We were not horse people, my wife and I. Sure, I was a farm kid for a portion of my childhood, and a kid who spent a lot of time working on farms for the rest of it. But they were the kind with cows and crops, and I was the kind who preferred the smell of libraries to the smell of manure. I left for the city as soon as I could. I met my wife, a child of the suburbs, in law school.
What do parents like that do when confronted with a 2-year-old who conjures up a horse obsession out of thin air? Turn to books, obviously.
And so it was that our gateway drug was a book called simply “Horses,” written by Laura Driscoll. We read it to Ada so many times it fell apart, and we had to buy a second copy. Meanwhile we bought every book about horses we could get our hands on. Billy And Blaze. Black Beauty. Pony Pals. Saddle Club. You name it. For a few years there I would have been able to recite several of them to you from memory.
It was fun, and I learned a lot. I’ve also since learned something about the limits of book learning. Looking back, many of the books we read seem to have missed the mark in some way. They left things out, or led us to believe some things would be a much bigger deal than they are. (Let’s just say I expected to spend a lot more time scouring paddocks for toxic plants.)
But some were good, and one stands out as the best of all: “A Very Young Rider,” by Jill Krementz.
A great many of you will recall the book. It tells the story of 10-year-old Vivi Malloy and her pony Ready Penny, with appearances by, among others, George Morris, Rodney Jenkins and other members of the U.S. Equestrian Team. Vivi’s show schedule includes an array of top venues, and she qualifies for both Harrisburg and Washington. Her older sister Debby regularly competes in the Maclay Finals. This is not the average kid with a pony, and there’s a distinct old-money vibe to the book. (I was not surprised to discover that Vivi’s great-grandfather founded Bergdorf Goodman.)
Even so, “A Very Young Rider” provides an accurate account of what it’s like to own and show a horse. The core details, and what’s emphasized and what’s not, are spot-on.
The book was first published in 1977, which makes it (gulp) 40 years old and thus a little dated in spots. Some of that is simply a matter of style, and in that regard it’s fair to note that my wardrobe from those days didn’t hold up so well either.
But perhaps the most remarkable bit of then-versus-now is this: Vivi herself does all the work. She mucks out stalls, grooms, bathes and feeds. She scrubs buckets, drags the ring and goes after cobwebs with a broom. Her family (which, to be sure, is not just any family with a couple horses) trailers their own horses and at least sometimes shows out of a trailer. At shows she feeds, waters, braids and works her pony on a lunge line. Some of that may be poetic license. Even so, the clear sense is that Vivi Malloy was putting in serious effort.
I can’t say we’ve been to any of the shows that Vivi Malloy attended. But based on what I’ve seen elsewhere I suspect things have changed. A lot.
Our copy of “A Very Young Rider” is a re-issued version, and it includes a reprint of a follow-up piece on Vivi Malloy that appeared in the Chronicle in 2005. It also includes a foreword by George Morris. He, too, remarks on how involved the book shows Vivi being, and how much things have changed. He’s not a fan of this development. “Such hands-on participation was all part of a rider’s life in those days (but unfortunately less so today), and this book reminds us that it takes more than winning blue ribbons to become a complete horseman or horsewoman.”
I won’t claim to know what it takes to make a great horsewoman or horseman. But I am happy to say that my daughters have never been in a situation where they weren’t expected to do at least a good portion of the work. Sometimes nearly all of it.
I’ve helped, too, though my level of participation has varied a bit more. I’ve held horses and helped give them baths. I’ve loaded and unloaded trailers. I’ve spread shavings and made sure the water buckets were full. I’ve also had the role of the person whose job it is to write checks and give tips and wander around hoping someone will say something I can blog about.
Lately I’ve found myself again doing chores a couple times a month. Mucking out stalls, tossing hay bales around, sweeping the aisle. Someday soon I hope to graduate to driving the tractor.
I’ve got my biases, of course, formed during a childhood lived among a mix of Norwegian and German farmers, in a world in which getting up in the morning to do chores signified a start to an honest day’s work. For me, the occasional chance to pitch in provides a useful reminder of just how much work other people are putting in. It lets me feel more connected to the enterprise, whether it’s showing or just day-to-day riding. And, to be honest, it feels just a little bit virtuous.
But, as I said, I’m a library person. I make my living with words. A sermon from me on the virtues of manual labor would be misplaced.
So I’ll simply say this: My sympathies lie with George Morris. Doing the work, I am sure, helps my daughters develop more of a connection to their horses. It allows them to notice things they might not otherwise catch. It nudges them toward becoming complete horsewomen.
It probably even teaches a valuable life lesson or two.
Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. He’s the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders and he’s going to take readers along on his horse show-parenting journey. By day, he’s a law professor in Wisconsin, but on weekends and evenings, he can be found, laptop in hand, ringside at a lesson or show. Read his first blog, “My Soul For An Equitation Horse” to get to know him.