The Accidental Horse Mom

As published in Portico Magazine

At my daughter Frances’s first horse show, I stepped into a parallel universe, a collective delusion where little girls, indistinguishable underneath their black helmets and cascades of colored, handmade ribbons, rule fiercely—jaws set, crops in hand.

That Saturday, at an ungodly hour, my husband Hugo parked in a field of dew-soaked, knee-high grass. Dodging towers of steaming coffee-colored poop, I hoped against hope this was a passing fancy like Beanie Babies or American Girl dolls. The three of us weren’t there five minutes when the speaker announced a pony was on the loose, my first inkling that life would now be dictated by the whims of petulant ponies and crop-wielding divas.

I place all the blame on Hugo for getting us caught in the “collective delusion” which is horse world—the man won’t watch a movie unless horses play a prominent role. He knows nothing about actors, but he loves Clint Eastwood’s handsome dappled-grey in “Pale Rider.” When Frances and my son Clint were young, each time we went to our cabin in Mentone, Hugo took them riding at the Shady Dude Ranch. Back home, Frances begged for riding lessons. I resisted, reluctant to become chained to an hour-long drive down Highway 280 fighting traffic to a stable in Shelby County.

Honestly, I’d been secretly relieved when organized sports didn’t appeal to either child. Hugo and I played sports during high school and college, and later coached so we’d had our fill of ball games and track meets and being caught up in an orchestrated web of self-manufactured stress. Oh, little did I know the distance we would travel and the places we would go with trailer and horses in tow.

When a friend told me about Blackjack Farms, an easier drive to Trussville, Frances started there in the “cross poles” division. As she matured, she gradually worked her way through different divisions, riding the lesson ponies we leased. She eventually switched from hunter to jumper where she competes against time and the height of the jump. Judging jumpers involves less subjectivity, though the cost and skill of the pony or horse always plays a factor in this game, no matter what—that’s why when you go to a certain level the last names you run into are Gates, Jobs and Springsteen.

From the outset, Hugo and I knew the risk of serious injury, but we didn’t know we were setting up an irreparable heartbreak the Christmas we surprised Frances with her dream come true, a pony of her own. In a flash, Frances outgrew her beloved pony, and it was time to move to the next division on a horse. Now, just imagine selling your dog.

Let’s just say, Hugo and I failed to give her adequate time to say good-bye. As I watched the trailer disappear with the pony inside stomping, well aware of what was happening, a distraught, tearful daughter beside me, I wanted no more of horse world.

But it didn’t take long before, almost every weekend, we found ourselves winding down old country roads in the early morning light, catching a glimpse of deer and wild turkeys as the sun rose, a fired-up little girl and a horse in tow, on the way to the horse show. Bitter cold, blistering heat, rain or snow. It didn’t matter. We had to perform, regardless of the elements.

At a horse show you will find the showmanship of a beauty pageant, the cutthroat nature of a science fair, the down-home feel of a county fair, and the exotic thrill of a circus. Early on, a veteran horse mom told me, “Don’t ever let any of the other mothers see your weakness.” She was right. Some moms are as sensitive to uncertainty in other mothers or riders as horses are. They sense any weakness in preparation, confidence, resources or anything connected with the competition. I learned quickly to wear my poker face. Those shiny, brightly colored ribbons are as addictive as sugar, and as poisonous if you’re not careful.

Competing in the ring is never an individual performance like hitting a home run or running a race. This “pas de deux” requires a seamless connection to more than a bat or ball. The equipment here is a giant toddler with four legs, a sentient creature as sensitive as one gigantic exposed nerve ending, alert to the tiniest sensation, such as a fly landing on his back.

I never know what I will be dealing with as far as the horse and rider are concerned. On any given day the horse can be injured, sick or in a bad mood. Maybe his saddle is pinching him, the farrier hammered the nail in the wrong spot, or a change in routine at the barn has made him anxious. Combine an out-of-sorts horse who can’t communicate and a recalcitrant fourteen-year-old who won’t communicate, and I’m in for a rough day at the barn.

It doesn’t matter if your child competes in a dusty horse ring or a manicured soccer field. Each prepares him or her to perform under pressure, but if a player falls down on the soccer field, for the most part, he or she suffers from a bruised ego and a skinned knee. If a rider falls, the consequences can be far worse.

So why take the risk? Because it empowers the rider. Success in the ring, first and foremost, requires a synchronicity between the rider and the horse, a “relaxed urgency” as J. Michael Halbleib, Frances’s trainer, always says. At one with the horse, the rider becomes eight feet tall astride 1,200 pounds of muscle, a force to be reckoned with.

Often when someone realizes I have a daughter who rides horses, the first question tends to be, “Do you ride also?” I shake my head and laugh. “No, I’m staff support,” I always say. A rider’s success requires an orchestrated team effort, involving not only the rider and the horse, but also the trainers, grooms, and parents. I don’t know if European royalty receives better treatment than little girls and their ponies when the adults are running around saying let me fix your bow, does the girth need tightening, can I get you a snack?

I often wonder if we are creating a narcissistic child, but eventually the rider matures, and staff support lessens. She becomes responsible for tacking and untacking, cleaning and grooming, even driving the trailer. She’s learned to be organized, delegate authority, and trust her instinct. She’s learned how to be assertive, not aggressive, and project herself with pride and confidence.

You may have heard about the healing nature of horses, and how we approach horses is how we approach life. In all our interactions with these spiritual creatures, they mirror us. I believe that. Hugo dives all in as far as horses are concerned, Frances is fearless but compassionate, and I’m wary around them.

I discovered recently that the energetic field of a horse’s heart is five times larger than that of a human’s, and simply being around horses has a calming effect. I also believe that. Scientific evidence from studies done at the HeartMath Institute show this large electromagnetic field influences us in many ways. Its “coherent” rhythm results in lowering a person’s blood pressure and increasing a sense of well-being. Horses ground us. They become a way to commune with a force greater than ourselves. They become centering prayer.

With the pressures of modern family life, retreating to the natural setting of Blackjack Farms becomes the ultimate antidote to stress. For Frances, horses will be a lifelong passion, a place to retreat to, a way to connect to her better nature, a lifeline to living in the present moment, away from Instagram and soul-numbing technology.

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