While pregnant, I spent far too many hours worrying about labor and delivery, but surprisingly few stressing out about caring for my new baby. Sure, I wasn’t looking forward to sleepless nights and diaper blowouts, but I felt confident that, given my experiences with horses and other animals, I’d be able to manage.
This assumption turned out to be correct, and in fact I’ve been both surprised and pleased at how much being a “mom” to my four-legged friends gave me the skills and coping techniques I’d need to care for the human variety.
From barn chores to baby chores!
While I joked about just sticking him in a stall when I couldn’t take the crying anymore, being responsible for a helpless being every day despite the hour or the weather isn’t a new concept. I’ve floundered through waist-deep snow to make sure the horses had access to their water, gone out to the pasture in the middle of the night to investigate a strange sound, and dropped all my plans to care for an ill equine.
All those new baby chores? There are the hundreds of repetitive barn chores—the tack to clean, stalls to muck, aisles to sweep—which need to be done every day ad nauseum. Heck, if you’ve ever worked in a barn then you’re already used to running 37 loads of laundry every other minute.
When it comes to “squick” factor, I’m confident that horsewomen have a distinct advantage over new moms who have never arrived at a show with a pristine gray horse only to open the trailer and discover he’s somehow managed to coat his entire hindquarters and tail in gooey green manure. That’s a lot more sh&*t to clean than any one diaper can hold.
(Although nothing prepared me for the night the baby woke up every two hours, and in between the dog was violently ill from both ends…)
If you were in Pony Club, you’re familiar with the concept of packing for every emergency. It’s not good enough to have extra tack; that tack has to fit every horse on the team and be in good condition. Sure your medicine kit might once have been fully stocked and up-to-date, but if it’s been a few months since your last rally, you’d better check again to make sure someone hasn’t wandered off with the bandage scissors, or the triple antibiotic hasn’t expired.
It’s the same thing with packing for an outing with baby. Extra diapers, extra wipes, extra outfit changes for the kid and for you. Check the diaper bag each and every time because in all likelihood the onesie you put in there a week ago no longer fits, or Dad grabbed the wipes because he couldn’t find any others and forgot to put them back.
My years of preparing to leave for a horse show at 0-dark-thirty were helpful when it came to figuring out a morning routine with baby. Do everything possible the night before. Have a list of what needs to go in the trailer/car in the morning so you’re not scrambling around trying to think of what you’ve forgotten before the coffee kicks in.
Work backwards to figure out what time you’ll need to get up. Want to be on the horse at the show by 9 a.m. or have the kid at day care by 8:30? Figure out what you have to do and how long the drive will take, and then pad that generously for horses that won’t be caught or babies who besmear their pristine outfits moments after you finally strap them into the car seat. I’m even used to driving with precious cargo behind me!
It’s possible the doctor was less amused when I asked if I needed to bring baby in when he had a fever or if I could just give him a bit of Banamine and monitor him. (OK, I didn’t really do this, but I do tend to take a “wait and see” approach to my son’s illnesses born out of many years of making these kinds of decisions for my accident-prone horses.)
And hey, my pediatrician is actually a horse person herself, so she’s offered to see him in the barn aisle if I ever do feel like it might be an emergency.
Zach and his “siblings.”
And it wasn’t just taking care of the baby’s physical needs for which a life with animals prepared me. Young babies, like horses, aren’t trying to be difficult on purpose. They just have limited means to communicate their issues. I’m not saying I’ve never gotten frustrated with a horse, but I understand if he’s refusing to pick up the right lead it’s probably because he doesn’t know what I’m asking for, or it physically hurts to do so.
If my baby won’t stop crying, it’s because he’s hungry or tired or needs his diaper changed or is uncomfortable in some other way. Knowing that logically doesn’t always make it easier, but I have a lot of practice with patience as I try to figure out what it is this creature needs.
Horse training also taught me to find a system and stick to it, something that was useful during the sleep-training portion of Zachary’s life. If you keep changing things up, you don’t give the system a chance to work, and it confuses the horse or the baby.
And maybe life with horses taught me one more thing too. When I screw up, which I inevitably do, my animals forgive me. I’m much harder on myself than they are. I’m by no means a perfect parent, but I love my son, and I do my best, and he doesn’t seem to linger on my mistakes. He’s saving all that up for when he becomes a teenager!
Every so often, we feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We’re just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. A graduate “C-3″ from Penobscot Pony Club (Maine), Sara Lieser spent a year working for Denny Emerson before attending Amherst College (Mass.) and is now learning the sport from the ground up by training her own horses. She and her husband, Eric, and son, Zach, share their 20-acre farm with two dogs, three cats, and an ever-changing number of horses. Read all of Sara’s blogs—including her latest, about her journey to motherhood—here.