The Conversation No One Wants to Have: Talking to Kids About Horses and Money

Photo © Heather N. Photography

BY LORI MCMULLEN

As both the parent of a rider and a rider myself, horses are an integral part of my relationship with my twelve-year old daughter, Emily. Some of our most honest conversations happen while sitting in traffic on the way home from the barn, and some of our funniest moments together are while eating take-out in a nondescript hotel room after a long day of showing. We understand, in a way that no one else in our family can, how disappointing it is to mess up your strides down a line and how amazing it feels when your horse rests his head on your shoulder just because he’s happy you’re there. 

But the whole parenting-while-riding thing has hard aspects too. There’s the general mortification I inevitably inflict on my adolescent equestrian by being the only novice adult from our barn who shows with the kids.  And there’s the sense—unspoken and subtle but definitely there—that Emily and I are secretly gauging which one of us will end up the better rider (it’s already her). When it comes to riding, though, some of the toughest parenting challenges seem to center on money—how to acknowledge it, how to talk about it, and how to navigate the ramifications it has on our sport. I’m likely not the only conscientious parent trying to figure this out, so let’s linger here, in the necessary discomfort of talking to our kids about horses and money.

 The question at the heart of the issue is this: how do we, as parents, support our children’s riding dreams while grounding them with perspective and appreciation? I don’t have the answer, but I think the following three principles can begin to guide us toward it:

Lori. Photo © Andrew Ryback Photography

Turn Challenges Into Opportunities

Could we afford to get Emily a fancy small division pony this year? Yes. Is that what happened? No. This year, Emily is riding a very small, very green small green pony. Relatively speaking, his lease price was cheap (I hereby acknowledge that “cheap” in the world of horses still equals “absurd amount” in the real world), and Emily knows that. She also knows that the goal with this pony is not to win at shows—though that may very well happen—but rather to learn from the challenges that come with his inexperience, to build problem-solving skills, determination, and assertiveness as a rider, and to push herself beyond the luxuries that come with riding a fully made pony. As a result, Emily has developed a fierce connection with this small green and has learned, without me having to say a word, that a pony’s price tag does not necessarily reflect its worth.

Challenges that teach valuable money lessons to our kids also come from unexpected, unplanned places. They can serve our children well if we, as parents, are open to the opportunity. Last year, for example, one of the young teenage riders at our barn began leasing her first horse. She was excited to show him, excited to see how far they could go together over the course of the season. A few months into the lease, though, the horse was injured, and the rider’s plans were abruptly interrupted. 

An entirely reasonable parenting response to this setback would have been to find a short-term lease that the teenager could show while her horse healed. These parents, however, saw a values-teaching opportunity and seized it: the horse, whatever state he was in, was the horse they had for the year, and the teenager’s immediate goals needed to shift from Pre-Children’s Hunter to rehabilitation. So while her friends were competing in Florida, this rider was walking her horse around the ring at home. And while her friends moved into new divisions, this rider helped her horse start trotting again. In the end, the injury was essentially minor and the horse fully recovered. The rider has now successfully surpassed her original goals, but she has surpassed them with the knowledge that she was integral to her horse’s recovery. Could she have competed in the Pre-Children’s sooner with the lease of a substitute horse? Sure, but then she would have missed the gratifying lessons that waiting imparted. 

Emily. Photo © Andrew Ryback Photography

Don’t Judge the Choices of Others

In a competitive sport that relies on being judged, it can be tempting for kids to assess each other and each other’s horses. As parents, it’s critical that we address this temptation, both by talking to our kids about it and by modeling appropriate behavior ourselves. One way to begin is by helping our kids explode their assumptions about horses and money. We can come right out and ask them, “What do you think when you see riders with multiple horses? Or with one stunning horse? What do you think when you see a good rider on a horse that can’t seem to win? What do you think when you see a kid who only comes to the barn for once-a-week lessons?” 

