“Would you do it again?”
I was having drinks with a colleague, one who has had the chance to glimpse just how much I’ve put into my horse dad role. The driving, the trips to clinics and shows, the working from my laptop in the car, the associated expenses. But only a glimpse, really. Because, as with so many things, I don’t think you can fully appreciate the full scope of the commitment from the outside.
Still, he had seen enough to ask. And it’s a legitimate question.
Other friends, having had a similar sense of my life over the last decade or so, made it a priority to limit their children’s exposure to horses. No sense in ending up like me, they never quite said out loud.
The investments of time and money aren’t the only ones, of course. I took a pass on chances to further my professional ambitions. And of course there’s a tremendous emotional investment as well.
I’ve used Christopher Hitchens’ line about parenthood before: “Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened: It’s a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else’s body.”
That heart has experienced a broad range of emotions during its time in the horse world. That line from the “Wide World Of Sports” opening about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat captures a lot of it. But there’s also pride over accomplishments and growth, both as a rider and as a person. Worry over decisions and emotional states and the health of a horse. The happiness and satisfaction that come from seeing your children find something they love to do, and from being able to support them in doing it. The regret that accompanies foregone opportunities and the decisions that didn’t work out.
Probably none of this is unique to the horse world. Pick your sport and there are plenty of opportunities for spending time and money in increasing amounts as a kid moves up through the ranks. (Though maybe not quite as much money. Once I was at a figure skating competition where a vendor was selling a t-shirt that read something along the lines of “Skating Dad: Broke and Ignored.” I paused to take a photo. The person standing next to me chuckled and gave me a sort of “I know, right?” look. In reality my thought process was more along the lines of, “Ha ha ha, they have no idea.” But the worry and the joy and all the rest? That was pretty much the same.)
We’re coming to the end of a significant chapter in my life as a horse show dad. My oldest daughter, Ada, will be heading off to college in very soon, and I’m writing this at one of the several shows we’re squeezing in before then. It’s a dressage show, which is still a new world to us. But in most respects everything feels the same as it always has. The drive here in most ways felt like just another drive to a show, something we’ve been doing for a long time.
But of course it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that there’s this looming change. For her it’s exciting, of course. A new place, new people, the next phase of life. For me, well, I try to ignore it and comfort myself with the thought that we’ll still be able to do this. As I’ve told her before, I will always be happy to stand at the in-gate, real or metaphorical, to offer whatever support I can.
We’ve still got two years before her younger sisters Audrey and Laura head off to college, but I still can’t help looking back. To those very early days when just seeing a horse was an exciting thing. To the pony rides and first lessons. To the clinics and the shows and the hopes and dreams that propelled it all. To all the small moments of simply being together that helped create a bond that will last a lifetime.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun, because it never is. There were late nights and early mornings mucking out stalls and trailers. There were long days and long drives, tears and heartbreak and trips to the hospital. I would rather have slept soundly those nights when I agonized over whether to change barns or buy that horse or the hundred other things that creep into your thoughts when you’d rather be dreaming.
Point is, the question’s not crazy. Would I do it again?
Before I answer, a quick story. Ada works at a tack store, and one night a few months ago she got home from work a little later than usual. She’d had to keep the store open a bit late, she explained, because just before closing a dad came in with his young daughter. They were there to buy her first pair of paddock boots.
Ada asked the girl where she rides. The answer came back, “Appy Orse Acres.” The very barn where Ada started riding more than 13 years ago.
And in that moment I wanted nothing more than to go back to being a dad with his daughter out to buy her first pair of paddock boots, to having no sense at all of where this might be headed, to being thrilled just to get to spend time with my child as she took her first steps into this world built around animals that she adores.
Would I do it again?
In a heartbeat.
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.