring to assist in proving a point, or even just to be able to see exactly what was being asked of the riders so that I could visually learn it.

So here are the biggest lessons I learned from Denny Emerson on my first day at Tamarack.

1. Time. Training horses takes time. Learning takes time. And while these lessons were focused on OTTB’s, because that’s what we were there for, it’s the same for every horse, isn’t it? If a horse has been trained to do one thing, or trained to do nothing, how can we jump on their back and magically expect them to do something they’ve never learned? As Denny said, it’s much like teaching a child to spell “CAT”. You don’t spell it a different way every day, you have to spell it the same way every day until they learn. The simplest lessons can be taught at a walk, and these lessons can be the major foundation to building the horse.

2. Riding from the inside aids to the outside aids. We all hear it, we all preach it (well some do). But how often are you truly placed in a situation in which you are walking on a horse and being forced to repeat and repeat and repeat until you understand it? ( Or on the ground watching and repeating in my case). In fact, after listening to these lessons, I wondered how many people truly understand what they mean when they use the phrase “inside leg to outside rein”……..Of course you can’t perfect something on a three day trip, but you can learn the the logistics, listen to what you’re being taught, and make the effort to go home and use those skills to improve yourself as a rider and improve your horse’s strength and abilities.

3. In order to better understand how to ride from the inside aids to the outside aids, you have to *get* it. Denny used a few analogies, but my favorite is the analogy of a riverbank. The energy from the inside leg flows to the outside, pushing over and forward, where the outside aids catch it like the bank catches the water and continues the flow in the proper direction of bending the horse to the inside, almost in the shape of a crescent moon if you will. In order to properly engage the hind end, you must push the horse into the outside aids, encouraging the inside hind leg to lift and move across under the body. A horse cannot engage without being pushed into a containment, which is where steady and elastic contact is important.

By the way, the definition of engagement: The act of flexing the hock, moving it forward under the body, planting and lifting. (I promised I’d remember that. Go me!)

4. Your fingers on the rein, and your feet and leg must be used as your tongue to speak, insistent but not harsh. The biggest trap we can fall into is instilling fear to achieve our goals, even when it’s unintentional. You must be a slight annoyance to the horse. You must ask and ask and ask quietly but irritatingly until you achieve what you are asking for, and then give. If you continue to push more and more forcefully, you will instill fear and anxiety and create a downward spiral in which more and more force is used to ask, and more fear and anxiety are created. And if you have a horse that has missed out on the basic principles, you have to go backwards. Go back down to the missing piece, and start rebuilding from there.

I was also lucky enough to have a lesson with Daryl Kinney on that day. My trainer allowed me to use her horse. Daryl worked on much of the same concepts with us, teaching us the proper way to ask a horse to stretch forward and down while lifting his back and engaging the hind end at the walk, trot, and canter. I totally nailed it. But by nailed it I mean “I’m out of shape but at least I stayed on the darn horse. Where are my legs? Not where they’re supposed to be, but hey I’m riding with Daryl!”

My legs were jello by the end of my lesson, and I was ready to throw up from exhaustion. At which point Daryl joked, “Poor Megan is never going to want to lesson with me again.”

To which I replied, completely breathlessly and with no air in my lungs, “No! This is awesome!”

Because apparently I’m a sadist.

But truthfully it was amazing, and I will not look a gift horse in the mouth (Pun intended …Ba-da-cha!) Having an opportunity to ride with two trainers as impressive as Daryl Kinney and Denny Emerson when you’re a 30 year old backyard rider with a draft cross is easily one of the most amazing opportunities I could ever have, and I am endlessly thankful.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my weekend at Tamarack. 🙂