Lake Forester Denise Dennehy Lenn mounted her first horse, Midnight, at age 3 under the expert eyes of mother Daphne Dennehy, once an American Horse Shows Association Horsewoman of the Year, and father Charles Dennehy, a National Show Hunter Hall of Fame honoree and former member of the United States Equestrian Team. Denise’s maternal grandmother, Louise Bedford, once rode General Patton’s horse and brought England’s popular children’s Pony Club to the United States shortly after World War II. Denise had a successful career as an accomplished competitive rider and started training children to ride when she was just 16.
After Daphne married lifelong Lake Forester Charles Dennehy in 1957, the couple started Royal Oak Stables, on the site now occupied by Neiman Marcus in Northbrook, before moving to the Onwentsia Club to manage the stables when it still had horses and riding facilities. Over the years, the couple put five horses on U.S. Olympic Teams.
While her family had a home on Hawthorne Place in Lake Forest, Denise spent her childhood living at the Onwentsia barn. “It was awesome,” remembers Denise. “We rode most of the day, went up to the club, had lunch, and sometimes got into big trouble when the horses got out and galloped around the golf course!”
When she was 8, Denise rode her little black pony, Sea Urchin, down Green Bay Road to Lake Forest Country Day School for show and tell. “He walked right into the gymnasium like it was nothing,” she says.
“Our family went to horse shows together in a camper,” recalls Daphne. “Denise and her sister, Dede, learned how to braid the horses’ ponytails. I’d get up early in the morning and put everything in the crock pot at 5 a.m. The cat and dog went with us, too!”
Denise credits her mother with the real gift of horse whispering. “Growing up, I learned so much about the animal,” says Denise. “Mom is a phenomenal teacher. She is so connected mentally with the horses.”
At 80, Daphne still rides almost daily, helps train students, and attends and helps out at horse shows. “It’s a true art,” admits Daphne. “And it takes years, but I’ve gotten there. I’ve finally gotten there. And I never stop learning with every horse I get on.” Among Daphne’s many accomplishments, she set the 6-foot, 6-inch U.S. high jump record with her horse at the Chicago Amphitheatre.
“I still cannot do on horseback what she can do,” says Denise of Daphne. “I put her on the difficult ones.” And Daphne’s response and enthusiasm say it all, “I’ll ride anything they ask me to!”
“It’s about the bond between the horse and the rider,” Denise says, attempting to explain the gift of horse whispering. “You’re working with another brain, another personality. The rider has got to learn to give, bend, think along with the horse. I love to show, I love to compete. It is a huge part of this. But what is most important to me is what the horses are able to do for us as people. Nothing gives me any more pleasure than to see a child smile when they are able to work through a difficult challenge and accomplish it. I hope and I do know that my students learn huge life lessons through the sport—confidence and self-esteem because this is something the kids will take with them for the rest of their lives. I hope I’m sending them out there with more knowledge about how to never give up—to know in their heart they can do whatever they set out to do.”
According to Denise, horses have bad days just like we do. They may come out of the stall in a bad mood. “Students have to learn how to work through the process of trying to get the animal to understand what they want. It’s not all about the rider. They must learn to adapt, give up some control, bend, and understand where their animal’s head is at that day.”
“Denise has been such a positive influence on our daughter,” says Laura Fellows, mother of Morgan, 14, who trains with Denise. “She teaches with only encouragement and praise, and Morgan admires her greatly.”
“I’ve been with a lot of trainers,” says Morgan. “I feel like I’ve progressed so much in a year and a half.”
Today, Denise operates her business, Olde Welbourne, out of Springfield Stables in Mettawa, training many clients from Lake Forest and Lake Bluff. Some of her students’ parents rode with her family when they were young. “We’re still pinching ourselves because we feel so lucky to be working at Springfield. The facility is state-of-the-art, custom-tailored to the horse, and managed beautifully by Gregory Sachs.
Denise works with adult students as well. She coached Camilla Cleese—daughter of British comedian/actor John Cleese and his second wife, American actress Barbara Trentham—to a fifth-place finish at the American Horse Shows Association finals in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Daphne’s closing thoughts sum up her family’s love for horses and desire to pass it on through their training, “If you’re sad, you push your leg over a horse and everything else is forgotten. You just can’t sit and worry about things when you’re on a horse. It’s a wonderful feeling, and I love sharing it with young people. Our success is the success of the people we are teaching.”