Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I Need Advice

by Laura Crum

So today I have a question for everyone who has ever taught a kid to ride. I haven’t done a lot of this. I’ve given the occasional lesson to the occasional child, and I’ve certainly supervised many beginners on horseback, but I have never been in charge of a kid’s steady progress from being a beginner through intermediate to advanced. Until my son came along.

The way I have taught my son to ride is based on the way I’ve taught him in general. I am a homeschooling mom and I am using the path called “unschooling”. At this point I can hear the collective gasp. Perhaps many of you are now feeling that I’m part of the evil empire. I have slowly become aware that many folks consider someone like me to be at best misguided, and at worst positively diabolical. Let me point out that I feel the same way about those who deliver their innocent children into the jaws of the public school system and abandon them there. But perhaps a horse blog is not the place to discuss this subject.

The fact is that “unschooling,” or learner led learning, has worked very well for me, both when teaching my kid to ride and teaching him to read (he is a voracious reader reading well above his grade level, in case you were wondering). With the riding, this has amounted to (mainly) giving him a completely reliable horse and providing him with lots of opportunities to ride. I let him decide what he wants to do on any given day. If he’s struggling with something, or I see the horse needs a correction to stop him from developing a bad habit, I’ll intervene and give my kid some advice and direction. At times I have had to ride the horse and “straighten him out” (this is very rare). Certainly I intervene if I see something developing that isn’t safe (though Henry is such a good horse this really hasn’t come up). But mostly my son just rides his horse and enjoys it. We trail ride, we gather cattle and drive cattle, we ride in the arena at the walk, trot and lope. We have fun.

This way of learning to ride is quite different from the formal lessons I was given as a child. I well recall a succession of demanding riding instructors who frequently insisted I do things that I felt were over my head and ride horses I was afraid of. I remember how scared I was, often to the point of tears. I think if I had not been so passionate about horses and riding, those formal lessons would have put me off the whole business for good.

My son has never been passionate about horses the way I was/am. Horses are a part of his life and he really enjoys them, but it has never been lost on me that if he were hurt or badly scared or seriously over-pressured, he probably would not want to ride again. So far, I have been able to prevent this from happening. Largely by giving him such a reliable horse to ride and being present and carefully observing every single moment he is on his horse. And letting him decide what he feels up to doing. The net result is many, many happy shared times on horseback. So far, so good.

My little boy has spent his whole life on/with horses. From six months to five years he rode in front of me on my horse, from five to seven he rode his pony, Toby—first on the leadline, then independently. From seven until now (he just turned eleven) he has ridden his steady, reliable Henry—on the trail, on the beach, on gathers…etc. Despite the lack of formal lessons and the fact that my son is a gentle, sensitive kid, inclined to be too passive rather than too aggressive on a horse, my boy has developed a good seat and can make his lazy horse mind him. He is a pretty strong, confident rider at this point. And therein lies the problem.

Lately we have had some fresh cattle at the arena where we ride. These are cattle that need to be trained to run down the arena and go through the chutes—before they can be roped. And this job has fallen to my son, who vastly enjoys it.

Henry, who used to be a rope horse, knows exactly how to run down the arena after a steer. My son is an effective enough rider that he can ask the horse to drive and the horse will obey him. The net result is that my kid, for the first time in his life, is blasting down the arena in a hand gallop, rather than a long trot or a lope.

No, Henry is not running away, he isn’t even going full speed. But its still pretty fast. And no, my son is not really completely in control; he just isn’t used to going that fast. I trust Henry not to buck or bolt or do something stupid, and these things are not happening. Henry chases the steer down and pulls up at the end of the arena, just like he’s supposed to. Both horse and boy are enjoying themselves. But I am a little bit freaked out.

What if, my mind keeps shrieking. What if Henry stumbles or even falls, what if my son just loses his balance, what if he comes off? Going that fast the odds are he could get hurt. The last time one of our friends came off in that same arena in the middle of a roping run he broke six ribs.

