An interest in horses at a young age led Emma DeJong to a life of riding
By Glenda Winders // Photography by Angela Jackson
When Emma DeJong was just old enough to talk, she stood in her grandmother’s barn and announced that someday she would have horses there and that she would store their hay up in the loft. Her grandmother’s neighbor encouraged DeJong’s interest in equines and helped her learn to ride at age 4 and to obtain her first horse, Shiloh. By the time DeJong was 6, she was showing horses with the Valley Riders Saddle Club.
“I always loved horses and wanted to ride,” DeJong said, “but I wasn’t old enough at 2 and 3 years old, and no one in my family had anything to do with horses.”
Now at 17, she shows quarter horses all over the United States at many prestigious competitions. At the 2020 American Quarter Horse Association championships in Oklahoma City, DeJong won the world title in the Equitation category with Houston, one of her three show horses, and her trainer at that time, Tommy Sheets, who had never had a win with someone so young.
DeJong’s proud mother, Amanda Johnson, said, “For her to start showing and winning that quickly was pretty phenomenal. I don’t think she knows how talented she is.”
DeJong has also competed at the monthlong All American Quarter Horse Congress in Columbus, Ohio, the largest one-breed show for horses in the world and the National Snaffle Bit Association World Show in Weatherford, Texas. She enters several competition classes that range from showmanship, horsemanship and equitation to trail and western. Her show horses include Houston, Everett and Jett.
Houston is now with trainer Ashley Clock in Texas, and the other two are with local trainer Jennifer Goss, who moved here after working with DeJong in Arizona.
But those three aren’t her only animals. Others include Cassidy, another horse used for giving lessons; Prancer, a pony; and Toby, a donkey. DeJong still has Shiloh, who is now 30 years old.
DeJong manages her equestrian pursuits with life as a high school senior by attending the Indiana Agricultural and Technical School, where she takes math, science and language classes online three days a week and goes to a campus in Trafalgar the other two.
One day on campus she learns about agriculture and the other day she takes college classes in dual enrollment with Ivy Tech. Currently, she is in a companion animal class, and in previous years, she took an equine class and another one on alternative growing methods. DeJong is also active in the Future Farmers of America at her school and is a 10-year member of her 4-H club. She shows pigs on the side, just for fun.
Amber Wolfe knew DeJong as her daughter’s close friend when they were growing up and now as her agriculture teacher, FFA adviser and 4-H leader.
“You can’t ask for a better, more well-rounded young lady,” Wolfe said. “She is so respectful when she represents our school and our organizations, and she is a truly unique and caring individual. She is open and willing to be involved in everything, and she has never disappointed me. She always comes through. She shines. I feel lucky to be a part of her journey and watch her grow.”
Not long ago, they both returned from a 10-day class trip to Ireland, where they visited small farms to learn how agriculture works there. The students still had to do their online studies, but everyone was excused from their agriculture studies.
“Our school is a good fit for Emma because she can pursue her passions without having to worry about attendance requirements,” Wolfe said.
“It’s considered an agricultural experience because I’m learning from someone,” DeJong said. “It can be learning about pigs or going to a farm show and learning about tractors or trade and the U.S. economy. They want you to work and have a job and start your life as a farmer. Farming is a dying occupation.”
DeJong’s sister, Ellie Johnson, is in the eighth grade and shows pigs competitively. Brothers, Eli and Dallas, play football and run track for Center Grove High School.
DeJong plans to attend the University of Georgia next fall, where she received a scholarship to ride on the school’s NCAA Division I equestrian team. She plans to major in agribusiness and then possibly come back home to help her mom run her various businesses.
“I want to stay in the state of Indiana,” DeJong said. “I know that.
It’s home for me, and I love it. I’ve been all over the United States, and there’s not another place I’d like to live besides here.”
DeJong also might consider becoming a horse trainer, but regardless, she hopes to have a farm with a few feeder hogs and calves, as well as a big garden where she can grow her own fruits and vegetables.
Being involved in horse showing can be expensive. In anticipation of that, when DeJong was still young, her mother saw potential and decided to support her daughter’s passion.
“When she was little, I had to make the commitment to her to do this, and I made it,” Johnson said. “It took us down a whole other path.”
One of the businesses Johnson started is The Barn at Bay Horse Inn, an event space and saloon, in Greenwood. At the stables, just down the road, she can board up to 27 horses, as well as give lessons and host birthday parties with pony rides.
“All of these things have come from Emma’s love of horses,” she said. “I’m so proud of her. She has worked really hard to get where she is.”
Her investment seems to have paid off. DeJong said she has received multiple benefits from her connection with horses.
“One thing is that being able to go to college and be on the team with all of those girls is really cool,” she said. “And the friendships I’ve made through the years are one thing I couldn’t find anywhere else — people who love what I love doing.”
DeJong also said she has learned a lot about life from competition and from the animals themselves.
“What I’ve learned as a person is that you sometimes get beaten, but you wake up the next day and try harder,” she said. “You don’t give up. I’ve also learned how to love and understand and take care of animals and their feelings. Being around animals is so therapeutic. It relieves a lot of stress. There are lots of scientific studies about what riding a horse does to your brain.”
She said that when children come to the stables to ride, she can see the release and joy they feel when they are on a horse. She also appreciates the local therapeutic riding centers where disabled children can benefit from riding.
“Being around horses is just very good for the soul,” DeJong said. “It has made me the person I am. My life is horses.”