Where the Hart Is: Mother’s Day Life Lessons With Emma & Dana Hart-Callanan

Emma and Dana. Photo © SportFot.


Take it from me, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself stabled near Lebanon, New Jersey’s Hart Farm at the next horse show, you’re in for a treat. I was, for the last two years at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), and I can tell you from experience that mother-daughter team Dana Hart-Callanan and Emma Callanan, 15, may make you laugh until you aspirate your Propel water, and will definitely help to pass the time at lightening speed between classes.

Part coach and student, part walking comedy duo, they discuss horses like lifelong professionals, bicker—good-naturedly—almost constantly, and have yet to reach a consensus about underwear lines and breeches (more on that later). But they’re also a super example of a family unit, out there making it work amid the sport’s highs and lows, and above all, always keeping horses at the forefront.

On assignment for Plaid Horse, I had the chance to catch up with the Hart/Callanan squad post-circuit for a fun, Mother’s Day Q&A.

Plaid Horse: Glad to talk to you both! Let’s go back to the beginning. How does the training aspect of your relationship work?  

Emma Callanan: I started training with my mom when I was little-little, and when I got to the point when I was advanced enough to start catch riding other people’s horses, I [started doing] that. When I was in the ponies, I trained with a lot of different people—basically whoever [had the ride], my mom would let me [fly] and go train with them. Once I started competitively doing the jumpers, Anne [Kursinski] and my mom have been doing the real basis [of my training] on my own horses together.

Dana Hart-Callanan: It’s about who matches [with her personality-wise], but really, it’s also about their morals and their beliefs, and good horsemanship, for sure. Anne [Kursinski’s] foundation is unbelievable, and she’s old-school in the fact that she believes you should be able to get on and off all different kinds of horses, and learn how to ride them correctly. Not to make the horse go how you want it to go, but to figure out what makes the horse go in the best [possible] way. Hopefully, she gets that through to Emma, so that in the long run, Emma can do exactly what Anne’s done: ride lots of different horses throughout her lifetime, and be very successful with all of them.

Emma. Photo © SportFot

PH: What’s the hardest part about having a teenager growing up in this sport?

DHC: I think it’s very difficult having to raise a kid in this industry while you’re doing it for a living. There’s a big-business aspect to it, and you don’t want your kid to see what you have to do at times [to get by]. There are lots of things you want to guard them from, because they’re young, and they should be enjoying it. But on the other hand, they can’t be treated that way, because this is a business. I think it’s difficult, but it’s probably difficult having a kid who’s not in the sport—any teenager is difficult!

I try to get [Emma] to lighten up and realize that it’s got to be fun, but also, if this is a path she picks [as a career], she’s also got to be serious about it. Unfortunately, like any sport that you compete in at a high level at a younger age, you have to make some sacrifices. We definitely bicker about that—and she’s all for it—but it’s difficult for any teenager to swallow that and never have any issues with it.

PH: Emma, your dad [Sean Callanan] is a golf professional, and you have a 10-year-old brother [Hart] as well. What are family dinners like at home in New Jersey?

EC: Honestly, we bicker a lot. Not meanly, but [my Mom] makes the final decisions, always. I bicker more with her about my social life than I do about riding or the horses. I never bicker with her when I’m at the ring, ever—I know better! But when we’re at home at the kitchen table, our whole family is very open to each other about everything, so we get into [all kinds of conversations] and start bickering, and then my brother and my dad are forced to take sides. It’s comical, honestly, but it’s never just one thing.

PH: I seem to remember there being lots of discussion about underwear lines and breeches…

EC: Oh yeah! I have this real problem with underwear lines. When I was little, my mom always had teenage riders in the equitation, and I was always like, ‘How the hell do they wear thongs [in riding pants]? It looks so uncomfortable!’ My mom never understood, either, but then, when I got older, I realized that the underwear lines really are a problem. I spent the last two winters trying to find underwear that [doesn’t create lines], and I actually found [this brand] from our friends in Canada, who brought them down to WEF. Even then, they didn’t work as well as I wanted, and my mom and I would have huge arguments about it at the tent [because she thought I was overreacting]…  

DHC: [Laughs] Again, as a parent, I’ve always tried to makes sure she looks the part, dresses the part, all of it. I think it’s very important and she’s not allowed to be anything but professional, whether she wears a show coat in the ring if she’s on a red/blue jumper, etc. I can’t really knock her for it, but on the other hand—and I think this is where the bickering comes in probably the most now—I’ve tried to get her to realize that one day, she might find the love of her life, [but in the meantime], she needs to stop trying so hard!

Emma and Dana. Photo courtesy of Hart Farm

PH: Emma, what’s the most important lesson your mom has taught you about riding?

EC: From a whole [picture] perspective, the thing my mom has ingrained in my mind is the management and horsemanship side of things—from how to get a short-stirrup pony into the ring, to how to get my FEI jumpers into the ring. She’s exceptional at that. Since I was little, I’ve helped her with the feed and management and the supplements, and everything like that, and that’s kind of something we do together.

DHC: At the end of the day, [and even] if she comes out of this, and isn’t a professional in the sport, I really think she is going to be a well-rounded kid, no matter what she picks to do. It’s taught her to get up at 4 a.m. and go to bed at 9 p.m., [in order to be up] for that horse the next morning, who’s sitting there, looking at you, waiting to be fed. It’s not something you can duplicate in any other sport or hobby. You keep that in perspective as a parent, for how much money we spend in it. I really think this sport teaches kids everything. It teaches them discipline. It teaches them respect, care, love, athleticism—everything.

PH: What do you admire most about the rider Emma has become?

DHC: For sure, it’s the passion and the love [Emma] has for the horses. And, really, it’s for every single horse—whether they’ve been good or bad—she loves them. She pulls the good out of each one, no matter what, and she’s dedicated to it. It doesn’t matter if the horse has put her on the ground from the time she was three years old, that’s just her way. In fact, she’s yelled at me many times, ‘You can’t give up [on that horse], don’t let go of it, keep trying!’ There are many things [I’m proud of], but I think that’s probably the number one reason she’s gotten as far as she has.

PH: And Emma, same question, what do you admire most about your Mom?

EC: When I make a mistake [on a horse], I get really nervous, because she’s someone I really try to live up to. But the best thing about her is that she’s very honest and to the point. If you ride one of her horses, she’ll tell you what kind of horse you’re on, what happened on it before you got on it, everything about it. Everyone has their own way of [saying things], but of all the trainers I’ve ever ridden with, [my Mom] is probably the most clearly stated about things. And also, she loves the horses more than anything. It’s amazing, and it’s what has kept her doing this for so many years—her love for them.