One morning not too long ago, while getting dressed to go the barn, I was lamenting the fact that I had to layer up because it was only going to be in the upper 50s that day. While gathering my scarf, hat and gloves because I despise being cold, I was watching the news brimming with stories on the Eastern “snowpocalypse.”
While I was feeling slightly guilty (but no less willing to go out underdressed) for our wonderful West Coast weather, a piece came on about kids and sledding. The newscaster quoted a surprising statistic that 70 percent of today’s parents will not let their children go sledding unsupervised.
Really?! I was shocked to think that this iconic childhood pastime was no longer for children, but for the overwhelming majority, an activity for children with watchful parents hovering nearby.
I hate to reminisce about “the good ol’ days,” and I am not going to tell you that I walked five miles uphill both ways to my bus stop as a kindergartener, but I did walk alone at a very young age. I actually did a lot of things alone at a young age. My parents gave me the freedom to play and imagine on my own, make mistakes on my own, and learn life’s lessons at the rate that I was willing to push myself to, on my own.
As a young child, my family’s farm was an unfenced piece of property in a ranch-style neighborhood, adjacent to a California State Park. At the tender age of 4, I fell in love with a pinto Shetland pony that lived down the street that should have been named “The Devil Herself,” but that we called “Missy.”
For whatever reason, I was determined to ride this pony and keep up with the older neighborhood girls who would go tearing around our dirt roads and exploring the meadows and woods that surrounded us. The only problem with this plan was that I could never stay on Missy. In fact, I don’t ever recall dismounting her. The inevitable parting of ways signified the end of my ride, and I would be forced to walk home.
The only part of this that seemed to bother my mother was that I would often be dragged for a lengthy distance behind my pony because my foot would get stuck in the stirrup. My mother’s solution to my persistence in riding Missy was simply to take away the saddle and any danger of not being released, thus thwarting my evil pony’s plans to remove my limbs.
As I matured and withstood my rude initiation to riding, I reached the ripe old age of 6 and luckily began to ride my first Morgan horse. With a friendlier mount, I was allowed to explore farther from home and began to ride at the State Park that was at the end of our road.
Our survival skills grew as our adventures took us further from home, beginning with the obvious of not going fast when riding double and bareback with a friend from school who has never ridden before. They will inevitably pull you off and force you to walk home following the dust trail of your horse.
Also, it is an extreme advantage to be on the shortest horse when boonie-crashing through the woods at top speed. It will always be the girl on the tall horse who gets smacked in the face by low-hanging branches. And although holding his horse’s tail while swimming in the ocean worked for Alex in The Black Stallion, in real life, we learned that with no one steering our horses, they would eventually exit the lake and leave us to walk home from an even greater distance.
And finally, it is perfectly practical to let your laziness keep you from saddling your horse for a ride, because who wants to take their horse swimming with a saddle anyway?
These humorous but important lessons were learned by the grace of our trusty steeds and the freedom our parents gave us between the hours after school and before dark—and gave me a lifelong love for being around horses and the people who care for them.
When looking at my childhood, I suppose critics could suggest that I was lucky to survive it. But, maybe, another way to look at it, is that it trained me to be a survivor, a skill I have at times found quite necessary as an adult. I believe I can thank my childhood experiences for the ability to discern when to be brave and venture into uncharted territory and when discretion is the better part of valor.
My daughter, Taylor, is an avid horse enthusiast as well. I see the same wild qualities in her that I was allowed to embrace as a youngster. As a parent myself, it is easy to feel that these are more dangerous times to be raising children, times that require more caution from the child’s guardian. And maybe they are.
But when it comes to children being children, sledding is still sledding, just as it was 50 years ago when my own mother was spending countless hours with her friends at the local hill. And ponies are still ponies, just as they were when I was ripping around my neighborhood with no saddle or parent in sight.
A story I heard about Bruce Davidson Sr. riding out with kids always struck me as a compelling outlook on raising children. Although after hearing the sledding statistic on the news, I doubt it would be a very popular philosophy today.
He said he would never look back to see how the kids were doing unless he was passed by a dismounted pony. Well, it’s a little the same way around here. Unless we see a childless pony run by, we don’t go looking for Taylor.
Taylor McFall and Kilbarry Prince at the start of phase B in the Novice Three Day.
Posted by Dragonfire Farm on Friday, July 24, 2015
Having been lucky enough to spend my youth riding on unfenced property, I see how it is not just the physical boundaries that we place on our children that effect how they develop. Allowing them to explore their own unique qualities and abilities without the watchful eye of an adult may lead to the discovery of a confidence that will carry them through the challenges of their adult life with gusto.
Besides, as we all know in eventing, success happens just outside of your comfort zone.
Jennifer McFall started her riding career in Pony Club and showed her family’s Morgan horses on a regional and national level, winning many national and world titles in hunter pleasure, western pleasure, dressage and jumping. She and Dragonfire Kublakhan, a Morgan gelding bred by her family farm and her partner during her teenage years, are pictured on the cover of the Pony Club “A” manual and had an exciting career together. Her early years as a trainer/instructor earned her recognition on the national level and most recently the Morgan Horse Association honored her for her influence on the Morgan breed, particularly in the area of eventing.
Jennifer has always loved eventing and remained an active competitor. Currently, she and High Times, a Holsteiner gelding she has brought up through the levels, have finished in the top 10 at multiple CIC and CCI*** events and successfully completed their first CCI**** together at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event in 2014. Jennifer runs Dragonfire Farm, a sporthorse breeding, training and sales facility, in Wilton, Calif., alongside her husband and fellow eventer Earl McFall and their daughter Taylor.