There is much about life to learn from horses and the lessons learned are too important not to share with as many youngsters as we can—be it your children, grandchildren or the neighborhood kids. If I have learned anything about children in my lifetime, it’s that they will find their own path, their own dreams and their own passions.
Horses have always been part of my life. I knew from the start that I wanted to give my own child the love of horses. I was pregnant when you didn’t know what gender your baby was until the day it was born. So for nine months, I dreamt of having a horse-crazy girl who would live, eat and breathe horses, just like I did when I was a kid. When my son was born, I was not deterred. Sure, probably 10:1 are horse-crazy girls to boys, but we would buck the odds. I imagined my son teaching clinics alongside me, helping me start the colts and what a great trainer he would one day become, taking over my business when I retire! After all, it’s far easier for a boy to make it in this business than a girl, right?
I am one of four kids that all grew up in a family with horses and the same set of parents, yet I was the only one who took to the sport. My father had the passion and he recognized it early-on in me. All of us kids had the opportunity to ride horses throughout our lives, but I was apparently the only one that was horse-obsessed. My father felt strongly that no matter what you choose to do in life, you should do it right and do it well. He was a no fuss, no muss horseman who had an intensive focus on safety, but a compelling need to have fun. Without question, my father was the most influential human in my lifetime journey of horsemanship.
One of my father’s favorite activities was hooking up our driving ponies and driving through the neighborhoods that surrounded our farm, letting any kid pile on for a ride. I often wonder if he inspired a passion for horses in any of those kids, whose names we did not even know.
My father always said: It’s our job as parents to guide their path, but not to dictate it. It’s our job to provide opportunity and options. Creating a “mini-me” is not really the goal of parenting. As my father once so eloquently said, “We raise our children to be independent thinkers, so you cannot complain when they are!”
From the time my son was two weeks old, he went to the barn with me every day. I was running a full-service boarding/training/lesson facility at the time, as well as offering guided trail rides to tourists; there wasn’t much of an option for maternity leave, since I was self-employed. If my child had the horse-crazy gene, there would be plenty opportunity for its expression. But still, I found that if I wanted to instill a passion for horses in my son, I had to work at it, and couldn’t take it for granted.
There were certain things I learned by trial and error about parenting and horses, that would help set the stage for my child’s future with horses. Here are my tips to help foster a love of horses….
Five Tenets of Horses and Parenting
- Make it safe.
Although the school of hard knocks couldn’t damper my own passion, I know that if something happens to cause fear or injury, that it could staunch even the most ardent passion. I’ve seen in again and again—a passion flaming out from fear. My oldest sister once confided in me that she had the same love of horses as me, but a scary fall had squelched it. Much more common in adults, who naturally have more fear; it is particularly heart-wrenching to see in children. Do not cut corners or take unnecessary risks; seek help if you aren’t sure how. Certified Horsemanship Association is an excellent resource for parents and CHA certified instructors (of which I am one) are tested on their safety awareness.
When my son was about 7, he insisted that he should ride “Cochise,” a flashy, energetic Paint from our trail string, in spite of the fact he was one of our tougher mounts. After much persuasion, I agreed to let him ride the gelding on a short ride with his buddy, with me in the lead, keeping a close eye on Cochise. To my great relief, the ride went off without a hitch, until I stopped to talk to a friend in the driveway, a mere 50 yards from the barn. My eyes bored into the back of the gelding’s head as he sauntered past and no sooner was he beyond my reach than he took off like a bullet for the barn. He ran straight to his spot on the hitching rail and did a 90 degree pivot as he slammed on the brakes. Hunter stuck to him until the bitter end then landed in the mud in a heap of tears and snot. Although he was not hurt, his passion for horses simmered down a little that day. Proving once again, the most important thing I learned from my father about horses—always plan for the worst-case scenario.
- Size it up.
A good pony can be hard to find, but well worth the effort. First, the closer you are to the ground, the better. A fall is considered potentially fatal if it is greater than your own height. The higher that kid’s head is off the ground, the worse the fall. There’s also a matter of width—the smaller the kid’s legs, the narrower the horse should be. Picture the toddler on a draft horse with his legs doing the splits—don’t bother trying to teach the kid leg aids. Good kid’s saddles can also be hard to find, but important to a young rider’s success.