Part of me says my son is ready to do this. Part of me trusts his judgment and thinks that if he feels threatened by the speed/lack of control, he’ll pull the horse up. Part of me knows he has a very good seat and won’t come off easily. But part of me knows what he doesn’t know—how unpredictable the whole business is—and realizes he can’t really make accurate judgments with his degree of experience. Sure, he thinks he’s doing great, but he doesn’t realize the potential downside and might not protect himself enough. The biggest part of me just wants to prevent him from getting hurt—or even, God forbid, killed. Yes he wears a helmet, no that won’t prevent you from getting killed. The last kid I knew of who was killed on a horse was wearing a helmet. She broke her neck.

OK, maybe I’m paranoid. Kids my son’s age are jumping cross country courses and making actual team roping runs—for real. This is a lot tougher stuff than just running a steer down the freshly groomed arena at a hand gallop. Maybe I’m just way overprotective. I’m not sure.

So far I haven’t said anything, other than reminding my kid to shorten his reins before he kicks Henry up to the gallop after a steer, and telling him to be sure to stop the horse if he feels out of control. I applaud what a good job he’s doing with a big smile on my face. I try not to dampen his joy with my worry. And I am proud of him. He’s doing great, learning new skills, and he feels confident. He’s getting a lot of well-deserved praise from the ropers, which is good for him. But the thought of my little boy getting badly hurt because I allowed/encouraged this activity really bothers me. I’m pretty darn sure I wouldn’t think it was worth it. So am I making a good choice here?

Today I’d like to ask what others think. Have you taught a kid to ride and seen the young child progress to doing pretty dangerous stuff? Where do you draw the line? What is appropriate? I’m sure the parameters are going to be a bit different depending on the individual child, but how do you as parents/instructors decide what is a reasonable risk and what isn’t? Clearly if I wanted to avoid all risk I wouldn’t put my kid on a horse—horseback riding is a notoriously dangerous sport. But then, if I wanted to avoid all risk we wouldn’t drive our car anywhere either. And then, of course, we’d die of some odd, unpredictable disease. I get it that risk is part of life. But there are some risks that I think are just dumb—such as putting a young kid on a green horse, or anything less than a truly reliable, solid-minded babysitter. I would not choose to take that risk. But there are still these gray areas—like galloping Henry down the arena after a fresh steer. Where do I draw the line between acceptable risk versus unacceptable risk? What guidelines do I use? I’m not sure I know.


Minus Pride said...

As an outsider looking in, I hope I can say what I think you are thinking.
You've given him all the tools, just as you always have to succeed here. He is a good rider, and ready to do this, or you wouldn't have let him start doing it. You've even given him your tips for a better, safer ride. I think he's ready, and you've given him space and time to figure it out.
He's eleven, he's gotta do this sooner or later. Just be glad that he's still willing to listen to your tips and have you there watching're a great mom!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Minus Pride. I try to remember what I could do at eleven--I can't recall doing any galloping, but I think I was jumping small jumps in the ring. And you're right, sooner or later he'll be making these choices without my input. That's a good point.

Anonymous said...

Other that making sure he's got steering, stopping, slowing, turning, and a basic safe position down, just let him go and do it. He could be a very experienced rider and his horse could trip and fall - you can't protect him from that sort of stuff - you've done a lot by putting him on a safe, reliable horse - that's a lot more than most parents do. As long as he's having fun and isn't scared, just let him do it.

My kids started riding at about age 7 in the hunter/jumper world. My older daughter ended up doing jumpers at age 13 and training her own horse by age 15, and my younger daughter decided she would only ride bareback (on wild mare Dawn no less) when she was about 13 - and she and Dawn did a lot of flat-out galloping. Both had some falls, including a couple of scary ones, but they were pushing the edges a lot more than your son is (I think, from your description). Nobody died (doesn't mean that this couldn't have happened - it always can) and a lot of fun was had by all.

I learned to ride by riding, starting when I was very small, and had no formal lessons until I was in college. My equitation still sucks, but I can get the job done.

