COTH Horse Show Dad: Why They Ride

May 25, 2017 - 11:03 PM

It’s been about 11 years now that I’ve been a horse dad.

A stretch like that will supply a lot of memories. The first lessons, the first horses, the jumps that once seemed huge and now look small. The talked-through nerves, the signals for when it was OK for me to approach between rounds, the “here’s what I’m gonna dos” that actually got done.

A nice collection of ribbons. The smiles, and laughs, and summer nights sitting ringside in the setting sun watching my daughters do the thing they love to do.

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Of course, not all of those memories are happy. There were falls, and refusals, and placings that seemed to make no sense at all. There was frustration, and tears, and offered hugs that only sometimes got accepted and only sometimes seemed to help. There were show bills and vet bills and trailering bills. There were bets that did not pay off. There was colic.

It’s a mixed bag, this world of riding. The past year and a half, in particular, has featured its share of challenges. The questions that always lurk in the background have pushed their way forward more frequently: Why do we do this? What have we gained? Is it worth all that we sacrifice in time, money, and opportunities to do other things?

It seems I’m not alone in this. My Facebook feed regularly includes links to some parent’s list of reasons for supporting their child’s riding habit, some attempt to identify what it is that makes it all worthwhile.

Those lists get shared a lot, and they garner their share of likes. The entries include things like learning how to handle winning and losing with grace, being responsible, working hard, developing a skill, and so on. They’re valuable lessons of the sort that riders undoubtedly pick up, and I certainly understand the impulse to embrace the message.

But there’s always a little voice in my head that says something like, “well, yeah, but you can learn those things from other sports, too, and usually a lot more cheaply.” In fact, I’ve seen very similar lists posted by parents of figure skaters. Not so long ago the exact same list of reasons appeared in my feed on consecutive days. Exact same, that is, save for the fact that one of them said “wrestling” where the other said “riding.”

And yet, you may be thinking to yourselves, here you are. So what gives, Horse Dad? Why not just send your kids out for soccer or softball instead?

I’ve tried to puzzle my way through that. Just what might my daughters get from riding that they wouldn’t get somewhere else? What’s the added value? I can’t say that I’ve got a complete list, but I think I’ve managed to identify a few things that are more effectively learned in riding even if they may not be unique to the sport.

It’s not a long list. And not all of the lessons are happy lessons. But I think they’re good lessons. You might be able to identify some others. You might disagree with me. In any case, here goes.

A Fuller Slice of Life.

A few years ago Ada, Audrey, and I were in the tackroom at Hidden View Farm, the barn a bit north of Milwaukee where we spent two wonderful, formative years. We had just returned from a show, and there were several other members of our barn family there, representing a broad range of ages.

One of the riders proposed that we go around the room and have each person identify a thing she was thankful for. Everyone else had showed, and they all talked about what they or their horse had done well. I hadn’t shown, of course, but they looked to me for an answer anyway. I spoke from the heart: “I’m thankful my daughters get to do all of this with all of you.” And I was.

Part of the reason has something to do with a dynamic that might be unique to riding. Most sports are played with kids of the same age. That was certainly true in my youth. There were adults around, of course, but as coaches and parents. The adults were “them,” and definitely not “us.” They sat in the front of the bus and, understandably, kept their distance. We were OK with that.

It’s a different story in the riding world. The barns we’ve been fortunate to call home have all been places where the riders ranged from the quite young to the more mature, and the arrangement seems to foster a different sort of relationship between kids and adults. Ada and Audrey have in significant ways related to the older riders in these barns as peers and friends—as “us” rather than “them.” Some of my favorite horse show memories involve moments when women who were decades older sincerely asked for, and then followed, my daughters’ advice.

Beyond that, the barn has provided mostly good role models and great exposure to adult interaction. It hasn’t been entirely drama-free, but in a world in which growing up is hard to do, that sort of thing is invaluable.

Life’s Not Fair

No doubt there are occasions in any sport where it’s appropriate for someone to say “that’s not fair.” On the whole, though, sports are designed to minimize the influence of anything other than the competitors’ ability. The best shoes in the world won’t turn a pretty fast runner into a really fast one, and in most sports once a certain piece of equipment starts to provide too much of a boost it usually ends up getting banned.

Things are different in the horse world, and not just at the higher levels with the fancier horses. I understand, of course, that horses in an important sense athletes rather than mere equipment. And that in any sport involving team competition it’s possible to surround oneself with the best possible teammates.

Still, the awarding of nearly every ribbon to a junior rider, to some greater or lesser degree, could be accompanied by the statement, “Congratulations on your parents’ income, and their willingness to devote a large portion of it to this.”

Understand, before you start throwing rocks at me in the comments, that I’m pointing the finger at myself here, too.

I’ve had the honor of being the emcee for the Wisconsin Hunter Jumper Association’s annual banquet for the past three years now. Each time I’ve made a point of asking the (mostly) girls in the room to thank their parents for making their participation in the sport possible, and reminding them that there are even more girls not in the room who would love nothing more than to be able to be there, but who can’t be.

It’s a cycle that repeats itself at every level. The girl with no chance to ride at all envies the girl at the schooling show, who envies the girl at the B show, who envies the girl at the A show, who envies the girl with the fancier horse, who envies the girl with four of them. There’s always someone with more, and the willingness to spend it.

And unlike running shoes, it often matters. A talented horse can offset a rider talent differential in ways that don’t hold in other sports. There are other dimensions to this as well. No less an authoritative source than George Morris’s autobiography speaks to the advantages of having a brand-name trainer standing at the in gate. These things often seem deeply unfair. It may not be the ideal way to design a sport, but as life lessons go it’s pretty good practice for the road ahead.

Price Is Not the Same As Value

While spending more money can make a difference, there are certainly no guarantees. The adage that you get what you pay for sometimes holds true only in the sense that what you get is the appearance of having paid a lot.

My assessment of the relative value of the horses we have owned bears very little relationship to the prices that we paid for them. And while some of this is no doubt the Midwestern farm kid in me shining through, you certainly won’t convince me more generally that “most expensive”—whether we’re talking trainers, show clothes, equipment, or whatever—is even roughly synonymous with “best.”

It can be a tough lesson to learn, and one look around a showgrounds will tell you that not everyone agrees it’s a good one. But I’m standing by it.

The Usual Lessons—With Passion

Those lists that I seem to have pooh-poohed above? The ones that get shared a lot? Writing this has given me a new perspective on them.

My daughters have, after all, learned many of the same lessons that I learned playing high school sports. And while it’s easy to say they might have learned those lessons much more cheaply playing soccer or basketball, it’s of course not the same. You don’t get up from those falls, or work through the difficulties, or even get frustrated to the point of tears, unless it means something.

A sport teaches best, I suspect, when you care deeply about that sport.

So for me, the best answer to the “why do I do this?” question is simply this: I couldn’t not do it. When your child becomes obsessed with horses at age 2, when every book you read her and every toy she wants and seemingly every moment of every day is devoted to thinking about horses, and when that obsession doesn’t go away, you do what you can. And when a second daughter catches the bug, you keep on keepin’ on. The lessons follow naturally, and they mean more, because it all means more.

And so as I write these words I am sitting ringside on one of the first nice evenings of the year. The sun is setting, and my daughter has just finished doing the thing she loves to do.

We will be here again tomorrow.

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. 

Read all of Chad’s COTH Horse Show Dad blogs for the Chronicle.

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