On Motherhood: Important Lessons from My Horses

On Motherhood: Important Lessons from My Horses

I watched the 2010 film Babies with rapt attention and the self-confidence only a person without a child could have. I knew I would never make the mistake of hovering over my baby the way the American mother so embarrassingly did (a music class for infants? Who does that?). I gracefully acknowledged that, yes, American parenting was too much micro-managing, too obsessive, and too much. I would be thoughtfully present the way the Japanese parents were – allowing my children to make mistakes so they could learn and grow in self-confidence and self-awareness but never too distant as to let them feel they weren’t being supported or loved. I would surround my children with the community of my friends and relations the way the mother from Namibia did: an effortless blanket of security and comfort, a constant reminder that my children were connected and loved. I was going to be such a good mother. Obviously.

I read the 2012 book Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting and knew for certain I would have the same easy hand at motherhood, setting firm ground rules but giving my children the freedom to explore and learn. No helicopter parenting for me. I scoffed at the American children crawling under the table at lunchtime, cringed at tales of my friend's wailing two-year-olds in the face of the composed, calm, blue-cheese-eating French toddlers presented in the book. I was well-read, well-researched, and hell yes - I was ready to get pregnant and rock the mothering game.

I read the 2015 book The Happiest Baby on the Block when I was well into my second trimester. I was radiant and buying baby clothes left and right. I was through the misery of the first trimester but not yet completely enormous. I was capable and glowing and on the road to becoming the world's best mom. Getting my baby to sleep would be a simple matter of consoling her where appropriate but allowing her to soothe herself when needed. It was all at my fingertips, I couldn’t wait. I would be patient with the doltish parents, rushing in to unnecessarily soothe their babies and inadvertently creating non-sleeping monsters. I would smile, but underneath I would know. I would know they were all wrong but I was doing it the right way, the best way. All while my baby slept soundly, and probably cooed adorably in her sleep. I would be wearing a pretty (freshly washed) nightgown and would have buttercups strewn delicately through my (freshly washed) hair, or something. Because that’s what motherhood looks like during your first child’s infancy, right?

As life would have it, I didn’t actually have a baby until 2017, seven years after I watched Babies and five years after I read Bringing Up Bebe, so captivated, alert, and sure. I laugh now at my certainty, my confidence, and abject blindness. I had no idea. As luck (not skill) would have it, my baby did, in fact, sleep well shortly after arrival. I’m not sure that my smugness was easily hidden. But, like so many babies, she hit the four-month sleep regression (it’s a thing, though you can choose to believe me or not) with a vengeance and I slept only in short bursts of 45 minutes to an hour for at least three months, which jump-started post-partum depression, not to mention utter misery. As it turns out, motherhood would be so much harder than I’d read about and viewed in the movies.

But something did hold true for me all the way from my naïve, hopeful self pre-motherhood to where I am today (dashing after a giggling toddler covered in yogurt/peanut butter/insert other food item here), and those are the lessons I thought would transfer from horses to motherhood. That, at least, I nailed. What a relief and such a boon in the early days of parenting. In so much uncertainty, terror, worry, and fear, there was something that could light my way - the many lessons I’ve learned from my horses over the years. From my first 13.2 hand pony to my current 16.2 hand power-house Dutch Warmblood show jumper, I’ve picked up so many thoughtful, wise and important lessons from my four-legged 'children'.

If You Fall, Get Back Up
I have a vivid memory of falling down as a child. I was five or six and I took a tumble on the linoleum floor in our kitchen. I remember the rush of tears and my mother coming to my side. She stood over me and calmly reminded me that good riders always get back on their ponies. I recall the stilling of emotion and the determination that swelled in my little heart. I was getting back on that proverbial pony come hell or high water. It was something of a prophetic moment (as mothers are apt to have, I’d guess) and one that would inform not only my riding for a lifetime but life in general.