(btw - my older daughter was home-schooled until age 16 and then went straight to college and my younger one home-schooled until 8th grade when she wanted to go to a Montessori and then a Waldorf school. We didn't completely unschool - we weren't brave enough to although I think it can be a very good approach depending on the kid. I'm not a big fan of large public schools either, particularly in these days of teach to the test, and we wanted the kids to have a chance to form their identities a bit before being inundated by popular culture - if you can call it that. tmi for a horse blog . . .)

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Kate. I find your words reassuring. Both about horses and homeschooling. My reasons for homeschooling are much like yours--and I'm not a strict "unschooler"--my son goes to a homeschool group two days a week, which is a classroom group, so he's learned the rules of classroom etiquette--and met some great kids. He also gets formal music, swimming, karate...etc lessons from other instructors. And I do teach math from a program I bought on the internet--so I'm trying to find the middle ground, as I do in most things.

I hate to sound stupid, but what does "tmi" stand for?

Minus Pride said...

TMI= too much information!! lol

Just thinking from a daughter/son perspective (i'm 22)

horsegenes said...

oh.... Laura... you are experiencing what every parent does. I have 3 grown children and I have to tell you... we all go through this. It isn't always with horses - for me it was gymnastics and showing livestock (cattle, pigs, sheep, etc.). Let me tell you, having an upper level gymnast will make your stomach tie up in knots or watching your 9 year old take ahold of 1500 lb steer that you know nothing about and walk out into a show ring... yep it kind of makes you second guess yourself. But here is the deal... if they feel they are ready, then you gotta let them try (within reason). Your job is to recognize their abilities and the risk, be realistic, be supportive and give solid advice. As Minus Pride said... you have given him all the best tools and because of that he trusts your judgement. Look at the positives... look at the confidence he is building, marvel at his athletic ability, look at how he is maturing into a man, look at his face and see the fun he is having and the memories he is making.
What we all want for our sons and daughters is to mature into good hearted, moral, kind, intelligent, confident human beings. If we don't let go a little here and there we won't know if we are getting it right or not. You are doing a great job.

Laura Crum said...

kel--that is so helpful. I know I need to be able to let go as he gets older, its just hard to find the line, you know? But it sounds like you think the "runs" on Henry are an appropriate risk at this point. I know, there will be many more such challenges as he gets older. Its scary (!)

jenj said...

I have one kiddo who just left for college last week and another who will go next year, so my timing is a little different from yours but I think the parenting is the same. You have to give them the best tools you can to make the right decisions, and give them as safe an environment as possible in which to make mistakes and learn from them. At some point they become their own little people - your son is probably about at that age - and you have to trust that you've done well by them and they can make good decisions and can recognize when things are too much. We can't protect our children from everything, but it sounds like you've given him the best tools you can to have safe, sane rides. He's having fun while you're biting your nails, but I think that's part of being a parent.

If you can talk to him in a way that won't scare him, like, "I know you're having so much fun out there and I think you're doing really great with your horse, but as your Mom it's my job to worry because I love you... so please be careful, and slow down if you feel like things are getting too fast." Or something like that. You'll know the best words to reach him. He'll probably "Aw, MOM!" you, but at least you've let him know that you want him to be careful. Maybe even talk through a "what-if" scenario or two (i.e. What if the steer charged your horse? What if your horse slams on the brakes?) so that if it happens, he can be prepared.

And if you think riding horses bad, wait till they start DRIVING A CAR. Eeeesh.

Laura Crum said...

jenj--I am already dreading the car thing. My husband and I have talked of moving to an isolated island with no motorized traffic when our son is sixteen--for at least a couple of years. And we're only half kidding. I was an incredibly reckless driver at sixteen/seventeen--and was fortunate not to have a wreck. My husband "raced" his friend home on their motorcycles at sixteen, and permanently damaged his knees when he went over the bars. Maybe we're not the best gene pool for a teenage driver (though I hasten to add that we're both very conservative drivers now--I have not had a ticket since I was a teenager--knocking on wood).

Anonymous said...

Minus Pride has it: too much information. I sometimes slip and use internet-speak or even (gasp!) emoticons!

Laura Crum said...

Kate--I am really challenged in this area. I barely "get" the most ordinary internet speak--"lol" had me confused for quite awhile. Need I say more?

horsegenes said...