After listening to their answers, we can explain to our kids that what we see other riders doing is merely the visible result of unseen calculations that each rider’s family must make in the context of their unique situation. From the outside, we can’t know the sacrifices that are being made for the sake of riding or understand the non-riding demands on a family’s finances. We can’t know where riding falls on another family’s overall list of priorities and long-term goals. So instead of filling in these knowledge gaps with assumptions and passing judgment on the choices of others, we can tell our kids, let’s simply offer other riders support and encouragement in the choices they’ve made. 

My own history with riding informs how I approach this conversation with Emily. As a kid, my parents were able to put together enough money for once-a-week lessons, but that was it. Leasing a pony and competing at shows were entirely out of the question. I’d like to be able to say that I was gritty and resourceful and mucked stalls after school every day in order to pursue my passion, but that’s not what happened. My childish frustration with the situation and undeniable jealousy of the girls with their own horses outpaced my love of the ride… and I quit. I promised myself I’d come back to the sport as an adult who could afford it (now, as that adult, I sometimes look at my horse and get teary-eyed, knowing how long and how badly I’ve wanted him).

During the car ride home after a particularly unpleasant morning at the barn when I was ten, I sulked in the passenger seat and complained that the other riders probably thought I didn’t like horses as much as they did and didn’t care enough about riding to lesson more often. My mother then asked what I thought about them, those other riders I seemed to know so much about. That question was easy. I rattled off my assumptions: They were rich. They got whatever they wanted. They took having a horse for granted. They had closets devoted entirely to show clothes. 

When I’d come to the end of my list, my mother asked, “Were they right about you?” I said no, and then she told me, firmly so that I understood, that I was undoubtedly equally wrong about them. The conversation remains, all these years later, a masterclass in effective parenting. I often retell the story to Emily, since there’s no hope of my creating a new version that’s quite as good.

Talk Honestly About Expenses 

I tell Emily how much her ponies cost. I show her the vet bills, the farrier bills, the board bills, the show bills. Not all the time, but often enough that she has a sense of the financial scope of this wild endeavor. My objective is not to make her feel bad about costs but to anchor her in the realities of the sport so that she can appreciate her ability to participate in it. I also speak honestly with Emily about how my riding impacts our overall horse budget, and I involve her in decisions about how we should allocate the resources in that budget fairly (Which one of us needs a new saddle more this year? Should we go to two smaller shows instead of one big one?). Without a doubt, these conversations have the potential to get complicated and uncomfortable, but this sort of transparency, I believe, helps quash any brewing assumptions about being entitled to ride.

To be truly meaningful, though, the conversation needs to go further, beyond the numbers and dollar signs to a place where kids can speak honestly about how these expenses make them feel. Perhaps they feel guilty. Perhaps they feel pressure to make every lesson perfect, to get ribbons at every show, to ride with an agenda instead of with joy. Perhaps they feel obliged to see their horse as an asset instead of an animal, or they worry that there won’t be enough money left over for college. 

There are countless negative ways for kids to interpret the expenses of riding and countless negative ways that these interpretations will affect their riding. It is therefore our job, as parents, to help our children identify their feelings around horses and money and then examine them together, closely and frankly. During these discussions, we can emphasize that we, their parents, have chosen to spend this money and that while we may have expectations around household chores, homework, care of tack, etc., that go along with that expenditure, the only riding expectations we have is that they will fail, and then they will learn, and then they will fail and learn all over again. 

Sometimes, I look back on the present as if it’s already happened, as if I’m already decades older and am recalling the things that I’m experiencing now. In this way, I already know that riding will continue to be a fundamental part of my relationship with Emily. Riding will continue to give us shared adventures and time together. It will continue to give me, as a parent, opportunities to help her become the best version of herself. 

Those opportunities may come in broad, beautiful bursts where she learns about courage and confidence and compassion, or they may come in more mundane moments where she learns about the realities of the costs of this sport. This duality is okay, though, because both the beautiful and the mundane are essential. In riding, in life, and perhaps most of all—in parenting.


Lori McMullen rides and writes in the Chicago area. She and her daughter train at Palladia Farm with Margaret Clayton. Lori’s first novel, “Among the Beautiful Beasts,” was released last spring.