Guide to being a better parent in the horse world, coming from someone who isn’t a parent. Doesn’t seem fair does it? Like, what do I know? I don’t have children. Why should I address parenting? What gives me any right to think I know better? Maybe I don’t. That is fine. Just be aware I am not the only one out there with no children….. From what I have experienced, there are far more childless trainers in the hunter world than trainers with their own kids. So, there is that.
The relationship between trainer and client is always tricky when it involves kids and parents and VARIES with trainers all over the country. Every trainer has stories, some are good, some are horror stories, and everyone has learned from hard mistakes. Many times the trainers who have strict rules about parents is because of these hard lessons, not just because the trainer is being a hard ass. Let’s take it to the back to the early years, but these apply no matter the age of your kid.
Do you have a plan?
After you have (painfully, or gleefully) decided to invest in the world of hunter showing for your rosy cheeked tiny person, and found the perfect pointy toed, spawn of the devil, pint sized creature, we like to refer to as a PONY, what next? What’s the plan? What are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish here?
Even if you are not quite on the level of assuredness to the commitment your checkbook will allow, the plan needs to be formulated WITH your trainer, not simply announced on a week to week, or month to month basis. Take it seriously, sit down, and think about your options. Is this a hobby? Is this a career? Is this a true commitment you are willing to give up soccer practice for? Your weekends? Holidays?
It becomes a lot less overwhelming when you think about your child’s junior career in four year increments.
Believe it or not, your goal of Pony Finals may not happen in the same year your child learns what a diagonal is. Nor should it.
Learning to ride and writing a check are two very different things. So, invest wisely. A GOOD trainer should be able to recognize what is a feasible time frame for attaining a goal, so listen. And make sure your trainer wants to go to Pony Finals. Sometimes the stress of getting there for one kid isn’t actually at the top of a trainer’s list when there are half a dozen other kids who have different goals, just because you think your child is extra special…. If you are going to be the one parent who causes stress and resentment, it won’t be a very fun adventure in Kentucky. I can promise you that.
Even if you are just stepping into the show world and a championship is not even on your radar, what do you see happening over the next four years? In Grade school, your kid will learn to read, write, multiplication, and form independent thoughts. You expect this and a report card will show progress, but in the horse world, we don’t issue report cards, because you are responsible for the financial obligation regarding the depth of knowledge your kid will attain. From lead line to the first cross rail, it all depends on your checkbook, and commitment. So, if you would like to see little Susie go from lead line to division showing, or lead line to Pony Club Rallies, it will be part of your four year plan. Write it down, say it out loud, and comprehend what this means. Each path is ok, and will work around your budget.
Are you living vicariously through your child?
There are many scenarios for this, but not really too many beneficial ones.
When I see parents struggling with the color of ribbons, I internally freak out. It never seems enough that your kid is happily flying around on Cheeky Sporty Firecracker with pink and green bows, finally remembering all of the courses on the same day, not dying in the ring, and now we struggle with “Why didn’t we win? I WATCHED the other ponies! Please explain now!”
Look, no one is judging you. No one is judging you based on the pony you purchased. We are all here in the sport together, knowing perfectly well it is subjective, it is tough, sometimes political, sometimes unfair, sometimes works in your favor, and sometimes it rains. Relax. If each show depends on at least one blue ribbon, you may not really be in the right sport. If you are demanding to know WHY the placings fall as they do EACH time your kid shows in the ring, but your kid is thinking about daffodils, your trainer will really start to get annoyed, even if they are professional enough not to show it. Please take a breath, you are in it for the long haul, the results this week won’t really make your child any less lovable. I swear. I’ll still like the tiny person who has daffodils on her mind today. I am good enough to see that there is still potential for success there even if we were last in every class. If the child is happy, why can’t you be? Happiness is not always the color blue. One of the worst feelings is disappointment, and over time when a child feels he or she is constantly going to disappoint a parent by being last in every class, guess what will happen? Can you guess or does someone have to spell it out for you? My heart breaks for these kids.
Trainer Solution #1 – The Parent Box. During competition parents are encouraged to watch from the other side of the ring. Or from the stands. Somewhere other than the in gate. And be quiet. Trainers who have this rule have found improved concentration from kids and a closer understanding of the trainers’ instructions without unnecessary distractions. This allows a child to ride for the trainer, not for the mother.
Trainer Solution #2 – No Placings Discussions same day of competition. Implementation of this rule has shown 24 hours following competition, the urgency to know all of the answers fades.
