Friday, Mar. 1, 2024

COTH Horse Show Dad: Travels On The Horse River



You think that you’re signing your daughter up for a riding lesson. What you don’t realize is that you’re stepping into a river. The river is wide, and it is deep, and it has been running for a long time. You needn’t get too far in for it to pick you up and carry you along. 

You meet people on the river. Some are newcomers, too, and you bond with them. Others have been in the water for a long time. Many are wise and have a feel for the river, and if you are lucky one or two will guide you. After a while you develop your own knowledge and share it with those who come after.

The river has its twists and its turns, its rapids and its places where people sometimes get hung up. There are stretches of fast water, interludes of beauty, and long pauses where things move slowly and nothing much seems to happen at all. Sometimes, though, a look back reveals that those slow times hold some of the more meaningful moments.

At time, you might think you know where the river will lead. But you learn that it will take you where it takes you. Luck and the current defeat most attempts at navigation. You will go where you will go. You learn to emphasize the journey over the destination.


We are somewhere on the river, my family and I. We don’t know what lies ahead. But I hope you’ll indulge me in a look back at some of the moments, large and small, from our journey so far. The first is from several years ago. It is one of my favorites. The others are more recent.

These are not your moments. But I hope you have moments like them, and friends like ours.


August 2011. A beautiful late summer afternoon at Appy Orse Acres in Fredonia, Wis., the farm where it all began for us. The horse was named Sunny, and we had leased him for Ada. Our first lease. Still early days on the river.

It might’ve been planned, it might’ve been spontaneous, but either way Ada ended up taking Sunny for a ride on the farm’s network of trails while Audrey, Laura, Ada’s friend Sara, and I followed along on foot. We walked, and we talked, and we paused to pick apples.

Somewhere along our way things went from merely pleasant to that certain kind of perfect—the kind where you remind yourself to look around and soak in as much as you can, hoping that you’ll absorb enough of the moment to one day remember more than just a fragment.

After a while we came to a mulberry bush, and Ada got off Sunny. Right about then Audrey and Laura found a toad and began to discuss what they would do with it.

I had the presence of mind to take out my phone and get a picture.


It’s among my all-time favorites. It reinforces for me the idea that sometimes the little moments are the biggest ones. Posed photos and big events are nice. But so are a lot of the spaces in between.

The lesson, for me, is to remember to capture those, too, so that a couple decades from now we’ll be able to look back and say, “Yes, that’s how it was.”


A different sort of moment, from a few months ago. I’ve been on the river long enough to know that sometimes you’ve got to ask for help. And so I’m at my dining room table, talking on the phone to Tori Polonitza.

The important piece of backstory is that, after a very difficult year, Ada decided to take a break from jumping and give dressage a try. This seemed like a great idea, except that it required finding a trainer. I got lots of recommendations, but for each one something—usually geography—got in the way.


Tori’s a dressage trainer, Florida-based but in Wisconsin several times a year to cross-train a group of primarily hunter-jumper riders. Ada had ridden with her many times during our time at Hidden View Farm and loved it. Tori is one of the most gifted instructors I have ever seen, and I knew that she has some sense of the lay of the land in these parts. It was only natural for me to ask for her thoughts.

We spoke for a while, and I mentioned that with all that had happened, things had stopped being fun for Ada. Tori thought for a minute and then she said, “I have an idea.”

A couple days later I’m at my dining room table talking on my phone again. This time it’s Patty Van Housen on the other end of the line. I’ve known of Patty and her sister Barb for years. They are fixtures in the southeastern Wisconsin horse community and own Split Rail Stables, but we’ve never met.

Tori has connected us. It turns out there might be a spot for Ada at Split Rail. And as Patty talks she uses words and phrases like “everybody pitches in” and “try different things” and “we focus less on appearance and more on what works” and, yes, “fun.” She cannot know it yet, but she is speaking my language.

Since then Ada has lessoned intensively with Tori when she has come to town. The spaces in between have been filled with riding, yes, and even a couple of shows. But also with barn chores and fence repair and playing with dogs. And with getting to know a new and wonderful group of people.