Laura - From your previous posts about your son, I think that if he didn't feel confident or if he was unsure he would look to you for to re-assure him that he was o.k. If he isn't then he must feel safe. I agree that it wouldn't hurt for you to just mention the down side of galloping around and let him know that it is o.k. for him to slow down if he feels unsure. And that taking it easy on Henry wouldn't hurt either. But don't be surprised if he decides he needs a faster horse. Boys are that way. They get to an age and become little dare-devils!
My brother used to tell me that god made teenagers bratty so that the parents would be ready to let them leave the nest. I think that there is some truth to that. Everything we do as parents is preparing our children to be able to survive without us. But what we really want is to be able to care for them forever. Kind of strang the way that works out.

Mikey said...

jenj, did you have to mention driving? I'm still taking baby steps in that direction (meaning I think of it and then shut that thought down!)
This is a great subject, and I'm right there with you, being the mom of a 7 yr old who thinks she can do more than I think she's capable of. Ride the big horses, go fast, jump, etc.
Personally, it KILLS me. I don't know how to deal with watching her ride anymore. I've been avoiding it, or letting Wade work with her, because she just scares me so dang bad. Sometimes I watch with hands over my eyes, peering between my fingers. Not breathing.
The last buck off she had a month or so back was one of her learning experiences I file under "Needed/was going to happen". We've graduated to putting her on a fairly safe, but not perfect horse that they can learn together. I'd previously always had really good safe bombproof horses (and she still rides old Reba bareback). This one now isn't spooky, but when he bucked her off I never saw it coming, never thought it would happen. Now we're in a standoff. She's still riding the horse, she's confident again loping, there's a gymkhana this weekend and I won't let her go because I don't think they're ready yet. (plus there's a conflicting birthday party to attend).
Anyway, I have no good advice, just sympathy pangs. It's HARD to parent a kid who rides. You do your best, but like you said, that kid you knew who was wearing a helmet and broke her neck. You think about those things, then you think of all the kids who are the same age and doing more than your kid, sans helmets too... it's just hard to know when to let your kid learn more and go farther. Things you never think could happen do, and the stuff you've already seen and know could happen is enough to freeze your heart. It's just plain HARD. I tell you, I have full blown anxiety attacks now.

Now that I've written a book of blah blah, I'll go back to my child, whose said 3 times during my writing this "Mommy are we going to ride today?" (It's 107 degrees out right now, so the answer is NOT YET)
Great post, very thought provoking as always.

Pattie said...

I tend to agree with all the comments so I am only going to add, have you tested to see if he can actually stop at full gallop? Maybe tell him that at a random point during a run you are going to yell stop and he must stop Henry as soon as possible.


Laura Crum said...

Mikey--Well, I think we're a pair to draw to. Mercy seems like she's a braver than my kid, which would be harder for me--I'm actually glad my little boy is on the cautious side. But I still worry the same way you do. I hope you guys are doing well. I miss your blog (!)

Pattie--That is a good point. One time, when I thought Henry was really running too hard, I hollered at my son to pull up, and he was able to do it in a few strides. I have to say that even an accomplished horseman will have a hard time pulling up a rope horse who is running to a steer. The horse has been trained to catch the steer, and unlike a reined cowhorse for instance, he hasn't been trained to stop at a light cue--at least until he's caught the steer. So most of them are pretty hard to pull off in the middle of a run. Henry pulled up pretty well, actually. But I could do a little more practicing of this and it might be very helpful in establishing control. That's a good idea. Thank you!

Dreaming said...

As you have probably discovered in homeschooling, kids learn best by doing. I think that applies to riding as well!
I think part of the problem (besides having that parent connection) is that you have reached what one of my good friends says is "the age of mortal reasoning". He explained that at some point, for him it was around 26 years of age, a person realizes that he (or his child) could get hurt doing X, Y or Z. We realize we are mortals. Kids know no fear when it comes to doing things they enjoy. If your son is enjoying it, sometimes you just have to bite your tongue and let him learn from doing it.
I enjoyed the chat about computer speak. I often have to google the shortcuts I see in messages... I feel old!

