“Mommy, waaaaatch meeeee!” My 6-year-old son lets out a high-pitched squeal as he soars from a stack of pillows piled high on the sofa to the dog bed nine feet away on the floor. Sticking his landing perfectly, he parts his lips in a toothless grin.
“That was an awesome distance Rocky, but please keep at least one foot planted on the floor when I’m in the shower.” I can hardly blame him; it’s been pouring rain for two days.
My phone chirps. “Barbosa jumped his stall door this morning!” I shake my head. Kids, they need their turnout.
So, what do a 6-year-old boy and a 4-year-old Hanoverian have in common? Everything.
Training young horses and raising young children is strikingly similar in many regards. Here are some of my observations.
School is in session all the time.
Every moment is a teaching moment. For Rocco, the simple tasks of picking breakfast, getting dressed and brushing his teeth are lessons in nutrition, fine motor skills and hygiene. For Barbosa, being fed, blanketed and groomed are all essential lessons in manners, routine and expectations.
I like to think of training and parenting as a broad, encompassing cycle. Each daily cycle is designed to slowly build a set of skills to help them grow up to be outstanding citizens. That’s the idea anyway. The reality is that some days I ask my kid to get dressed, and he appears in shorts and a PJ shirt with his underwear on backward. Somedays I ask the baby horse to turn left, and he embellishes his answer by pouncing into the air, Tigger-style.
Are they naughty? Or are they demonstrating independent decision-making? Depends on how you handle it. I like to use the “that was interesting” approach to both situations. “That was interesting. Can we try it my way now?” No fuss, no muss, I appreciate the effort, but turning left is much easier, and by the way, it’s 20 degrees outside, so how about pants today.
It pays to play.
Remote schooling this year has given me a front row seat at the reading and writing table. What I’ve realized about my son is that sometimes he just can’t. So instead of pushing him when he’s mentally struggling, we play. We play blocks, we play imagination games, we play ideas, and sometimes it even circles us back to a magazine or book.
It’s often true for Barbosa as well. He’s an intelligent young horse, but he sometimes lacks focus. On those days we play over poles, we play on the trails, or we play in the field. Either way, he is still learning the aids. By keeping it light and fun, you teach the horse not to dread the arena work, and the kid not to dread the homework.
Growth spurts are difficult.
Both of my boys have put on inches these last few months. Barbosa grew four inches at the wither, and Rocco has grown three on the pantry door. It makes them hungry, irritable and awkward. So, I take it easy when they’re working through it. Extra patience and love are doled out. More snacks and more hay. By the end of the week, they are both back up and running. Literally.
I find when they land on the other side of the growth spurt, they have a renewed attitude towards life. They feel better, so they try harder and inevitably are more successful. In this phase, encouragement and praise are key. “Rocky, look at your handwriting! I didn’t know you could draw an ‘S’ so well!” “Barby, you are so smart! What a lovely forward trot you have today!” I say these things out loud and often. It helps all of us to stay positive.
Sometimes they “just don’t wanna.”
Sometimes, no matter how well the stars are aligned, they “JDW!” Rocco has had a great night of sleep, a nutritious breakfast and time outside. But when I tell him it’s time to clean his room, I get a full “JDW” response. It presents in the human child as a foot stomping, fists clenched, primal growl. In this moment it is not a “want to;” it is a “has to.” I will give my child all the latitude in the world, but he is responsible for doing his part.
Barbosa also has these moments, plenty of turnout, nice sunny day, and yet I say let’s go for a hack, and he responds with his equine “JDW.” He turns into an elastic band of evil, legs everywhere, neck on another planet, and I cannot tell which way is up. Good sir, you are not allowed to dump me for fun. So, I tell him to get in gear and be responsible for his part.
Corrections are a part of parenting and training. If done correctly, they last only for a moment, and everyone moves on. Back to the cycle!
The Holy Grail moments make it worthwhile.
They are rare, but they come. Usually when you are deep in second-guessing yourself as a mother or a trainer or both simultaneously. These moments are when the cycle pays off. The moment when consistency hits pay dirt, and a leap is made into the next learning level. The moment when your child realizes he can read the sight words that were impossible the day before. Or the moment when your young horse realizes the half-halt and rewards with a canter-walk transition. These small moments are what drive mothers and trainers alike. They are brief and not always replicated, but they are glorious and make the daily cycle worth more than just the wine at the end of the day.
Ali Ingellis is the owner of Amherst Equestrian Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. She is an FEI competitor and a USDF bronze and silver medalist. Ali is a native of Martha’s Vineyard and resides in Amherst with her husband and children. Be sure to check out her popular “Nine Tips To Avoid Becoming A PIA Boarder” article as well.