Over on my Facebook page I recently solicited requests. One was for a post about being a barn dad at barn functions. That seems pretty timely, so here goes.
Naturally, I’m going to start with a story involving cows.
Several years ago I met a fellow professor who, like me, had grown up on a farm. We got to talking about how we came to know that we weren’t cut out to be farmers, and he told a story about being out in a field of cows and calves with his dad, who was calling them each by name.
Eventually, after his dad had greeted yet another calf by name, my befuddled acquaintance asked, “Dad, how can you tell?”
His dad, himself a little befuddled by the question, said, “Well, she looks just like her mother!”
In most ways the barn holiday party is just like the office holiday party. There are, of course, the barn regulars. The people who see each other all the time and have relationships with one another. Those people fall into easy conversation. And then there are the hangers-on—the spouses and the kids who don’t know each other or many of the other people there.
For those latter folks the barn party can be awkward in all the usual ways. The inner monologue’s the traditional mix of, “Who can I talk to? What can we talk about? Please, please, please don’t start talking about politics!” and so on. But at the office party there’s at least the likelihood that nobody’s going to want to talk about work all that much, so the conversations will at least tend toward topics that are accessible to everyone.
At the barn party it’s exactly the opposite. Because, from the perspective of a horse person, how great an opportunity is this? Nobody’s off riding or grooming or doing anything else that might distract them from the ability to talk about horse stuff. This is even better than dinner with the group after a day of showing because everyone’s here! After we exchange gifts of horse treats and grooming supplies and that belt that’s really fashionable this year we can pull up horse videos on our phones and pass them around! We should totally do this more often!
In the early years, as a non-horse-person at a barn holiday party, you’re like me and my professor friend among a crowd of people who can tell the cows apart. Except the cows are horses. And they don’t look the same at all, and how could you possibly confuse Contessa with Cabernet, because Contessa’s got a blaze and Cabernet’s got a stripe. And what’s more they don’t move the same or jump the same and all of this is obvious to everyone but you.
That’s not all: Some of the horses apparently do look like cows, sometimes, and you’ll infer that that’s not a good thing. Others look like llamas sometimes, and that doesn’t seem to be a good thing either. Sometimes they’re light in the front and sometimes they’re heavy. They can fall in and fall out, neither of which involves falling down. And also they bend, but you have to ask them to. Usually. Evidently there’s something called a daisy cutter, too, and you make a note to check that out at your local hardware store because it seems like it’d be a pretty good gift idea given the way everyone’s talking about it.
After a bit you’ll be tempted to look around for a TV, hoping there’s a game on. Or at least find someone who you can talk about football with.
My advice? Don’t do it. Sit there and take your lumps. Try to smile in the right places. Don’t tell the story about the one time you rode a pony as a kid. They’ve heard it. Generally don’t speak at all unless spoken to. Listen. Attentively. You’re a visitor to this land, one whose mission is to try to figure out the language, to understand this strange new place in which you find yourself.
Why? You’re not there unless your kid is one of them, and if you want to understand your kid (which I recommend) you should try to understand these people. It turns out that another thing those horses can do is talk, in a language that only some can hear. Your kid is one of those people, and, for them, that language is one of the most beautiful things of all.
This party, for you, might seem no different from your spouse’s office party, a thing you’ve got to go to because that’s just how it is. For your kid, especially in the early going, this is a big deal, a highlight of the year, a chance to spend some time with the grown-ups and, even better, the older kids, talking about the thing they all love. The trainer will be there, and you’ll notice a certain, almost cult-like devotion to her or him that’s never on display quite so much as when the entire barn gets together. These people, or people like them, are going to end up as important role models for your child, shaping her or his view of the world in all sorts of ways.
And if you listen, patiently and attentively? After a while parts of the conversation will start to make sense. After a couple years most of the conversation will make sense, and you might even start to look forward to the barn party. After a few more years you might start to ask yourself, “Would it be weird if I went even after my daughter’s gone off to college?”
Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. 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.