I sat recently in the gazebo at the farm, watching my 4-year-old son practice his posting on the longe line. I was up a hill, removed from the ring and unable to hear much. But I could clearly see Sean’s smile as he trotted by.
In the ring with him were a junior rider and a young amateur, both of whom I know well. I watched them talk with my son, engaging him in short conversations about his pony and what he was learning, and I realized that those girls were me before kids; their lives revolve around their show schedules, and they are willing to ride pretty much anything they’re offered for as much saddle time as they can get. I have entered a new period in my life with horses; I am a gazebo mom.
As a parent, one of my greatest hopes was to share my love of horses and showing with one of my children. When both of my kids were boys, I figured that they would learn to safely be around horses and that I would have more time and money to focus on my own pursuits.
When each of my sons—Sean, now 4, and Declan, now 2—was three days old, they were brought in their car seats to meet their older, equine brothers. Both were sitting on a horse as soon as they could hold their heads up (always, always with a helmet). Riding is part of what we do as a family. But my role has shifted, and it has been a difficult but rewarding adjustment.
The first winter I was a mom, I moved my Thoroughbred back to my old show barn. I thought I was ready to get back to the business of riding and showing. No one wanted to burst my bubble, so Harry, my jumper, enjoyed a relaxing couple of months on his own maternity leave. I was lucky if I had time to ride more than once every two weeks.
As I sat down to write a check for another month of board, I tearfully admitted to my husband that I might need to adjust my expectations. I was a full-time working mom with a baby, so Harry moved to a lower key facility where my expectations did not involve comparisons to everyone else’s show schedule.
That same winter we settled into a routine at home, welcomed an au pair to help with childcare so I could work more hours, and, theoretically ride more. Some weeks that was the case, other weeks, I cried in my car as I did more mundane mom stuff. I often felt frustrated and resentful of my role in life. I loved being a mom, loved my kid (and the one on the way), but missed who I was as an equestrian.
While in years past I went to indoors to spectate and cheer on my friends, a long day at the show wasn’t so fun with a stroller and diaper bag. I tried a couple of times.
I felt a little lost. As a pony kid, a junior rider and into my college years, I competed. I showed AQHA; I evented; I showed the local and rated hunter/jumper circuits. I had goals, a plan. My best friends were riders, my weekends could be frittered away at the barn, often ending in dinner where the talk was, inevitably, about horses. Now, at 39 years old, my weekends were full of play dates and diapers. The talk inevitably turned to childbirth, child rearing and all things child related.
The year Sean turned 2, he was riding Harry and being led comfortably around the farm. Harry made the transition from amazing and fun children’s/adult jumper to “my first Thoroughbred” quite well, and was a wonderful fill in for a pony until we had one to borrow regularly. That fall and winter, Sean was begging to ride. We were lucky to have an older semi-retired pony at our disposal, and I got Sean out to see Amity as often as possible. But lessons from Mommy are never a great plan, and I knew he was ready for more, so, I begged my friend Ellen Dempsey, who had a barn full of quiet ponies, to let Sean come for a trial lesson.
Her eyes rolled as she reminded me that her policy is usually not to start kids under the age of 5, but she set up a day and time. I assured her I wasn’t being a stage mom. Sean needed someone other than me to learn from. Ten minutes into the trial lesson, and she looked up, making eye contact. I wasn’t pushing. Sean was all in. He was barely talking, but he loved riding with Ellen.
That first lesson, I was asked to put myself in the viewing gazebo and trust Ellen to take care of Sean. I had never been the gazebo mom. I had never been to the barn without my helmet and riding clothes. WHO WAS I? I was the parent of a rider. It was time to adjust my expectations and trust the process.
Lucky for me, Ellen has been one of my closest friends for years, and I knew she would bring Sean along properly with a focus on horsemanship as well as saddle time. I also respect her enough that I knew she was right; I needed to be a gazebo mom.
Instead of teaching Sean to ride, I spent my time procuring his leadline outfit. Gazebo moms are great shoppers, and I discovered the consignment sections at our local tack shops as well as several websites focused on ponies and pony riders. I borrowed a leadline saddle and planned Sean’s show season, putting my own show plans on hold.
Some weekends we borrowed a pony from Ellen; some weekends we were lucky to bring Amity with us. Sean loved wearing his leadline clothes. He was thrilled receiving a ribbon, and he always hugged and kissed his ponies. He learned to hold the reins. He learned two-point. He learned patience and respect in spades. He finished his 2-year-old leadline season as the Howard County Horse Show Association (Maryland) leadline champion, and he proudly presented Amity with the tiniest leather halter they had won together.
Sean will be 5 this September. He walks and trots independently now and often tells me that he is doing things “like Miss Ellen says.” Far be it for me to correct him, and Amity seems very happy with their progress. I have perfected my role as a gazebo mom. I even wore a dress to the Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania) this spring!
In May, we made the trip to Devon on leadline day, excited to have Sean compete. Of the 52 riders in his leadline section, eight won ribbons, one fell off, and the rest went home with a participation prize. My kid was the one who fell off.
As a parent, I was equal parts terrified and proud as I watched from the rail, because if you’re going to fall off for the first time, Devon is the place to do it. Sean exited the ring and proceeded to thank his borrowed mount and kiss her on the nose despite having been eating dirt just a few minutes earlier. This was my proudest moment as a gazebo mom: his love of and appreciation for his pony despite what happened in the ring.
I know Sean may not stick with riding. Right now, though, there is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than being his gazebo mom. I can watch, cheer and thrill in each new thing he learns. The beauty about this sport is that I have changed roles for now, but it will someday be my turn again, and I hope Sean will cheer me on from the gazebo with equal enthusiasm.
Hillary Hytken Morrow lives in Columbia, Maryland, with her husband Mike Morrow, two sons, Sean and Declan Morrow, two dogs and two cats. She owns and runs Fairchild Educational Services, a full service tutoring and test prep company and visits her horses, Harry and Lego, as often as she can. Harry is a 19-year-old Thoroughbred who competed with Hillary in the rated children’s/adult jumpers up and down the East Coast. Lego, 33 this year, is also a Thoroughbred and has owned Hillary since she was 14 and he was 3; he was a competitive eventer through prelim, successful junior hunter, junior jumper, equitation horse, amateur-owner hunter, schooled through fourth level dressage and taught countless children and adults the ropes from Wisconsin to Idaho and throughout the East Coast.