Whenever I fell, I always popped back up and, fear or no fear, climbed back into the saddle, and tried again. I came to know if I didn’t that a greater fear would take the place of any that had cropped up in my tumble. I had to get back up, right then and there and do it again. In life, I find this serves me well – no matter how long it takes me to get back up, no matter how mired I am face-down in the metaphorical mud, I know that moment will come where I get back up, face my fall, and I’ll be stronger for it. A better rider and a better person once I square my shoulders and put my foot back in the stirrup of life.

Be Clear, Firm and Always Kind
In the blush of pregnancy, I thought that a lifetime of riding horses would serve me well given the clear boundaries I’d learned to set. There’s no wishy-washiness on a horse. I learned from a young age as a Pony-Clubber in jodhpurs and garters to be clear and firm from the get go – no nagging leg, no ongoing aids without enforcement. But I was also to be deeply kind, instantly rewarding and positive when I’d received my desired result whether it be a soft, round horse, a kick-ass roll-back turn to a massive oxer, or a half-pass that just sort of breezed across the ring.

I find this serves me well in parenting. Discipline has come easily to me as well as supportive encouragement – after all, they go hand-in-hand for me. I watch parents struggle with children who are walking all over them and think, “Why don’t they just say no?”. A tantrum will ensue, yes, but that’s part of the process. A firm boundary, sometimes a tantrum, and then it’s over and there’s the deep kindness. It’s hard on days when I’m tired and hungry, and my daughter is tired and hungry and whining, but the blueprint from days of riding and all the horses who have taught me over the years continues to bear fruit. It’s working, hallelujah!

Trust your Instincts
In America (and probably all over the world), there are so many opinions about parenthood and every consequence is dire. If you don’t sleep train your baby, they will never sleep and your life is ruined, you’re a terrible person, and they’ll probably die. If you do sleep train your baby, they’ll never form a positive attachment, they’ll be scarred for life, you’re a terrible person and they’ll probably die. That’s what it’s like, I swear. It’s nuts. All of which is to say my wife and I, like so many parents, were awash with suggestions, guidance, pediatrician’s recommendations, and friend’s advice. I wish we had listened to our instincts; I know we were right about our baby at every turn whether it was about sleep or otherwise.

But it’s hard to hear in those sleep-deprived, panicked, overwhelmed early months (wait, maybe it’s years?) of parenthood. But this, too, horses have taught me. Sometimes I sit in the saddle and we take a step and I know something is wrong. No one else in the whole world would ever notice but I know. Trust your instincts. Listen for that quiet voice and believe in yourself. It’s important for riding and for parenthood. For your horse and your kid.

Turnout Matters
The taking care of the kid part is easy. I’m already pouring all my care, energy, and strength into my daughter, so getting her ready in the mornings (or after naps, diaper blowouts, paint mishaps, or playground excursions) is a snap. I’m talking more for the parents. To be honest, I still struggle with this one, but I think it’s critical. Just think, when you’re at a competition, or riding in a clinic with your favorite trainer, or just kicking around working on your 20-meter circles on a Tuesday, turnout sends a message to others and to ourselves.

The best professionals I’ve worked for are always spit and polished – their horses aren’t just in tip-top shape but their coats are glossy, their hooves are polished, and the rider is wearing a belt, always. I’ve been barbed more than once for forgetting a belt, let me tell you. Doug Payne ragged me endlessly for not wearing a belt one summer day at Tryon and I’ve never forgotten it since.

"No one ever said parenthood was easy. Ditto with riding. Deep breaths, y’all, and never use your spur in spite."

It’s not just about what other people think, it’s about how you feel. And feeling good means you ride better. Feeling good as a parent means you parent better. It means you can get through the day without feeling like you’re going to fall off a cliff and won’t-ever-make-it-to-bedtime-for-a-full-breath-and-maybe-a-glass-of-wine. It’s hard to explain, but being able to wake up, brush my teeth, wash my face, get dressed and then attend to the intense business of parenting is the difference between sunshine on my face and a storm cloud over my head.

