Mothering a Horse-Crazy Child: When Things Start Getting Serious

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Golightly

In her first installment, a hesitant mom shared her daughter’s slow but steady path to equestrian obsession. Today learn about that first pony who helped take everything to the next level.

BY JENNIFER GOLIGHTLY

The hunter-jumper trainer at the barn where my father boarded Savvy had told him there wasn’t much point to lessons for children younger than seven, but he was eager to start her anyway. In June of 2010, a few months before she turned seven, my father signed her up for a lesson with the trainer, and then she began taking lessons regularly, one every weekend. We lived more than an hour from the barn, so we began spending nearly our entire weekend at my parents’ house, which was much closer. 

From the beginning, she was thrilled with riding. She could never get enough, and unlike dance, she never complained about having to go to her riding lesson. After a year of riding lessons, she told me she was tired of dance classes and didn’t want to take them anymore. She liked riding better. It was done. She was hooked.

I told myself it wouldn’t last. She was really young, only seven years old, and kids that age are fickle in their interests and hobbies. I told myself she wouldn’t get to the point where she’d really be jumping a horse; she was sure to lose interest before then. 

Still, when I watched her ride, I saw that she was fearless. Trotting made her giggle, and if the horse bucked or went fast, she laughed harder. In one of her early lessons, a group lesson with other kids on horses, the trainer turned her back to instruct someone else, and I watched, breathless, as my child, who was supposed to be halted, trotted her horse forward and then allowed the horse to jump over a low crossrail. Without turning around, the trainer said, “We’re not ready for that yet, miss.” She wanted to do everything herself. Her grandfather would come to every lesson and tack the horse up for her, something the trainer discouraged, but she was too small to reach the heads and backs of the giant horses to put saddles and bridles on them.

After about two years of driving an hour every weekend for her lessons, we decided to move closer to the barn. Riding wasn’t the only reason for the move, but it was a strong factor. My child began showing more frequently on different horses, just at schooling shows, and she almost always got blue and red ribbons to take home. In August, my father bought her an English saddle of her own for her birthday and started talking about plans to lease a horse at the barn for her to use. I was still sure she’d lose interest or get bored before the jumps got too high. It’s how I maintained some pretence that this wasn’t actually going to happen. 

And then there was a pony. 

He was tiny, only 12.1 hands. A gray Welsh Mountain pony named Magic. The trainer, who is gifted at making horse-human matches, first told us about him in May or June before we moved. He and my child were perfect for each other, she told us. No, we said. We can’t own a pony or a horse. My dad was talking to the barn owner about leasing a different horse that she’d never outgrow. 

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Golightly

This is the logic of parents who are absolutely ignorant when it comes to horse matters. We decided the pony was too small. She’d outgrow him in a few years. He was older, nearly 18. We refused. We didn’t even want her to ride him or look at him, which in retrospect would have been smart had we stuck to it. 

The trainer, though, knows a good pony when she sees one. She brought him to our barn and leased him to two families with new, beginner riders. All we heard from the barn owner was what a disaster these leases were. The pony wouldn’t go. The mothers of these riders were chasing the pony in the arena just to get him to trot. We congratulated ourselves on making a smart decision in not buying that pony. 

But in September, with the options for other available horses to ride limited, the trainer suggested we pay the families leasing Magic so my child could ride him in a schooling show. From the time we got to the show, I was, against my will, impressed with that little pony. He knew his job. He was so good! He would lift his hooves, one at a time, to let her pick them. Regardless of the gait or the pace or whether he was jumping or doing a flat class, his frame was a perfect hunter frame. At that show, my husband and I both realized the trainer was right. Magic and my child belonged together. They just fit. We bought him on November 1, and we surprised her with a pony of her own for Christmas.

That’s not to say things were perfect. Magic is a pony. Part of his teaching methods include pretty abrupt stops just before jumps, and in the months after we bought him she came off about 20 times. I began to think we had made a terrible mistake and I was a horrible mother for allowing my beloved child to ride an animal that, while it acted affectionately towards her most of the time, also showed an inclination to get her off whenever she did anything wrong. 

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Golightly

He knew, that pony. He knew exactly what she was supposed to be doing and not doing. If she looked at the jump instead of straight ahead, he stopped. If she took her leg off on the approach to the jump, he stopped. If the jump had scary flowers or brush, he stopped. Sometimes, as he did when she qualified for medal finals, he would do a round of jumps without any problem in the warm-up and then, when it counted, he would refuse the jumps he had jumped perfectly the day before. 

But she never complained. She never got mad at him. She never hesitated to get back on him and try again. Even at the show where he spooked, dumped her, and then ran victory laps around the arena, jumping the jumps on the judge’s line riderless while everyone was shouting “loose horse!” and trying to catch him—even then, she loved him. 

I remember asking her what she would do if he acted this way at every show she took him to, and she said, “Be grateful I have him.” 

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