Once upon a time I had a job—a job that paid money. That job was teaching people how to ride horses.
Riding a horse can be as complicated (and expensive) as you want to make it. You can literally spend your entire life and hundreds of thousands of dollars on riding lessons, gadgets, hospital bills, therapy and still be thrilled when your horse just simply comes to you when you call it.
This is also of course, parenting.
Riding a horse can also be as simple as throwing your leg over and trying to stay on. It can be running out your back door, jumping on your pony bareback, galloping down a hill and squealing with delight as she puts her head down to eat grass and you go flying through the air into the dirt. Sometimes pure survival is exhilarating.
Again—this is also parenting.
When I was a riding instructor the hardest students to teach were adults. Particularly adult women, especially moms. And of course, they were the ones who wanted it the most. They would do anything if they could just “get good” at this thing that they wanted to “get good” at.
They would come to lessons announcing that they had read articles, found a horse back riding centered fitness class, subscribed to a riding magazine, bought a $2,000 saddle from a man with a french accent… Surly this is THE week it all comes together and becomes “easier.” And I loved teaching these women. I really did. Even before becoming a mom myself, I understood that this time they were taking for themselves was important and sacred. I loved hearing their stories, goals and fears—and I loved being a part of the journey of them learning something new.
But of course, in order for them to truly feel the joy of cantering a horse without whiplash and awkward saddle/rear slapping, they would have to do the unthinkable. They’d have to do the one thing that most Moms simply cannot do; their bodies are so out of practice, that they have actually lost the physical ability to do this one impossible thing:
Not care so much.
Not overthink every movement, second guess every step. Not overwhelm themselves with all of the opinions, the “tips,” the insane amount of information available out there. They would have to stop yelling over their shoulder at me: “Is this right? Am I doing it right?” every step of the way. They would have to start trusting their body to just follow along and react.
“My hands? Do you want them here? What about here? Is this right?!” As their instructor I would patiently point out that the problem wasn’t their hands at all—it was that they were thinking too much about their hands.
This is me, parenting. And maybe every mom I know: “Please for the love of God, just someone tell me how to do this right.”
Kids are the easiest to teach.
They have little to no expectations. Most of them are just happy to be in a barn petting a horse. They want to learn, but they are more concerned about the steps to take to make it happen, not so much how they look doing it. They aren’t worried about what might happen if the end result is achieved differently than instructed.
I had a student once who’s pony spooked and took off with her. Her mom sat white as a ghost next to me, her finger hovering over 911 on her cell phone. I was calmly but loudly giving instructions to pull the reins and say “Whoa!” The little girl responded by yelling out with delight: “Is this what galloping feels like?!”
So what is it?
What is it that happens between the somewhat out of control gleeful gallop that feels so free and good—and the paralyzing question of, “Am I doing this right?”
Is it just life experience? Knowing that hearts and ribs can break and the fear of what COULD happen takes over the joy of just being in the moment? Is it because we learn to put value on moments? “I paid for horseback riding lessons. I need to learn to prove it was worth it.”
Sounds an awful lot like, “We said we were going on vacation this weekend and by golly we are going to HAVE FUN even if it kills us!”
My experience with horses and child rearing is that the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, somewhere between the squealing little girl with wind-blown hair and the mom with pilates legs that don’t bend.
I learned through the years that the mom lessons sometimes went best when I jumped on a horse myself, opened up the gate, and took them gallivanting in the woods. I’d ask them questions about where they grew up instead of telling them how to make a 20 meter circle. The freedom of not overthinking and just feeling the rhythm almost always unlocked their stiffness and before you knew it they were smiling from ear. It was as if they had remembered the words to an old song.
I learned that fearless kids still needed boundaries and goals and direction. Their lessons often went best when given an upfront guarantee of some kind of adventure or “free time fun” after their lesson was complete. “If you want to jump, you need to learn how to go straight,” I would tell them.
But I watched time and time again as those very same without-a-care kids grew up, little by little, the “fears” would creep in. A sudden realization that another student was “better” than they. More natural. “Well, of course she won, SHE has a better horse,” they might say. “Can you tell me what it takes to win the BLUE ribbon?” This from the the 14-year-old who at eight wanted to do nothing but comb the horse’s tail and pick hooves. Eventually the need for some sort of validated success is craved.
I still have my old ribbons from horse shows past. I’m still waiting for my motherhood trophy.
I find myself navigating stiff mom-lesson-moments in my own parenting journey. Researching “Okay to Wake clocks. It worked for so and so, it will work for me. Second-guessing myself in decisions: am I a “time out” mom? A “1-2-3 magic” mom? Should they be eating more organically grass-fed beef?
But I also find joy in my wind-blown-hair-mom moments. Get in the car kids we are going to climb a mountain today! You know what? Yes—yes we can bake zucchini bread. This school feels right to me. Let’s stay in pajamas and build forts. Hell yeah, we can get Happy Meals on the way home!
Parenting is just a life long lesson on how to stay with the horse: finding your balance and creating rhythm. Keeping your heels down not by forcing, but by relaxing and sinking down into them. Keeping your eyes up—but not by staring, but SEEING what is surrounding you.
Trust yourself. You know when it feels right, no one has to tell you. Get out of the arena. Go jump on bareback and gallop in a field. Pack your kids up and go somewhere new.
A little wind blown hair never hurt anybody.