Being able to walk into a ring knowing my horse is gleaming, my tack is shining, I’ve walked my course (maybe two or three times) and I have a belt to finish it all off means I’m approaching that first fence/centerline/20 meter circle with more confidence, patience, and certainty. And that can make all the difference and put that sunshine on my face.

Never, Ever Act with Anger or Spite
I rode in a clinic with George Morris several years ago. I was so scared of the fierce reputation that preceded him that I was literally in tears when I walked into the ring on my mare. Thank goodness for her – as I came to pieces, she just cantered around the ring and did her job. What a pro.

George lived up to his reputation for ferocity and I was terrified for the duration of the weekend-long clinic. True story. But more importantly, what surprised me was his equally fierce demand, or perhaps better yet, command, for unending kindness and understanding for the horses. I recall a tricky vertical, to two-long strides, to a big oxer. It was directly off two back-to-back, tiny-indoor-ring-style corners, so it required significant collection and then immediate lengthening.

It was hard. No one got it in the first try or even the second. I got frustrated – I knew we could do it. My horse has a massive, easy stride and her natural talent for jumping is shocking. I landed from a fence after missing for the second or third time and raised my heel to use my spur. It was slight and barely there. I’m certain my mare didn’t care. But it had been in anger and frustration, not in the spirit of an aid.

Somehow, through multiple fences, around a corner, I’m pretty sure, from the other side of my mare, and probably with eyes in the back of his head, George saw me do it. He had spared me his direct anger the whole weekend except for that moment. There was an instant lecture to me, and the whole group about never responding with anger and a diatribe about yanking various famous riders off their horses for less. I was duly repentant – I knew I had been wrong. We made the combination eventually, but that was no longer the lesson.

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I’ve thought harder about my anger since then and what to do when it crops up while riding or parenting. Correct answer: it’s always the right thing to walk away. If I’m riding, it means stopping whatever I’m doing and walking around on a loose rein. I’ve even gotten off and just hand-walked my horse for a few minutes. When my daughter was a little baby, it meant putting her safely in her crib and walking into the other room for a few minutes to breathe. Now it can mean letting her cry until I can approach the situation with more patience. No one ever said parenthood was easy. Ditto with riding. Deep breaths, y’all, and never use your spur in spite.

Face the Tantrum
It drives me nuts when I see kids walking all over their parents. Same with horses and their riders. I learned at a young, young age to ride straight through whatever tantrum my horse was throwing. It was imperative that I keep going and that, basically, I won the argument. It might be a small disagreement about yielding the bit in my hands, or a knock-down-drag-em-out fight that has me charging backwards on an enormous, rearing, 3-year old warmblood (don’t tell my parents) for over 30 minutes. I always stuck it out, and as you well know, it isn’t always easy.

My horse as a junior was a cheeky, petite Arabian, and trying to best the stamina of an Arabian who’s conditioned to compete in a three-day event is nearly impossible. I’ll admit that we likely had a few draws in our time. So when it comes to that pivotal moment when my 18-month old threatens to throw a tantrum because I won’t let her walk in the street/chuck a toy at the dog/pick up a knife, I let her wade right in.

I don’t mind if she’s wailing on the floor of the grocery store. Horses taught me to remain cool and calm under the heaviest torrents of wind and rain, so a tiny 30-pound person crying because she doesn’t want to replace the can of beans on the shelf just doesn’t rock my boat after the years of tantrums thrown by 1,000-pound horses who are certain they won’t do a flying change/counter canter/stop/jump/go over the bridge with the scary troll underneath.

Regardless, I came to know that the tantrum that would be triggered by setting a rule and enforcing it was much smaller than the monster I would create by letting my horse walk all over me. It has stood me in good stead with my daughter who, after throwing a tantrum because I wouldn’t let her push her tiny grocery cart into the busy parking lot, later happily listened when I reminded her not to do it and, toddling along, simply turned the cart around and went merrily on her way. And merrily on our way is what we’re all looking for, after all.

