By Nancy Price
At age 6, when most kids start learning how to ride a bike, Emma DeJong was already an experienced equestrian.
Now, at 14, she’s competing in shows around the country and has received the All Around High Point Award at each show this past year. She also won two titles at the Youth World competition this year, and is leading in the nation for AQHYA in the 13 and younger category (DeJong recently turned 14).
DeJong’s fascination with horses started at age 4. “My grandma’s neighbor had horses and I always asked my grandma if I could go ride,” she said. DeJong began taking lessons, riding a miniature pony. The neighbor was so impressed with DeJong’s abilities, “she said, ‘It’s time for you to buy a horse and get a barn,’” DeJong recalled.
Despite graduating from a small pony to a large horse two years later, DeJong remembers little fear. “When I got to the bigger horses it was a little intimidating but I just kind of got over it; I’ve never really had doubts about it or anything,” DeJong said.
The Bargersville teen, who attended Center Grove Elementary and Center Grove Middle School Central, rode her first horse, Shiloh’s Old Gold, for eight years, before riding her current horse, Houston. Houston’s registered name is Just Call Me Lazy, an ironic name for a spirited horse.
“He has a big personality,” DeJong said of Houston. “You’re not going to get away with telling him to do something when he’s not going to do it. He’s stubborn. I know my horse and I know his ins and outs. Sometimes, he doesn’t want to go forward. He wants to be lazy. I just have to sit there and keep on pushing him forward with my legs; that’s all you really can do.”
Like a Big Dog
Despite Houston’s strong will, he and DeJong have clicked. “I love him,” she said. “You can’t beat being around horses; it’s like a big dog pretty much,” she added with a laugh. “The connection you get when you’re with them the whole time … when you think about it, you have to control an animal you can’t talk to or understand what they’re feeling or anything. You’ve got to pretty much read their minds.”
“They really bonded,” added Amanda Cottingham Johnson, DeJong’s mother. “The way Tommy (Sheets, DeJong’s former trainer) put it to me when we were at the World Horse Show, he said, ‘You can’t just put any youth on this horse.’”
Even with numerous challenges the past several months, DeJong continues to perform at a level of excellence. After winning titles at the Youth World competition, “they canceled the biggest horse show in the world, which is the Congress (due to COVID-19),” Cottingham Johnson said. Held annually in Columbus, Ohio, the show attracts about 650,000 people, with 25,000 entries last year. “That was very devastating. Emma was very upset about that.”
In addition, after a sudden death in Sheet’s family, DeJong needed a new trainer. She is now training with Jennifer Goss, who lives nearby in Martinsville. “There’s been a lot of changes in a short amount of time that were unexpected, which is hard on a horse and a 14-year-old in the middle of competing at this level,” added Cottingham Johnson. “But we’re doing good and we just got back from a show in Arizona a few weeks ago. She did very well, she got high point all around for both of those shows.”
Success is the result of diligence, patience and sacrifice, vital traits that DeJong has honed over the years. During competitions she sometimes wakes up at 2 or 3 a.m. “You get up, you eat, you get ready and you get your horse ready. And then you just wait for your class,” DeJong said. “I normally show throughout the day. The first class of the morning and then the last class at night.” Shows may continue until 11 p.m.
DeJong has made many friends from shows across the country but has little time to interact with peers in her hometown. She attends a charter school in person one day every other week at Indiana Agriculture & Technology School in Morgantown, with the rest of her learning online three days a week. Other weekdays are spent training with her horse.
That’s My Life
DeJong has upcoming shows in December, one in Cloverdale, Ind. and the other in Florida. She and her family will have to drive down to Florida on Christmas Day, but that doesn’t bother DeJong.
“I love it. That’s my life; I don’t really do a lot of other things,” she said. “All my friends live out of state because they do the horse shows. When I go to the horse shows it’s like me going out and hanging out and hanging out with all my friends.”
In the future, DeJong would like to attend a Division I NCAA equestrian program and study sports medicine.