I think a lot about ‘the need’ to always be winning. It is not really that healthy. Not only that, it doesn’t actually teach kids anything about the real world, where, as an adult, they are not always going to win. He or she is going to have struggles, bad bosses, bad roommates, better co-workers, and your child might lose a job or two as and adult. If you have spent years criticizing your child for losing in the show ring, how will they handle losing their first job? Gracefully? Tearfully? Will he/she have a complete meltdown and get depressed? Learning from fails or failure can be directly correlated to mental attitude in the show ring as a junior progresses through the ranks. First of all, what is really failure when you are on horse? I mean really, who is homeless here? Thank you. NOT WINNING is actually very useful, and key to development. No child should go through life with an urgency to win rather than learn. And sometimes learning means NOT winning. It means learning to do the lead change properly, learning to add in a line when the pony is strong, whatever.
One of the best parent interactions I witnessed was a dad who bought chocolate chip ice cream for a kid who chipped to the single oxer in all five classes over the weekend. He felt she deserved the best chips in all the land in the form of a tasty treat for the best chip performance. It was funny, she laughed, and was able to let it go. She would joke later she was more focused on earning another ice cream rather than missing at the single oxer and gradually her fear faded, and performance improved.
Parent competition – I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Some of the worst stories that trainers have come from parent competition which often can rapidly turn into parent bullying, a trainer’s worst fear. Save this crap for the reality shows on Bravo, honestly, what could be worse than parent shaming over a pony? What on earth will this teach your kid? My sympathies go out to all of the trainers having to deal with jealousy among the moms and dads of kids just trying to have a good time. There really are no words. I have seen parents refusing to allow their child to do the same exercises, lessons, share trailer space, share the same lesson pony, and on and on because of comparisons to another riding kid. “my little precious does everything on her own already, she doesn’t need to hear what the trainer says about show protocol.” What your trainer wants to say is where you can stick it, but again, the fear of losing yet another immature client usually brings silence, so these parents get away with it, while confident parents KNOW it takes a VILLAGE to accomplish these big dreams, not just the checkbook of one person.
Not a fan of “Sharenting” – It is great you want your kid to be a model of the pony or junior world, ambassador of this, ambassador of that, etc. etc, but is your kid actually a role model for showing or a role model for good horsemanship? BIG difference. And how many instagram pics are really necessary? Promote the good stuff, the important skills, and maybe spend a little more time showcasing the virtues of understanding colic versus tying up, rather than the amount of stripes on a show coat or bareback jumping. There is an awakening happening with horsemanship, be the parent who shares those skills, stay ahead of the curve to earn the respect you think you need. It will be better for everyone in the end.
Commitment. – I have seen a lot of trainers struggling with kids who are encouraged to play every sport while keeping Pony Finals on the table as a real goal. Again, trainers have my sympathy. The route to these big championships is long, exhausting, emotional, and is compounded by an athlete who is a jack of all trades, master at none. Trainers are not easily turned on by investing all of their energy into a championship, like Devon, Indoors or PF, only to have really mediocre or poor performances when you all get there. It doesn’t make anyone look good. Trainers are hesitant to tell you to choose, when the fear is you are going to pull your kid away all together, so it helps to have the maturity to really think this all through. Whatever your goals are, on any level, try to level with your trainer and kid about what is the most important to your kid. Developing commitment to one sport will also prove to be beneficial to adulting, as most kids who have shown focus through to the end, will make better employees in the future.
Knowledge of the sport – As a parent, it can be really confusing when the pony you just mortgaged your house for doesn’t place in a medal class, when you had no idea the pony wasn’t actually being judged in that class, the rider was. And the rider was on the wrong diagonal for three laps of the ring, which you failed to notice or even look for. And what’s the difference between a children’s pony and a division pony? Or, why do I need an equitation horse and a junior hunter and a jumper? Why can’t one horse do all of those divisions? Good questions, but taxing questions. I am actually considering writing a book called ‘Horse Showing for Dummies’ which would alleviate a lot of these questions, but there is no current manual, educational video or support group provided by the Federation, so TALK with your kids about these questions before attacking your trainer. There is a lot out there, but a lot can be provided at the dinner table in your own house. You might learn more about your kid’s dedication that way, too. Other seasoned parents can actually help with this, too, but make an effort, don’t simply pout and demand answers from your trainer without actually seeing if the answers are already right in front of you.
Bad weather riding, and paying for horseless lesson – One of my biggest pet peeves with Parents, HOLY COW, not kidding. Sometimes it is too cold to ride. However, it is not too cold to learn. If I have heard this complaint from trainers or instructors one time, I have heard it a hundred.