Mary said...

I agree with all of the comments. It is the hardest thing in the world to watch your child do something that has so many variables to it. My daughter was an upper level gymnast also and I could barely watch, I hated it, she loved it. You never know, ever. My son on the other hand has always been more cautious, his choice.
One thing I was thinking about is the fact that he's been watching you ride his whole life, I imagine he's probably seen you get yourself out of some "situations" while riding also, I bet he's got it down pretty good by now. He should be the one to decide when he's ready to do more advanced work. If it doesn't work out as planned than he either gets back on or he doesn't. In the end it really is up to him.

Francesca Prescott said...

I don't think you have an over-active imagination,or that you're paranoid. You're just a mama. We can protect our babies when they are...babies, but once they're off, well, they're off. You've done a wonderful job of making his riding as safe as possible, he's clearly super comfortable on his horse, and it's great to hear that he's excited about doing more. But I's not so great for you! Before we bought Kwintus, when my daughter took lessons at local stables, depending on which horse she was on I'd have no nails left by the end of her lesson. Jumping lessons were the worst. WIth Kwintus I mostly felt she was safe, but there was always that niggle of "what if". With her I'm lucky that she's a cautious person, and won't stray too far from her comfort zone.

Now, on the other hand, there's my son. He's not a rider, but he's a skateboarder. Except that, at the moment, he's not skateboarding (and won't until early next year) as he fell while jumping down ten stairs, grinding down the handrail, and landing with a straight left leg. Knee ligaments exploded, so he had reconstructive surgery. But it could have been a lot worse as he refuses to wear a helmet. None of his skateboarding friends do - apparently, street-skaters don't. What if he'd landed on his head? I've yelled and pleaded and insisted about helmets, but I might as well talk to a concrete wall. I never see him skateboard as he takes the train and goes into town; all I see if the film footage of his exploits. And he's amazing! Talk about airborne! But as much as I admire his skill and balance, it worries me sick whenever he goes off with his board, because I know he's not just going to be gliding down the street.

The thing is, as parents, we're always going to worry. Like Pattie said (I think it was Pattie), I think it would be good to do some regular gallop/stop check-ups, just to see how he copes, and also to let him see how he copes, because he might sometimes be surprised by not quite being able to cope, of the halt requiring more energy and skill than he expected, which will probably make him more aware of the "what ifs".

I could go on about this topic for ages, as my daughter is about to take her driving license. She's a good driver, super sensible, but....she's inexperienced and, well, you just never know.

I'll be your worry-buddy anytime, Laura. I'm an expert!!!

Laura Crum said...

Dreaming--I feel old, too.

Mary--Yes, it is his choice whether to ride or not, for sure. At this point I still feel I need to supervise and make sure that what he is doing with the horse is reasonably safe.

Francesca--The street skating would scare me, too. I am not looking forward to the teenage years--but its part of life.

Ms Martyr said...

Excellent comments. I particularly like the one about realizing our own mortality.

This interview with a 10 year old girl who participates in eventing reminded me of you. Her parents must have nerves of steel.

You indicate that your son is not passionate about riding. I think you may have a two-edged sword. He may learn to love it by challenging himself more. On the other hand if he has an accident, he may stop altogether and you'd lose your riding buddy.

Laura Crum said...

Ms Martyr--I've always been comfortable with my own mortality and have been very aware of it since I was a teenager. But everything changed when I had a kid. All of a sudden I was not so comfortable with mortality. I couldn't bear the thought of him dying...or the thought of me dying and him having no mother. Ever since then I've been a whole lot more anxious around the old mortality issue. Cause yeah, that's what it all boils down to.

Well said, Dreaming.

Mrs. Mom said...

Laura, you're a great momma bear. Being a Mom is The Hardest Job on the Planet.

Being a Mom to kids who ride.. well.. yeah. You other Moms all know what I mean.

