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Emily Henderson's riding her way to the top

July 18, 2011

By Mike Prince
Sportswriter for Montgomery News

Since the first time Emily Henderson began horseback riding, she's had a goal of making it to the Rolex Equestrian Championships in Lexington, Ky.

At the current pace, her goal may be in reach sooner than later.

Back on May 1, Henderson, 21, was honored as the 'reserve champion - otherwise known as the runner-up - at the Collegiate Dressage Equestrian Nationals at the University of Florida, where she competed against some of the best riders from colleges throughout the entire country.

"Finishing second felt beyond amazing," Henderson said. "It is hard to describe because you work so hard for so long and for it to finally pay off is hard to put into words."

A captain of her college team for the past three years at Averett University in Danville, Va., as well as a 2008 Upper Dublin High School graduate, Henderson began horseback riding at the young age of eight after seeing her younger sister's friend ride in a lesson.

Ever since then, she knew exactly what sport she wanted to focus on for the future.

"I hadn't quite found the sport for me yet," Henderson said, "so I thought I would give it a shot. Once I started, I couldn't stop."

Henderson said her progression for the first four years was slow, as she was at a barn which was focused mainly on showing, something she was not ready for at the time.

"My lessons were pretty similar for a few years," she said. "I decided to try a different style of riding at a new barn and since the progression of my riding had increased steadily, I continued. Once I started riding at college, the progression became significant."

Henderson's progression became significant enough that she was able to become one of the best equestrians in the country at her level and in her specific events. The national second-place finish went along with a seventh-place finish for her team. She's earned a number of ribbons (generally first through sixth place) over the years, but according to the young horseback rider, her greatest achievements have been ethereal.

"I've won plenty of ribbons and had accomplishments, but something else I achieve (when competing) is the satisfaction that all of my hard work was well worth it and done correctly," Henderson said. "But since I've started riding, the main reward I have received is the ability to improve the horse I ride."

And while the ribbons, the awards, the high finishes and the trophies may be nice, Henderson's parents also believe that the satisfaction gotten from watching their daughter participate in the sport is the best part of watching her do what she does best.

"We are incredibly proud of Emily," said Gerry Henderson, Emily's father. "She has worked very hard and to see her succeed at the national level has been very gratifying for her and for us. She hopes to ride at the professional level someday and this is a really good start for her.

"As parents, we really couldn't ask for anything more. We vicariously enjoy her success, but it's really a rewarding thing for a parent to see their kid so committed and up at four-in-the-morning and going to the barn to practice and also to see them driving up and down the east coast to compete. She's totally driven to win and it's really an amazing experience for a parent."

Gerry Henderson went on to explain how he doesn't even ride horses, but he couldn't be happier with the direction his daughter has taken and the sport she has chosen.

When she's not waking up before the crack of dawn to practice, Henderson, a soon-to-be senior at her college, is majoring in equestrian studies-business management.

"I've got the business degree in there if I choose to work on the business side of horses," she said. "I get to take teaching and riding classes, which will help my main goal of training and competing."

Training and competing has become a full-time job for the 21-year-old and former Maple Glen resident.

"This sport is what I would like my career to become," Henderson said. "To train, compete and sell horses for people is where I see myself headed. I truly enjoy being able to bring a horse along and watch it progress under my training."

While she's not training, the riding Henderson participates in "three-day eventing," which consists of three different phases.

The first is dressage, which is what Henderson likes to think of as "ballet on horseback." It's an exact sequence of movements (or "fancy footwork") put together and performed in an arena in front of a judge. Dressage gets progressively more difficult through the levels.

The second phase is cross county, which Henderson says is always everyone's favorite part. It is a jump course set through fields and different terrain, including jumps which are immovable and include obstacles such as logs, man-made houses, jumping over ditches, jumping in and out of water and several other barriers which test a horse's and its rider's stamina.

"Bravery, confidence and will to get over obstacles like these is needed," Henderson said of the second phase.

The final phase is "show jumping," which is where an equestrian receives a course of jumps in an arena and the goal is to not knock any rails off of the jumps. This phase tests the rider's and the horse's technical jumping skills and takes "careful thought, scope, suppleness and athleticism," per Henderson.

Henderson grew up riding at a farm in Buckingham called the Cando Farm.

"Emily had a lot of good training there and she went there to learn the sport of eventing," Gerry Henderson said.

Now, besides be able to look back at her most recent national equestrian achievement, as well as looking forward to helping her dressage team as a captain in her final year at Averett, Henderson has several main goals.

"Right now, I just want to work with my personal horse and have him compete at as high a level that he is capable of," she said. "We have been very successful competing this year, so I'd like to continue that path this year."

As for the future, Henderson has her eyes set on the biggest three-day event in the country, the Rolex Equestrian Championship in Kentucky. The event features the highest level of competition in the country and is her "second highest goal."

"It's like competing in the Masters for golfers," said Gerry Henderson, when referring to the Kentucky event.

But there is one place which Henderson would like to see her horseback riding take her more than anywhere else.

"My highest goal is to ultimately compete in the Olympics," She said. "It's a tough goal to achieve, but it's not out of reach."

At this pace, the Olympics may be more than just a target to reach for Emily Henderson. It might just be what's next in store for the seasoned equestrian who graduated from Upper Dublin just three years ago.

For more stories visit the Montgomery News