Have Fun
It’s so easy to get caught up in the details of every day, the things that are falling apart, or the person on Instagram whose horse is perfect and whose children are always clean and laughing (spoiler alert: it’s all staged). I’ve found that I’m quick to fall down the rabbit hole of despair. I’m never a good enough rider or there’s always something I wish was different about motherhood or the reality of parenting in the U.S.

But, ultimately, it’s only doing a disservice to me, my horse, or my daughter. And that’s the worst outcome of all! I find if I focus on gratitude, the everyday things that are actually a privilege, everything feels ever so much better. It’s like my life fills up with a big breath of fresh air instead of collapsing under the weight of it all. And there’s a lot of weight when it comes to riding and parenting, right? I remind myself that I’m lucky just to have my mare and that she’s sweet, easy-tempered, loves food and is a bad-ass jumper. She’s such a good jumper that sometimes I laugh out loud after a fence – it can still feel like a surprise after so many years.

I remind myself that I can ask for help with parenting, that I have friends I can confide in, that I can go slow and be present, present, present for those small moments: a snack together on a hot, summer afternoon, feeding the ducks at the gardens, watching her snag a peach at the grocery store and take a big bite. It’s trite but true – it’s the little moments that matter after all. They build up and create the fun and happiness. If I miss them, then I miss all the fun. So take a deep breath and remember to have fun!

Be Kind on your Way Up. You’ll Need Everyone When you’re on your Way Down.
I spent one winter in Ocala riding for Wendy Lewis, an incredible rider who epitomizes work ethic and perfect turnout (see number 4 on this list). She, in turn, rides with Buck Davidson, so it was his farm where I spent those months under warm Florida sun with quiet mornings, beautiful birds soaring overhead, and endless stalls to clean. I remember tidbits of conversation with him and how his kindness stood out to me.

Maybe I’d expected him to be mean? Pretentious? Rude? But he wasn’t. He was thoughtful, patient, and present – like a lot of really good riders I meet. I don’t remember the context, or even how it came up, but I remember him saying that it was important to be kind when you’re on your way up since you’ll need everyone when you’re on your way down.

It was a surprising sentiment from a rider just beginning the arc of his ascent all those years ago. I don’t know if, were I to have been in his boots, I would have had that foresight and wisdom. But there it was and I’ve remembered it ever since.

It’s more of a life lesson, really, than a parenting-specific lesson. But I think it applies. In parenthood, there are so many people buzzing around and, in the throes of sleep deprivation, unmanageable anxiety and worry, and a dizzying learning curve, it’s easy to lose sight of kindness. It would bear repeating to be kind to those around us, whether we’re on our way up or just on our way. We need those around us in riding, parenthood and life. I find it’s advice that bears repeating most any day of the week.

My preconceived notions via books and movies led me astray, but horses (without much surprise) did not. I find my horses trained me well – I think on my feet, have back-up plans for back-up plans, and am strong but fair with a boundary. My daughter doesn’t like blue cheese, sometimes she is terribly fussy and we’ve faced our fair share of tantrums.

"I’m a good mother because I’ve learned to appreciate the little things and to have fun, to laugh, and be present."

But, I find the benchmarks I set for myself to be a 'perfect' mother no longer apply. I’m a good mother because I’m devoted to my daughter, I listen to her and beat a path for her that matches her unique self. I support her when she needs it and try hard to step back when she doesn’t. I’m a good mother because I’m trying hard, and when I make mistakes I try to do better the next time. I’m a good mother because I’ve learned to appreciate the little things and to have fun, to laugh, and be present. This is all in no small part thanks to all the lessons I’ve learned from my horses. For that, I will be forever grateful and always ready to take a seat in the classroom of my equine teachers and friends.

- Text and photo by Courtney Alston