What I Learned About Parenting From Horses

Parenting / Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

I have been riding horses since I was but a wee tyke. Something about them has really connected with me and, to this day, I still cannot pinpoint what that is. After 26 years of horses in my life, I have found that the time spent with horses is equally therapeutic and character building. Some kind of magic happens when I go out to the barn – it’s as if any big worries or problems I had been struggling with just don’t seem that big anymore, and I inevitably come away with a sense of calm and peace. What I didn’t expect is what I would learn about parenting from my horses.

1. Have a toolbox
Every rider has a style, but to be a really great horse trainer, you need to be able to be flexible. Maybe one horse is easy going, while the next is more willful. One day your horse will be plodding along like the proverbial school horse, and the next he will be spooky and like slowing a freight train. But, you need to be ready for any of these possibilities. Trying to make one style work for all horses you encounter is setting yourself, and your horse, up for frustration and failure. I have found the same applies to kids – every day, and every kid, is a little bit different. Being able to adapt saves us and our children from agita. And it’s okay to identify with different aspects from multiple parenting styles. Do you believe in babywearing and extended breastfeeding, but draw the line at co-sleeping? Or believe that you, as a parent, are the leader and make decisions, but are a strong advocate for unschooling? That doesn’t make you a hypocrite – it makes you reasonable.

2. Look out for yourself in the schooling ring of life
Don’t worry about what other riders are doing. Yeah, maybe there is someone riding a huge, second-mortgage-on-the-house-expensive warmblood while you are riding your $900 racetrack reject. Maybe your friend’s kid is reciting the alphabet by 18 months while your kid is currently majoring in picking boogers. We all have our own insecurities, but comparing ourselves and our children to others will do nothing but sharpen the point. No matter what the picture is on the outside, we all have our own work to do.

3. Build the bond
After I buy a new horse, I have a period of time in which I do not ride them, but do lots of relationship building exercises on the ground. I have found that this works wonders with horses, as they trust you that much more before you ever sit on their back. On the occasions when I haven’t done this, I have been disappointed with a horse that doesn’t trust me and had to fight like hell to build it later. Same goes for kids – a strong bond, or as we therapists call it a “secure attachment”, is so important in parenting. If your kids trust that you are doing the best for them and feel that they can rely on you, then the hard stuff later on is that much easier. If they trust that your response is going to be the same each and every time you discipline them, it is more likely that they will be receptive. It is so much harder to build trust after it has been broken than to lay the ground work before that bond is tested.

4. Beware of the peanut gallery
In the horse world (at least in New Jersey), it seems as if everybody is a critic. People feel free to criticize your horse, you, your riding skills, your farm, your horse keeping techniques, the color of your truck and trailer, and everything else with abandon. And at some point in your life with horses, despite all your best intentions to the contrary, it will sink in and your will start second guessing yourself and questioning whether you should be doing something differently. The same occurs in parenting life. People will feel it is their God-given right to comment/critique everything you do, beginning when you are pregnant. I remember relative strangers commenting constantly on the fact that I (gasp!) continued to color my hair while pregnant. Or the friend of a friend who felt it necessary to point out that making my daughter’s baby food was, in her humble opinion, a waste of time. The point is, the old adage about people and opinions is absolutely true. And, people like to tell other people about their opinions ad nauseum. But that doesn’t mean they are any better a parent than you are. It just means that they did things differently. If it works for you, your child, and your family, then keep on keeping on.

5. Listening doesn’t always involve your ears
So much of communication between horse and rider is non-verbal. As prey animals, horses are extremely perceptive to body language and the intent of their humans. This is why they are so amazing in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. Truly, there are times when I spend hours with my horses and do not actually speak a word to them, even when riding. Although as humans, we often rely on words for communication, there is so much that happens non-verbally that is often overlooked. Kids are astoundingly perceptive as well and pick up on so much more than we give them credit for. They pick up on our body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions much more than another adult. So be aware of what messages you are sending, even if you’re not actually speaking.

6. Always end on a good note
Horses (and kids) have memories like steel traps – they almost never forget. They may not always remember the good, but they absolutely will remember the bad. The best horse trainers and riders know that even if you’ve had the worst ride of your career, it is imperative to end on a good note to leave that memory fresh. Most trainers will say that this is for the horse – that by letting them finish doing something that they know how to do, and do well, it leaves him with a feeling of confidence after a tough ride. But, I feel it is also for the rider, to leave her with a feeling that although this ride was tough, the next will be better. By the same sentiment, at the close of those never-ending days when you are certain you are living with the devil’s spawn, end on a good note with your kids. This could be something quick – like a favorite book or song – but it makes the difference for the next day.

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