The experiment

My daughter’s college psychology project transformed me from a “horse mom” into a dedicated rider in my own right.
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My story started out like many: My daughters wanted a horse. This must be some genetic trait, because I, too, was born wanting a horse. Unfortunately, my parents responded to my requests with plastic toys, so I vowed that my daughters would have the opportunity denied me.

We set out to buy a horse, eventually settling on a 10-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse gelding. My girls, aged 10 and 15, walked him in a circle on a snowy slope, proclaimed his face beautiful, and it was a done deal. They renamed him Robin Hood, but truthfully, he should have been called Dumb Luck. He took my younger daughter all the way through her B Level in Pony Club and became a second-level dressage horse---and that doesn’t even come close to what he taught them about love and life.

Robin Hood taught me a thing or two as well: how to muck, chase a horse in the dark, load an unwilling beast into a trailer, survive on virtually no sleep…. I became a groom and a human tack rack. I sloshed water on myself on icy mornings. I wrote checks, lots of checks. I learned to always look on the bright side. And that’s the end of the story for many horse show moms, right?

One evening my younger daughter presented me with a proposition. She was by then a college junior majoring in psychology, and she wanted me to be the subject of an experiment for her behavior modification class. Her idea: She would turn me into a dressage rider.

She would achieve this goal by providing rewards and by having me keep a journal in which I wrote excuses for why I did not ride on any given day. Oh boy, where do I start? It’s too hot, too cold, too wet, too windy. I’m too tired, too nervous, too busy. Sound familiar? Still, what parent who is shelling out for college tuition would refuse to help her child get an A? And so it began….

Let me be clear: I am a librarian. I have never been an athlete of any kind. But I was game. It was decided that I would learn on Robin Hood’s successor, Strider, who once had a rearing problem. He was much too old to pull his stunts anymore, but I was old enough to have a clear memory of them. The first excuse in my journal was, “I am scared.”

I was also determined. I would ride five days per week, take regular lessons and aim toward competing. It looked so easy when my girls were riding. It wasn’t. Talk about a role reversal. I whined, I made excuses. My daughter yelled at me, telling me to “lighten up,” “have fun,” “get back on.” Where had I heard those words before? I was used to dishing out the advice; now it was being served to me.

I’m not sure exactly when, but somewhere in between “let’s try this experiment” and the final grade, I decided I was doing this for me. I undertook a horse-boarding business to pay for lessons. I rode several horses, and each one taught me not only about riding but more about myself. Eventually, I found a free lease on an amazing Prix St. George school master. And while he is more difficult to ride than any horse I have encountered, he has so much more to teach me and the largess of patience to go with it.

Not a day goes by that I don’t marvel over this journey. I am not the person I used to be. I have learned to work harder than I ever thought possible, to embrace failure as progress, to be more patient and understanding with others. I am no longer the groom, the sponsor, the spectator. Now I am a rider, and this is for me.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #453, June 2015. 

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