My son really enjoyed brushing, cleaning the feet, saddling and bridling his own horse and being able to tie on his own BB gun. Having a right-sized horse was really important to him because he liked to do things the way adults did them. Our naughty Welsh-Shetland cross was his pal for years and they combed the woods surrounding the stables. “Surprise” was his name (and he was always full of them) and he went on to raise kids in several other families after my son outgrew him.
- Make it fun, not work.
Since I was in the horse business, horses represented a lot of hard work to me. It’s a demanding job, D2D/7 (dawn to dusk/ seven days a week); well-suited for work-aholics. My first inclination was to make the kids clean stalls and do the chores first, but I soon realized that if I wanted my son to love horses, it dang sure had to be fun!
I learned that sometimes, I had to take a break from my busy work schedule to have fun with the kids. If that meant dressing up like cowboys, stalking the woods for bears and shooting at ground squirrels, then that’s what we did. There were lots of picnics, lots of belting out songs as we rode down the trail and lots of mounted games involving toilet paper. I never grew tired of listening to kids laughing and singing on a horse. I learned that it’s not a privilege for a kid to get to ride; it’s a privilege for an adult to be able to offer this awesome experience to a child.
4. Invite friends.
Like many activities, riding is more fun when shared with a friend. I was a very shy and solitary kid and for me, horses were the only friends I needed growing up; but my son was clearly a very social animal from early-on. Because we were in the horse business and horses were available to my son to play with all-day, every-day, I noticed right away that it seemed a lot more fun when other kids wanted to ride with us. Looking back on it now, I also realize how important it is for all of us that have horses to give as many kids this amazing opportunity as we can, and that there is no telling how even a brief experience with horses can shape a child’s life in a positive way.
Fortunately, Hunter’s best childhood friend did have the horse-crazy gene, but his parent’s did not have horses at the time. The two boys spent countless hours and days on-end playing “Lonesome Dove” with the horses, in the foothills of our small mountain town. Both boys grew up to be avid backcountry enthusiasts. Darby’s family eventually bought a ranch, where his passion for horses grew stronger. Today, Darby is still in touch with his passion for horses, spending his summers guiding luxury pack trips into the Colorado wilderness, while he’s in graduate school for architecture. Horses have been a steady influence his whole life and he enjoys sharing it with others.
5. Find your child’s unique passion and exploit it.
My father recognized the spark in me and even though he was a straight-up Western kind of guy, my dream was to ride jumpers, and he let me do it. My father was a big believer in getting the best education/coaching you can, so I first started hunt seat riding lessons the summer I turned seven. I was immediately the star pupil of my sage old riding instructor, who was probably the second most influential person in my horsemanship journey. She was a salty, bow-legged, hunched-backed, chain smoker (filter-less Camels) and I worshipped the ground she walked on. She gave me a solid foundation in my riding (I went on to win countless blue ribbons in equitation) and an insatiable desire to learn more (which continues today). From her, I also learned to pay close attention to one’s posture (particularly as we age) and I never smoked cigarettes.
Although my idea of a good time was to ride, ride, ride, my son’s interest was the farrier. He thought our farrier hung the moon; he loved to clean out feet and by the ripe old age of 7, he had his own farrier tool box and he was learning how to hold and shape feet. My father got him his own set of chaps, which touched the ground when he was 6, and then morphed into above-the-knee chinks by the time he was 14 (those very chaps decorate our guest house now). We made sure he spent plenty of time with our farrier, who was a great role model and happy to mentor my son.
Lessons Learned by Mom
When my son was little and I had to stop whatever seemingly important task I was doing to get a horse out for him or watch him shoot a target from the back of his pony, I never imagined how important horses would be to him as an adult. By the time he was a teenager, and my business had evolved to the point I was on the road 30 weekends a year, I was reliant on Hunter to feed the horses and do chores at home. Now, he is grown up and independent and he still takes care of my horses. His eye is keen and he handles them with care; his devotion to horses is obvious.
You don’t have to be a rider to have a passion for horses. We should all be doing what gives us the greatest satisfaction; every day. Explore every corner of horsemanship and get good instruction along the way. Never under-estimate the value of learning on safe and well-trained horses, but don’t get pigeon-holed into a discipline. When I was a kid, I lived to jump. As a young adult, I had to ride in the back country. Later, it was all about working cows. I have done many disciplines and each one has broadened my knowledge in significant ways. It’s all about opportunity—and giving a young one lots of chances to find their own way with horses.