One question that had never come up before is whether I take requests. Then I got an email from a fellow horse dad who’s at a much earlier stage on this journey. He said some nice things about the posts I’ve already written, and followed the nice things (there’s a life lesson here, kids) by asking whether I’d write about what I wish I had known. And I said, sure, I can do that, and so here we are. Apparently I take requests.
A post like this requires a bit of a preface. My daughters’ involvement in horses has been a wonderful thing. We’ve met so many people along our journey who have enriched our lives in all sorts of ways. There are plenty of things I would do differently, but I would definitely do it all over again. Among the things I didn’t know going in was how much my daughters’ interest would have a positive impact on my life.
What follows is not entirely a list of things I wish I had known. Some of it I sort of knew but now appreciate more. Some of it I’ve seen other people struggle with. Some of it really doesn’t fall into any of those categories. An awful lot of it is simply my opinion.
You get used to the “hurry up and wait” aspect of hunter/jumper shows. Once one of my daughters was at a show about 45 minutes away from our house. I was home, and I asked her to keep me posted, so that I knew when to leave. The text I got from her said something like, “I go in about a half hour.” So I sprinted out to my car, drove inadvisedly fast, parked, and sprinted across the showgrounds in the hopes that I could catch her last round.
Then I waited another 90 minutes or so before she went in the ring.
This used to drive me nuts. And I routinely overhear newbie parents who are driven nuts by it. The eventing and dressage worlds stick closely to a schedule. No one in the hunter/jumper world even tries. After a while you come to accept it. Bring a chair and a book. Apply lots of sunscreen. Assume it will take your entire day.
Your job at horse shows is mostly to stay out of the way when it’s time to go into the ring. What that means will vary a little bit from one barn to the next. At my most involved I’ve been a water-and-crop-carrying, last-second boot cleaner, and at my least involved just a person in the stands. What I’ve pretty much always done, and what you should probably do too, is kept my mouth shut. If you can’t be a quietly supportive presence near the in-gate, then the odds are good you shouldn’t be a presence at all.
Steer clear of the gossip. You can find gossip pretty much everywhere you go, and the horse world is certainly no exception. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve never taken part. But it’s corrosive, especially when it involves members of a barn community saying negative things about another member of that same community. Plus it seems a safe bet that if a person’s in the barn aisle talking to you about someone else one day, that person’s likely to be talking about you to a different person the next day. It can make trust a little hard to come by. Best to avoid it if you can.
Lots of people are confident of the right way to do things. They just don’t agree with one another. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone proclaim, with all the conviction of the guy who’s been sitting at the end of the bar all day, that there is one, absolute, single right way that some horse-related thing should be done, only to later hear someone else assert with equal conviction that the first way is the exact way not to do the thing, and that some other way is the truly correct way. Occasionally, in a truly fun twist, these two people are actually the same person, with the strongly held opinions separated by a few weeks or months.
All of this reminds me of one of my professional fields—constitutional law—in that in both contexts there are plenty of people convinced they know the right way to do things, but hardly anyone agrees with anyone else. I’m not suggesting there isn’t plenty we know for sure. There is. But there’s a lot we don’t know for sure, and there are plenty of situations where there are multiple effective approaches. My advice here, as in constitutional law and life more generally: Don’t mistake confidence for correctness.
It’s hard to know what the goals should be. It’s a natural enough question to ask: What are your goals? If you’re an outsider to the sport, as I was, it’s really hard to know what the answer should be, and thus how to steer your kid in the right direction. I still don’t have a great answer, other than that it seems best if the goals are the sort that are intrinsic to the activity—getting better at doing something and enjoying the process of doing so—rather than the sort that depend on getting a specific ribbon in a certain place.
That’s not to say that the latter sort of goal is inappropriate, but I suspect if that’s all there is, then something is missing. The writer George Saunders made an observation that rings very true to me: “Accomplishment is unreliable. ‘Succeeding,’ whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it).” It’s an endless quest, and it may never lead to satisfaction. Better, as Anne Thornbury put it to me, to “remember why you started.” Which leads to the next point.
