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I didn’t grow up with horses. I mean, I hung out with a few horse girls and thought it was interesting and different. I tried riding a few times and vaguely remember being scared to hell when a rental horse took off at a full gallop to follow another horse being ridden by a friend who was more experienced. (I’ve been told it was a canter but I’m sticking to my story… it was fast!!) My idea of the perfect horse was 1340 cc’s stuffed into an iron frame, sporting badges from a little company in York, PA.
Then I married a horse girl.
My wife has grown up with horses. Her family had them at home and horse life was normal for them. Shortly after we got married, we purchased her childhood home and what do you think came with that home? Horses.
Then I became a horse person.
Well, not really. I became a person with horses, more of a pooper-scooper-holding-mucking-master. I didn’t know the difference until we had our daughter and this whole crazy life started to take shape.
My daughter was instantly drawn to the horses. She didn’t just like them. She loved them. You could see it in her eyes every time she saw them, even as a toddler. She’d carry handfuls of carrots and apples to the fence just to lure them to her. When those treats ran out, she’d scramble around and pull fistfuls of tall grass to keep them from wandering back to the field.
She started lessons the week she turned three. I had thought it was a little young, but was quick to learn that there are mini equestrians by the thousands out there. Little jodhpur-wearing helmeted warriors on tiny little ponies cruising around all over. They were smiling, laughing and having fun. They were also pretty good little riders. My daughter jumped right in and has been there ever since. And me, well, her little tiny hand dragged me in with her and I’ve been loving this ride as well (even though I still barely ever really ride).
The first thing I noticed was how well she listened to her instructors (who I do have to mention are the most wonderful two people in the whole world). She would sit still, listen and concentrate on every little aspect of what they were teaching her. At home, she was the wild little toddler that would giggle and run away from me, but at the farm she had an attention span that, well, was probably better than mine.
She seemed to be enjoying it, so my wife and I entered her into her first horse show. She had a blast. And, well, so did I. She even managed to pull for a blue ribbon (that’s first place for my non-equestrian friends). I never knew how proud I could be of someone else, but I found out really fast and with an incredible intensity I had never experienced before.
Horse shows have many different divisions for all different experience levels for both the rider as well as the horse. For the smallest (youngest) of the the competitors it is the Leadline Division. Leadline, in its simplest explanation, is a pony being led by someone (essentially on a leash) with the child (usually between 3ish and 6ish years old) riding the guided little furry beast. I was very eager to be involved and jumped right in as her leader. We were a little team, just her and I, side by side. We learned together. When she won I won too, and I was able to be right there next to her to be the first to congratulate her and take in her infectious smile.
The farm doesn’t offer just lessons, but also has group activities. They have pony club, where the kids can gather and learn about the ponies, how to care for them, grooming and riding preparation, etc. The kids work together as a team. The older kids (and by older I mean 7-10) take the smaller kids under their wings and help them out. They teach them what they know. They all work together and learn what it is to be a team. It was amazing to see her reaction to her miniature teachers and how enamored she was by them. Even more amazing was to see her absorb that energy and now as a 6 year old start passing it on to the newest batch of itty bitty riders.
As with the teamwork, our lessons weren’t all about horses and riding. She learned early on that there was only one winner in each class and that many times, it wasn’t going to be her. It was really hard at first. It was almost unbearable for me to explain to her that I know she did her best, but it just wasn’t the best in the judge’s eyes. She did try her best every time out, but learned that her best that day might not be THE best for the day. Slowly I noticed a change. She began to look at the losses as learning tools. She started congratulating her friends for winning and cheering them on, and then asking later what she needed to improve on to do better the next time. She has learned that it IS fair to have one winner, and if you want to be that winner, you have to work your butt off to get there. She has learned that disappointment does not need to be devastating. She has learned that winning is a culmination of hard work. She learned that even though it is a competition, she’s allowed to enjoy it and just have fun.
Now, as we enter our fourth horse show season, she has progressed to independent riding. She’s out in the ring, on her own, taking everything she has learned and applying it to the next challenge. All the while, win or lose, she confidently trots around the ring with that huge infectious smile. I’m no longer within arm’s reach, and sometimes that’s very difficult, but she’s out there enjoying herself and trying her best.
I didn’t realize when we started this little adventure everything I was signing up for. I imagined it as weekly carnival-esque pony rides and cute little crafts. I never imagined I’d get to see my little princess grow into a responsible young lady right in front of my eyes. She has learned so many lessons that so many kids don’t get at an early age. She has learned that life comes with responsibilities, that you have to care for your pony and that the care is more important than the ride. She has learned that teamwork makes everything more amazing. She has learned that just because you didn’t win, it’s not the end of the world. She wants to win, but knows it comes with an investment of time and practice. She has learned that life may not always be fair, but that you do your best and roll with it. She’s learned that you can go out and just have fun.
I’ve also learned quite a few things from all of this as well. I’ve learned that horses and ponies poop A LOT!! Just kidding (well not really because they DO poop a lot), but there are so many things I’ve learned. I’ve learned that if I carry a positive attitude (when a judge doesn’t pick MY daughter even when I thought she looked the best) that she’ll learn to be more humble and grateful. I’ve learned that by showing kids that hard work pays off, they work harder and prouder. I’ve learned that if you teach a kid that life isn’t always “fair,” that they can use disappointment as a tool and not let the little things in life throw them off track. I’ve learned that if you teach a kid to have goals, they learn how to attain and earn the things they want. Most of all, I’ve learned that if you show a child that you are there to support them, they’ll learn that it’s okay to come to you for help.
So, no matter how many tack bags I have to carry through the pouring rain, no matter how many boots I have to polish and no matter how many naughty little ponies I have to deal with, I’ll keep dealing with it all. I’ll do it over and over because I have learned that children grow up too quickly, but with a little help they can grow up to be amazing little people who are ready to conquer the world.
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