When I was a kid we were basically like free-range chickens at the barn. Our parents dropped us off early in the morning and we spent the day pecking all around the farm – looking for ponies to ride, horse shows to put on, trainers to annoy and junk food to eat – so what if we weren’t exactly the organic kind. Then at night they would pick us up, put us back in our respective coops at home so we could sleep, then do it all over again the next day.
It was pony kid bliss.
Maybe it wasn’t fair to our trainers – the barn isn’t exactly a day care – but instead of complaining they just put us to work sweeping, watering, picking rocks and (half heartedly) cleaning tack for the promise of french fries from McDonalds.
When I look back on my horsey life, those same chickens are still my best friends to this day. Those little girls whom I challenged to bareback match races and ran amok through Ledges or Lamplight are the same women in my life now using a pool stick for a limbo bar on a Saturday night out.
Among these women many have their own budding pony kids now, who range from ages 4 – 16. What I appreciate the most – and why I sincerely enjoy having their children around – is their same approach to free-range barn parenting. A few of these women are trainers themselves. More of them grew up working just as hard as I did to excel at our chosen sport. Other pony mom friends came to this late in life or don’t ride at all but understand the inherent value in supporting this immensely expensive habit.
You could have knocked my 16 year old self over with a feather if you told her that eventually she would willingly pass up rides on her very own horse to watch a kid trot his legs off for hours. You might have needed to call 911 had you suggested I would ever buy a horse that was all around “useful” rather than frothing at the mouth with wild eyes but could jump a mountain. You most definitely would have stopped my heart to even suggest that one day I would be yelling about tack getting cleaned and horses being properly brushed before the two-legged horse show reconvened next to the barn.
Watching two young ladies in my life delight in taking turns riding my green, yet steady-eddy Reno last weekend was the best time I had not riding in a long while. They both rode with a saddle, then without, and nearly an hour and a half later, I finally pried the reins from their hands. However, they quickly went missing and were found dragging my broken thoroughbred in from the pasture to make him “dance” and traipse through an orange cone course strewn across the indoor.
I love having these horse-crazed teens & pre-teens around because I clearly see myself in them. I want them to have every experience that I had, every opportunity I was afforded, every victory and disappointment and struggle realized.
What these parents know, and what I didn’t realize for many, many years is that we learn significant and invaluable life lessons being afforded the chance to be a free-range pony kid.
I learned early on how to do things for myself, or devise a way to get it done. If my pony held its head up and I couldn’t get a bridle on, I had to find a stool or stand on a trunk – no one was going to do it for me, that was a given. Unless I couldn’t remember where I left my bridle the day before… which was a regular occurrence and meant halters & lead ropes for me!
I discovered that sometimes no matter how hard you work, you still get dumped in the dirt. It is in those times you have to pull it together and literally get back on the horse. And in my case, you better not cry in front of your trainer unless something was broken or you’d be getting back on without your stirrups.
I found out that my parents weren’t going to protect me from myself and shield me from criticism around every turn. When I didn’t do something right, or I wasn’t paying attention, I got yelled at. And never once did my mom intervene to make it easier on me because that’s life. In return, I wanted to become a good rider for me, always trying to do my best to live up to my high expectations.
I learned if you tried hard, practiced a lot and never said no to a new opportunity, you got to do totally awesome things. For me, it was (and still is) an incredible compliment from someone if you were asked to ride their horse, and particularly if you had the chance to show it for them. I’m in awe of horses and I can rattle off hundreds, if not thousands, of rides I’ve had in the past 35 years from people who trusted me enough with their pride and joy.
There will be times when you have given it your all but it wasn’t good enough. And that you cannot under any circumstance let that defeat you. When I had a bad show, or even just a bad lesson or ride at home, it never made me want to quit. (Though from time to time there may have been temporary pouting or anger – I never said I was perfect.) Instead, my resolve became stronger and I worked harder to overcome the issue to gain whatever skill or level I want to reach. It is why I love being an equitation queen!
I want all the kids that come to the barn to have this experience, to learn these lessons, to try and fail and try and succeed. And to have more fun than they could ever imagine.
I want to see them ride the ponies and horses for hours. Then do it again. And again. I love seeing them give each other lessons or playing (safe) games on horseback. I want to kick the two-legged horse show to the other end of the arena so I can hack. I feel the need to have a gaggle of 4’ minions surrounding our horses at the in-gate, learning how to post for a class, wipe boots, tell each other their courses and be good ambassadors for our barn – whether they are showing that weekend or not.
I want the parents to back off – let the trainers train, let the kids run free and ignore the dirt, bumps and bruises. I want them to feign ignorance at tears of frustration just one time and watch their child start to blossom into a determined and resourceful young woman or man. I need non-horse parents to understand that us horsey kind are kindred spirits and we won’t let anything happen to your child, trust us. You can watch your child ride, but do it from the lounge behind closed doors or put duct tape on your mouth if you can’t keep it shut! Let your kid learn how I did – through the school of hard horse knocks.
Because there is no Participation Award (or there shouldn’t be) when it comes to riding horses. You show up to become a better version of your self for you and your horse – he’s counting on it.
So who would have guessed that I would ever love kids. Certainly not anyone who knew me as a terrible teen. Still, I’m doing my best to pay back all the great experiences I had to these pony kids so that they do the same some day. It seems the least I can do to instill responsibility, respect and determination in them, as we share this passion for horses.
Finally, I’m asking parents of all types to put some faith in those your child looks up to at the barn – the trainers, the teens, the *cough cough* older amateur who just yelled at them to stop running in the aisle. For the most part, we turned out all right. And the good among us are in this with the best of intentions to groom the next generation of truly educated and sophisticated riders, well versed in good horsemanship and life skills.
Yeah, your child may come home tonight and tell you that she fell off my horse while jumping – but that will be the afterthought, because what she’s really trying to tell you is I trusted and liked her enough to let her ride my horse today.
Which is a life lesson that, believe me when I say this, you do not have enough money to buy for her! 🙂