Closing The Book On My Horse Dad Years

Apr 15, 2022 - 7:57 AM

I attended exactly one horse show in 2021.

I don’t have the precise numbers, but I can tell you this: That’s a lot fewer than in any of the preceding decade or so.

And as I sat there at that one show, watching my daughter Audrey compete for the University of Virginia Riding Team, I was struck, once again, by a thought that’s familiar to you, me and everyone: Time flies.

There was the obvious fact that Audrey is now at a stage of life that seemed part of the distant, barely imaginable future not so long ago. But that wasn’t all of it. The day’s soundtrack in the Virginia Horse Center featured a lot of heavy metal. As in, that’s pretty much all that played.

So there I was, not just someone trying to wrap his brain around the reality that all his kids are now, somehow, in college, but also a man left to wonder how his teenage self would have processed this scene: all horses and no headbangers. Not a single person dressed to rock, and yet somehow a crowd that didn’t seem to find the day’s sonic wallpaper the slightest bit remarkable. Time flies. The world changes.

It’s been almost seven years since, on a solo drive home from the Kentucky Horse Park, I convinced myself that I’d actually follow through on an idea I’d been kicking around for a bit. Our family had been living in the horse world for almost a decade at that point, and my daughters had just made the jump to the A circuit. The journey to that point had fascinated me. It seemed that big things were ahead. I thought I might write about it. I reached out to Molly Sorge, who at the time was in charge of such things for the Chronicle, and my stint as COTH Horse Dad blogger here began.

It’s been well over two years since my last post. As I wrote then, the big things that seemed ahead went partly unrealized. The big dreams that fueled it all turned out to be partly unrealistic. I spent some of the time between then and now developing the thoughts I first shared as a Chronicle blogger and putting them in a book, “A Man Walks into a Barn: Navigating Fatherhood in the Flawed and Fascinating World of Horses.” As the title suggests, it’s about being a dad making his way through an unfamiliar world, the sometimes-surprising connections between that world and the others I’ve inhabited, and some of the lessons I learned along the way. I don’t mind telling you that the Wall Street Journal called it a “witty, often wistful take on fatherhood, family finances, and the tony, insular world of horses and ‘horse people.’ ”

Oldfather book
Longtime Chronicle blogger Chad Oldfather, also known as COTH Horse Dad, has published a book developed from his blogs and experiences in the horse show world with his daughters. Photo Courtesy Of Chad Oldfather

Meanwhile, time has flown, and my life has changed. What used to be near-daily trips to the barn have become social-media aided strolls down memory lane. One day last July, Facebook told me, was an anniversary of all sorts of big moments: My daughter Ada’s first time over what had seemed like an impossibly scary jump; a trip to the USHJA’s Emerging Athletes Program for Ada, and then two years later the same for Audrey. As I lingered in those corners of the past, I got an email that hit like a message from an old friend who lives across the country saying, “Let me know if you’re ever in town.” It was the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival, suggesting that I might like to visit a certain vendor’s booth. “Sorry, won’t be there this year,” I might have replied. “Hope to be back again soon, though! Let’s definitely stay in touch!”

And, just as with those messages to old friends, I do hope to go back. To sit once more in the summer heat watching horse after horse ridden by people I don’t know as I wait for the horse ridden by the person I do know. To hang out in the tent during the negative space created by the long stretches of in-between time. To leave the showgrounds at the end of the day, take a quick shower, then head out to dinner with the same friends I’ve just spent a long day with. But I also know that it might not happen.

For now I content myself with a couple Sunday mornings a month helping out with chores at Split Rail Stables. It’s a small thing, a way to express my gratitude and to see old friends of the two- and four-legged varieties. Mucking out stalls lets me keep a toe in a world I’ve been a part of for about a quarter of my life. It’s a thing I’ll keep doing as long as they’ll have me.

Our family’s journey through the horse world might not have unfolded precisely as we hoped. And yet the important things happened anyway. Parenting is one of those endeavors in which success is measured in degrees of imperfection. It’s hard enough to figure out for one’s own self what it means to lead a life that will, when the time comes, feel good to have led. And then to help someone else get off to the start of their own journey? Someone who looks like you and seems like you but who has a distinct set of interests and priorities? To do that in a world where days snowball quickly into months and years, and one that includes plenty of days and moments where you weren’t at your best? It’s hard.

And so it’s nice to be this far along the path of parenthood and to be able to tell you how enormously proud of my daughters I am. Each, in her own way, is (to give you just a partial list) funny, smart, inquisitive, kind and responsible. I would have loved it if all their dreams had come true, if the fictional story I’ve written in my head (with perhaps a few notes on my laptop)—the one with the improbably happy ending—would have been the story that I was able to tell in the book.

But in the end it’s not the ribbons and trophies that matter. It’s who they’ve become. And who they will continue to become. And that I, as their dad, do what I can to help them figure out for themselves how to live a life they’ll find fulfilling and rewarding according to whatever standards best suit them.

Time will fly. I might make it back to the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival, but I also might not. There will almost certainly be more horses, and more shows, and a string of developments that none of us can entirely foresee. The credits will start to roll sooner than any of us would like. My job as a dad is different. But it’s far from done.


Chad Oldfather began blogging and became the COTH Horse Dad in 2015. He’s the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders, and he’s taking 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. 

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