Be chill with respect to whatever the goals are. Your daughter wants to go to the Maclay Finals? That’s cool. So did mine. She’s a really good rider? Same here. Is that going to be enough? Not by itself. It’s almost certain to take a lot of money to get there, maybe more than you’ve got to spare, and at least a little bit of luck. You’ll need to find the right horse, and it and your daughter will have to stay healthy, and I can tell you from hard experience that things can go wrong with respect to every single one of those ingredients.
Setting expectations around something specific like going to the Maclay Finals runs the risk of setting up disappointment, especially if you don’t have a realistic sense of what’s all involved in getting there. I’m not denying the value in setting ambitious and tangible goals. As a parent, though, it seems better for your expectations to be nothing more than that she give her best effort, and to make clear that you’ll be happy with that wherever it leads.
There’s always someone with more. Look, the fact that we’re even having this conversation suggests that, in the scheme of things, we’re incredibly fortunate. There are lots of people who would give anything just to have a taste of this world. It’s a point that’s easy to appreciate at an intellectual level, even as we look across the way and see someone else who’s doing more showing of more and better horses and think to ourselves that it’s not fair. And it’s not, at least in the sense that most of us wouldn’t build these inequalities in if we were designing a sport from scratch. But it seems unlikely to change so best to be as zen about it as possible and take whatever life lessons from it that you can.
Relationships with horse trainers are different. Riding requires being at the barn a lot. Trainers are also at the barn a lot. Shows frequently require out-of-town travel with lots of downtime together. There is no off-season. For these reasons and more, trainers come to play a much greater role in their clients’ lives than coaches in other contexts tend to. “You come to think of these people as your friends,” a trainer (whom I consider to be a friend) once explained to me. But there’s also a business relationship there, he noted, and that can create a tricky dynamic on both sides. This is especially true if things go poorly, as things sometimes do.
There are other horses in the pasture. Buying a horse is exciting. And unless you’ve got money to burn or a taste for risk, it’s also an exercise in abject terror. With luck, your child will find just the right horse, and everyone will live happily ever after. But that’s not always how it works out, and of course you can’t know at the front end what the result will be.
My main piece of advice here is that you not allow yourself to get pressured into buying this horse right now. If it doesn’t feel like the right horse, or things seem to be moving too quickly, don’t be afraid to hit the “pause” button. (A longer version of this post would include a discussion of confirmation bias and other common hitches in human decision-making, which are at least as present here as in any other sphere of life.) Suffice it to say there are lots of other horses out there. They’re just as beautiful, and one of them will feel, and hopefully be, right.
You will make mistakes. I have an acquaintance who claims never to second-guess any decision he makes. I’m not built that way, and I don’t think I’d want to be. One of the themes of much of what I’ve already said is that you’re constantly making decisions against a backdrop of deep uncertainty. This is doubly so when you had no prior experience in this world. Are the goals we’ve set the right ones? Is this the right horse to achieve them? The right trainer? And on and on.
You won’t always make the right decision. And, of course, even good decisions can have bad results. You’ll find yourself wishing you could go back and take a mulligan. Seems to me that it’s appropriate to dwell some on your mistakes, in the hopes that you can avoid making them in the future. But also that you shouldn’t dwell on them too much. “Moderation in all things” seems to be pretty good advice here, and just as hard to achieve here as it is anywhere else.
Don’t just take my word for any of this. I’m just one person, with one set of experiences, and with values and preferences that may be different from yours. Your mileage may vary, as they say. Ask around; get as much input as you can. If someone who has no incentive to be anything other than straight with you suggests that you do something, or seems to be waving you off doing another thing, give serious consideration to their input.
I could go on longer. I just cut eight partially developed entries from this already too-long post, so that I can bring it to a close. Because there’s more to say, I’ll invite others to weigh in. What do you wish you had known?
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.