More than anything, there is this: Patty, Barb, and Tori have spent their lives on the river. They’ve picked up knowledge, and perspective and wisdom, and they share it freely. Sometimes it seems that good role models are hard to come by. But my daughters have been fortunate to find lots of them in the horse world, and these are among the best.


May 21. Four of us are at The Brick Pub & Grill. The location matters because The Brick is owned by a woman named Chelsea Hren, who we’ve known from our very first days in the horse world, and her husband Tim. We came to The Brick for the first time because we like them. We return because we like what they’ve built.

Audrey is not with us. She’s at the Kentucky Horse Park with her trainer Serah Vogus. Her first week at the Kentucky Spring Horse Show did not go as planned. We thought that her horse Alex had made peace with the Walnut Ring. It turned out to be temporary.

Serah work some magic and found Audrey a catch ride for the second week. Things had been going well, but this day brought another visit to the Walnut Ring, which seemed to have Audrey’s number.

We place our orders. I text Audrey to ask how it’s going.

Ten minutes later I get a response. “I won today’s trip and was champion.” With seven exclamation points. She has finally conquered the Walnut Ring.


July 23. Audrey and I are driving back from the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival after a hot but enjoyable weekend of showing. We stop at a rest area, and I get a text from my wife, Lea, who has driven Ada to Split Rail. It’s a photo of Ada holding a sign that Barb Van Housen has found and given to her. It reads, “I’d rather be at the barn with my Daddy.”

I pause for a bit to, um, you know, “collect my thoughts.” Then I post the photo to Facebook with the caption, “How to make a grown man cry.”


August 14. I am in my office when my phone starts buzzing. It’s Ada. She has her driver’s license now, and she has driven Audrey down to Millcreek Farm.

It’s hard to make out what she’s saying. She puts Audrey on the phone. I hear the word “fall.” I can’t tell whether Audrey is laughing or crying.

It was laughter. But the situation turns out to be not entirely funny. The horse she was riding stumbled, a freak thing. Her foot got caught between the horse and the ground before the horse popped back up. The vet who happened to be present says he doesn’t need to have her jog to conclude she’s lame, but he also doesn’t think anything’s broken.


A few hours later the swelling is still severe, and she and I are at an urgent care facility. An x-ray reveals a small fracture. She will be in a boot for at least a month.

There’s an interesting pattern in how our horse friends respond. The longer they’ve been at it, the more likely they are to follow their expressions of regret by immediately offering thoughts about how she’ll be able to ride anyway. “There’s nothing wrong with a month of no-stirrup work,” is more or less how one of them puts it.


August 20. Ada, Audrey, and I are under a tent at the fifth annual Wisconsin Equine Derby Weekend. It’s a wonderful event, the brainchild of the energetic and creative Courtney Hayden-Fromm, and most of the southeastern Wisconsin hunter-jumper community is there. We are among friends old and new, and we are there to support them all. Neither Ada nor Audrey is riding.

For a while we sit with Heidi Modesto, Debbie Knuth and Charles Zwicky. A few years ago this group formed most of the core of a team. We drove to shows together, set up stalls together, dined together, spent days in one another’s company. We shared the sorts of experiences that create a lasting bond.

Each of us, it turns out, had enjoyed a private smile when we first noticed a pair of jump standards that had been part of a running joke among us. Truly one of those “you had to be there” sorts of things. And now, several trips around the sun later, we are sharing the memories. We had some very good times together, we all agree.

The currents have separated us, but we are all still on the river, and we remain friends. For a moment we floated along together again, and it was just like old times.


These moments are tied together by more than just my family’s presence. I’ve included some names, but left out many, many others. There’s a community here, a group of people whose lives intersect at various ways and different times. It’s been a fascinating and rewarding thing to be a part of. And it’s all because of an animal that ties us all together.


Some people are born on the river. They learn its ways from their first breath.

Others must be called.

You were not born on the river, nor were you called.

But your daughters, they were called. They heard some ancient voice, which they could not resist. They took you by the hand, and they led you to the river. You stepped in with them and soon found yourself being carried along.

Over 11 years have passed. You have followed twists and turns, braved rapids and found yourself stuck, endured boredom and experienced beauty. You have met people who have enriched your lives.

And somewhere along the journey, in your own way, you have become a river person, too.

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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