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Emma DeJong is an Equestrian World Champ at Age 14

Photographer / Amy Counts

Emma DeJong first started riding horses when she was four years old. 

horses

“My grandma got me riding lessons with our neighbor,” she says. 

After a year of lessons, DeJong’s neighbor had a suggestion for her mom.

“It’s time to buy a horse and build a barn,” the neighbor said.

DeJong’s neighbor saw something in her that many others would come to see, including her trainer Tommy Sheets, a professional All-Around Horseman with four decades of experience. He began training DeJong in 2019 and immediately knew she was something special. 

“She had so much raw talent,” he says. “You can’t create that. Her talent just shines, but she had a lot more talent than she had horse power.”

Sheets proposed that DeJong get a new horse, one with little training so they could develop the horse they wanted. When DeJong first met Houston (a.k.a. Just Call Me Lazy), Sheets wasn’t sure the horse was a good fit for DeJong because he was aggressive, which can lead to riding difficulties. DeJong, however, loved Houston’s strong-willed nature as it mirrors her own.

“He had this fire in him, and I wanted a challenge,” DeJong says. 

It took a lot of work and patience taking Houston from a two-event to a seven-event horse, but the pair did it, and DeJong has had an incredible year in circuit wins, having won titles at the Youth World, NSBA World and AQHYA World competitions. This makes her number one in the nation for All-Around.

“Winning Youth World was a dream come true,” DeJong says.  

Sheets has never had a student win at the world level for equitation prior to DeJong. Typically, a youth rider will elect to focus on one event in order to excel in that particular field. DeJong, however, wanted to excel at English, Western and Trail riding.

“Tommy is a good trainer for All-Around and one of the best in the nation for Trail,” says DeJong’s mother, Amanda Cottingham Johnson.

DeJong enjoys equitation because of its flowing patterns.

“There’s not a lot of stopping and turning,” she says. “You’re following the pattern and doing different things. Houston loves it because he gets to run faster. I like Trail because every pattern is different, as well as the different obstacles.”

DeJong’s favorite part of the sport is simply being with the horses.

“I like communicating and connecting with them – building trust,” she says.

horses

That trust is crucial, given that the horse doesn’t know a given pattern and the rider must guide them every step of the way.

“You have to have a bond to be able to do that,” says DeJong, now a high school freshman at the Indiana Agriculture & Technology School in Morgantown. She transferred there from the Center Grove school system because she travels so frequently to shows in Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Arizona, Florida and Oklahoma. Many of the shows are 10 to 14 days long. At the Agriculture & Technology School, she can do all her schoolwork online.

“It’s like a charter school,” Cottingham Johnson says. “Every Tuesday she goes to the farm in Morgantown to learn everything about the 600-acre farm.”

In a few years DeJong hopes to attend a Division I college on a scholarship, and ride on an equestrian team.

“I want to go to a college that’s going to support my horse riding and my academics,” says DeJong, who plans to pursue a degree in sports medicine. 

According to DeJong, to excel in this sport, one must have strong calves and thighs, a strong core, and be extremely driven. It’s also important to keep anxiety at bay, as horses can pick up on how a rider is feeling.

“They’ll feed off of your emotions so if you’re tense or scared, they’ll try to take advantage of you and do what they want,” DeJong says. 

When it comes to training, Sheets sometimes has his students work around the clock. 

“At these shows, he’ll have the kids get up at 2 or 3 a.m. and practice when the arena is empty, then show all day long,” says Cottingham Johnson, owner of the Barn at Bay Horse Inn in Greenwood. “It’s exhausting. When Emma gets home, it takes a couple of days for her to get rested back up because she’s worked so hard.” 

DeJong doesn’t mind the grueling practice schedule.

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“Horses are my life,” she says.

To some degree, horses are her family’s life by extension, because there is no off-season. The discipline involves year-round showing, usually every other week. In between shows, DeJong gets driven to Louisville to train with Sheets. Her stepdad, Dallas Johnson, drives DeJong across the country in their RV for shows. 

“My husband has been so supportive of Emma, and so have my parents, who go to almost every show,” Cottingham Johnson says. “I was gone for almost a month when she was at her world shows. It takes a village to do this.”

However, they wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“I will always show and ride,” DeJong says. “It’s who I am.”

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