My two boys are night and day. One, (the youngest) is bold as BRASS. He is utterly and completely fearless, borderline reckless. He has incredible balance and awareness of his movement- resulting in fluid motion, cat like reactions and an ability to quite literally climb the walls (Yes. The child has done this on several occasions now). His older brother? Just as much of a worry to me, as Cub will sort things out. He will step by step analyze a potential "stunt" and if he feels it too dangerous for him.. well... He puts his brother up to it. If Wrecking Crew lives, about a dozen or so tries later, Cub will try it too. Cub however, does NOT have the reflexes and reactions of his younger brother. Cub has learned (and I have passed out a few times) that there are limits. Where Wrecker is light and cat like, Cub is more like... well... lumbering. The boy is big and as strong as an ox.

Wrecking Crew?


My Dad recently joked with me about the number of silver hair in my unruly mop these days. I tell him it is because of his youngest grandchild.

All that being said-- keep doing what you are doing. Listen to your son, and his trusty steed. You have an advantage of being a horsewoman as well as a Mom and can read both situations well. Be strong. Continue to set a good example by riding with him.

And when he tucks in at night for a peaceful sleep, kick back and have a STRONG adult beverage!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Mrs Mom--Your Wrecking Crew would be such a challenge. My hair is already full of "silver" from shepherding my own cautious child. And yeah, those adult beverages are very handy come evening. Cheers--Laura

2horseygirls said...

I'm late to the party here - catching up on back posts.

My daughter is 11 1/2, and has been riding since she was 6 1/2. Keep in mind, she's still not quite sure of the canter! We've had to take some time off from our lessons (for $$ reasons), and when we can go, we only go once a week, so it's hard to build up skills. Our instructors are great though - riding instructor + therapist for $40/hour = priceless! Both have become dear friends.

This week, my daughter got to ride one of the horses I usually ride, an American Spotted Draft Horse (Paint/Percheron cross). He's very handsome....yep. He also remembers when I didn't really want him to do things because I was scared, so now when I do ask, he's like "But you're the nice cookie lady who think I'm pretty and you don't REALLY want to canter, do you?" LOL

But this week, my daughter rode him, and I pretty much left her "on her own" for the lesson. Instead of hanging around while she grooms & tacks up, and chatting with our instructor during pauses, I caught up with some friends from the barn that I don't get to see/talk to regularly while (of course) keeping an eye on the lesson.

I figured Gracie Lou would be happy that I wasn't talking to our instructor.


Total cold shoulder when we got in the truck. "You weren't paying attention at all" with some tears threatening to spill over.

"Yes, Gracie, I was."

"Were not."

I called over one of my friends who was leaving the same time we were, and asked her "What did I say during Gracie's lesson?"

"That if she got PrettyBoy to canter, you were going to come unglued."

Gracie laughed, because she KNEW I had been watching her then.

So, as much as she wants to grow up and complain about us hanging around and interfering.......she really wants us there.

And I have gotten the speeches from friends for years about how dangerous it is, and they would never let their kids ride.

But having watched the girls on our barn's drill team & trick riding team go from young high schoolers to confident, strong young women heading off to college has only strengthened my conviction that horses are the best thing that you can do for a child these days. It is ALL about responsibility, ownership of actions, thinking (and thinking fast), pushing yourself to learn & try new things, and most of all, thinking about something other than yourself.

And I read enough blogs & books that it's taken me almost 3 years to stop curling into the fetal position when my instructor says "Hup!" I am the LAST person that will do anything remotely risky on a horse - and I still know that I'm going to come off one of these days, or get stepped on. (Just hoping my plus-size 40-year-old body doesn't take too long to recover...)

I was leading PrettyBoy the day one of the drill team girls decided to jump on his rather high butt from behind. I saw her go sailing through the air after getting double barrelled by draft hooves in the chest. And I stood there while the paramedics debated landing the Flight for Life helicopter in the front paddock (they realized the wisdom in not doing that rather quickly).

And the girl who ended up with a collapsed lung, broken ribs & is now sans her spleen is the first one who will say "I was a complete idiot that day."

After seeing the life lessons that some of my friends have learned the hard way (or hopefully are learning, if there's a greater power in the universe), I think dirt under the fingernails, muddy boots, horse-scented and a few bumps and bruises are a far easier price to pay.

(I may not comment often, but I make it count when I do! ;) )