Trainer – “it is too cold to ride, but I would like to use the hour to teach important horsemanship lessons like tacking up, grooming, picking out the feet, bandaging, equipment, blanketing, shoeing, etc.etc.etc.”
Parent – “absolutely not. I am not paying for a lesson unless my kid is on top of that pony and jumps all of the jumps in the ring”
Worst Parent on the Planet. This is what makes trainers give up and not care. This is what makes trainers go “See? They don’t want us to teach anything important, not my job, not my responsibility, anymore, I’m done”. And then the trainer invests less and less until no one is happy and you find yourself shopping for a new trainer…. If there is a trainer out there willing to take the time to conduct a horseless lesson, do not be the Worst Parent in the World and say No. For the love of all things equine, DO NOT SAY NO. Allow your kid to learn the most important and vital part of being a proper horsemen so we can together turn this country around in it’s thinking. Whether you like it or not you are a part of it now. You are part of the horse culture in America, so here is a chance to be a better parent, take advantage of it.
Purchasing animals for your child without the aid of a trainer – Generally, with professionals, you won’t find a lot of support for this isolated decision making process. Nothing is worse than feeling excluded in a pretty big decision, whether it ends up a good one or a fail. I probably will never convince people this practice is a genuine disservice to professionals and trainers world-wide, but I can speak for most of them when I say – put yourself in my shoes for one second. You are going to ask me to develop a relationship with an animal and a child, probably for a few years, ask me to fix the lead changes, fix all the naughty things it does, bring it up the levels to a division pony because someone else convinced you it was a ‘potential’ division pony, but is maxed out at 2’3”, and meanwhile not allow your kid to shed a single tear out of frustration, but you won’t let me in on the decision? All of which could be avoided if you just let me simply guide you down a different path with a lease the first year, and possibly an eligible green pony after that IF I felt your kid was ready. Now, who is happy here? In the end, the pony cannot be properly finished, the kid has outgrown it a year too early, and may not even want to do the hunters anymore because the struggle was all too real. Again, I can’t change every parent’s thinking, but it is super sad to see those decisions being made inside the family, and not work out. Maybe some of them do, but I think most often even parents cannot predict when kids lose interest in difficult scenarios.
Are there any good parents?
Oh my Lord, loads of good ones. If you sit down and take a moment to talk with some good parents in the show world, you will see they have a pretty broad picture in mind for their precious spawn. Little things don’t upset them. Lameness comes along with the sport and is understood. They are not bothered by little Susie being a barn rat, but encourage equal time spent on grades. They instill enough good values so they play nice in the barn and help others. They don’t make comparisons to other parents, but offer to make sure plenty of food and water is available on the weekends when it gets really crazy busy, or make restaurant reservations, independently take care of hotel reservations, and explore prize lists online without being prompted, teaching themselves the important shows, important divisions, and routinely make sure the often exhausted barn help has coffee in the mornings at shows. Good parents are at the ready for any situation – my favorite ones will show up at a new show grounds, drop the spawn off at the appropriate stalls, and scope out the facility for all of the important amenities. Potty, show office, Rings 1-5, concessions, coffee shop, and photography booth. They don’t need to be prompted to pay their bill in the show office, and even understand what stall splits are. These parents are revered, and part of the reason members in our state show association (Maryland) introduced a Perfect Parent Award to honor those parents who show constant support throughout the show year. I love this award. The MHSA Perfect Parent Award was initiated by Tracy Magness and Wendy Leibert in honor of their amazing parents John and Barbara Bartko, who I don’t think ever miss attending a show and supporting the team throughout Tracy and Wendy’s entire careers, and as far as I know, still do. Hopefully, other states across the nation have something similar in place for the good parents, the solid, supportive parents, the good role models we need in this difficult and challenging sport.
Adorable blog by a kid from the AQHA here. http://www.unbelievab.ly/the-reality-of-showing-horses-with-non-horsey-parents/
Even Michigan State University puts out information for parents of horse kids, detailed articles, and a webinar which provides logical information to help. This speaker brings up an article which points out that Americans have the worst record for Parental Sportsmanship in the WORLD, in every sport, compared to over 20 other countries, and wouldn’t it be nice to turn that statistic around?
“It’s ironic that the United States, which prides itself in being the most civilized country in the world, has the largest group of adults having witnessed abusive behavior at children’s sporting events,” Ipsos senior vice president John Wright said.
Maybe we could lead the way for change in the horse industry…