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.
Today (from 2010) is the last day of the hardest year of my life (at least I hope it is my last hard year). One year ago today, I received that late-night phone call that all parents dread, informing me that my son had been in a nearly fatal motorcycle wreck and was on his way via Life Flight to Denver to our state’s primary head trauma hospital. After a nauseating three hour drive to Denver, Rich and I arrived at the hospital right after midnight just as they were wheeling Hunter into surgery to release the pressure on his brain. It was questionable if he would make it through the night, but he did. And then he went on to defy all odds in his recovery.
Nine days in a coma, followed by an extensive facial reconstructive surgery and another 7 days of unconsciousness; three weeks in the Neuro ICU and another 2 weeks on the neuro floor are all a blur to me now. Hunter had smashed every bone in his face, had several skull fractures and a severe traumatic brain injury; fortunately his bodily injuries were comparatively minor. Back then it seemed like my life was indelibly changed and might never get back to normal again. Now, 12 months later, I am so very proud of Hunter’s strength and resilience, his ability and determination to heal and his courage in facing what for some would be an insurmountable condition. As Hunter is fond of saying, he turns one year old today after the first year of his new life, and I have to say that my life has indeed returned to normal with only a few extra wrinkles to show for it.
Even though Hunter has gotten better each week since last September and has had a steady uphill climb in his recovery, it has been a long and difficult year. Lots of pain and confusion, uncertainty and loneliness, fear, frustration and anger. But Hunter’s strength and determination has been incredible and as impossible as this seemed a year ago, it looks like he is well on his way to a full recovery. He is living independently, getting stronger every day and it won’t be long before he is able to return to work, at least part time while he continues to build his strength. Eventually he hopes to return to firefighting, his biggest passion in life.
We have been so fortunate to have incredible family and friends that have supported us throughout this ordeal. I am deeply indebted to my sisters, my brother and my parents for their undying support and willingness to be there for us at a moment’s notice. And to my husband for supporting me and propping me up when I needed it and letting me fall back on him when I crashed. To my close friends and dedicated staff who watched over me like a mother hen and kept me going in the most difficult of times. The people in Hunter’s community and his firefighting buddies have all reached out and provided crucial support. Although the tendency is to feel very alone when you are going through something like this, we have always been surrounded by people who care and have been there for us when we needed it.
I have also had the concern and support of so many people around the country, some of whom I don’t really know personally but who have reached out to me because they heard of Hunter’s accident. I can’t tell you how many people, even now as I travel around the country, ask how we are doing and are sending us their thoughts and prayers. Although this has been a difficult and trying time, the love and support we have received has made a nearly impossible time bearable. I am so fortunate to be surrounded by caring and loving people, whether they are close friends and family, community members or kind strangers, and I have gotten great strength from this. Thank you.
I know that this next year I know is going to unfold great things for Hunter and I am confident that this time next year, his life will be back to normal and year-one of his new life will be a fading memory. This will be the last time I write about Hunter because I know he doesn’t like it and that he is ready to resume the normal life of a 23 year old. Again, thank you all for your concern and support through these hard times.
All the best,
It’s been a long six weeks. After 38 days of being at the hospital all day, crying, hoping, praying, laughing, crying, being frustrated, crying, and begging, it was good to get home! Of course, he was released (last Wednesday) in the middle of a raging blizzard so we were stuck in Denver, but the next day we drove the 150 miles in 4WD to get home.
As most of you know by now, my son Hunter was in a near-fatal motorcycle accident on September 20th and suffered a severe traumatic brain injury and extensive facial fractures. Now, six and a half weeks later, it is no less than miraculous how well he is doing. He is living here at home with Rich and I and he is getting stronger every single day. Although it will probably be a long time before Hunter is able to go home and work and drive, we are thrilled with his progress. Right now the big mission is to get Hunter stronger physically—he lost 25 pounds he couldn’t afford to lose while in the hospital and you can only imagine what 6 weeks in bed would do to your stamina. He has only been eating by mouth for a few days now and is still dealing with a lot of pain. In another two weeks he should be free of the stomach tube and the extensive hardware in his mouth (used to rebuild his now-titanium face).
Unfortunately, this current mission does not bode well for my five-pound challenge. I have never bought and fixed such fattening food in such copious amounts in my life. Everything I make is now high-calorie and the highest possible fat content. If I can, I add even more fat than the recipe calls for. And then, of course, if he does not eat it, well… I hate to waste it! Oh boy.
It’s been really hard to get back into a regular routine since we’ve been home. It’s sort of like waking up one day, at the age of 50 (when life starts getting really good), to find you suddenly have a toddler in the house. But please don’t misunderstand me, Hunter is not in any way acting like a toddler mentally, but taking care of a very sick person is quite time consuming! My time is not my own anymore and I find myself scrambling to find time to answer emails, get a run in or take a rare soak in the hot tub. I imagine many of you have had similar experiences. How’d you do it? Any words of wisdom?
In spite of my whining, I feel like things are getting back to normal, slowly but surely for me. I am ready to get back to work, start thinking and writing about horses and maybe even riding one. Who knows, maybe I’ll go clean a few stalls and really get my mind sorted out. Expect more from me now.
It’s hard to believe it has been almost three weeks since my son’s motorcycle accident. I have been at the hospital all day every day and although at times each minute seems like an eternity, at other times I cannot believe it has already been 20 days. My life has turned upside-down and I am looking forward to some sense of normalcy returning. But every time I think of complaining, I think of what Hunter is enduring with stoic bravery.
Hunter had major surgery last Saturday to rebuild his very broken face. It took 10 hours and the results are remarkable. Other than some bruising and swelling and a not-so-pretty scar that goes ear–to–ear, his face looks fantastic. The maxillofacial specialist, Dr. Daniel Esposito, and his team did incredible work. He showed me the post-surgery CT scan and although he face is full of titanium plates and screws, it is beautifully symmetrical. Hunter’s jaw will be wired shut for another week, then rubber bands after that. As long as he still has his jaws wired, he’ll need to stay on a trach, to protect access to his airway.
Although Hunter has struggled all week to climb out of the anesthesia and drug–induced fog he has been in, today he is beginning to see some clear sky. They down-sized his trach today so that he is able to talk around it—although it is hard and very tiring for him. The good news is that he is able to put together words and sentences—no easy feat for a brain-injured patient.
In the next few days, we are hoping that Hunter will be moved from the ICU to the neuro floor. From there, he’ll move on to re-hab and I am hopeful that it will go well. He’s a very strong, brave and determined guy.
Hunter has received many kind cards every day, both from friends that are familiar to us and some that only know us through this blog or the TV show. In all cases, they mean a lot to both Hunter and me and I am very touched by your kindness, your stories and your encouragement. A very kind soul even sent me several books on coping with brain injury and I have been devouring them. Thank you so much.
I yearn to be at home again with my husband and my dogs at my side. I miss the smell of horses and the sweet sound of them chewing on hay. I miss watching them romp and play during their morning turnout and the sound of their beckoning at feed time. I know that day will come soon, when I get to go home. Next week, in fact, when I leave Hunter in the capable hands of my sister, nurse Cathy, while I go home to get my horse and gear and head up to Granby, CO, to teach a clinic—the yoga and riding retreat. If I ever needed yoga, it’s now! I can’t wait to sit on a horse again.
I have managed to get some writing done and work on the promotion for the release of my new saddles by Circle Y which are debuting this month. My newsletter will be out soon—working on these things has been a blessed distraction.
Until next time,