I’m going to take a moment to brag here, readers, and say that I not only am privileged to work with fantastic students in my practice, but also with some wonderful parents. And with everything in the news lately about helicopter parenting, Velcro parenting (which is apparently one step past snowplow parenting and two steps past the helicopter level), and a couple of new books on the market that examine the role that those particular approaches to child-rearing have on children as they become adults, I have to say that I am both relieved and grateful that I work with students whose parents empower them to take a firm hold of their college search and their futures.
I am not, however, surprised that this is the case because – as you know – I work with equestrians.
What difference does equestrianism make in the process?
As it turns out, all the difference in the world. Here’s why:
In my experience, most young riders enter the sport sometime around elementary school, generally between the ages of six and ten. There are, of course, many more who start earlier (especially if their parents ride and/or work in the industry) and those who start later, but for the most part, I meet students who took up the sport in early elementary school. At that age, these young riders typically begin their riding careers on one of two types of mounts (and again, I generalize) – either the wiliest of ponies who will do the job that’s asked of them but might also have a little fun at the kid’s expense just to keep things lively or else some sort of quiet, calm, plodding older horse of full size who is known for his or her saintly ways with beginners. Either way, at a very tender age, the parent of said young rider relinquishes control of the child’s safety to his or her equine instructor.
And no matter how safe and saintly and kind those horses and ponies are, what inevitably happens to every single new rider in the sport at some point?
You guessed it readers: They fall off for the first time.
Maybe it’s low-speed; maybe it’s just a simple slide off or tumble; or maybe it’s a really windy day and the young rider experiences his or her first runaway in the moments preceding that first fall. But horses are horses and we as riders don’t always stay on them, no matter how much we try. That’s the first lesson of the sport and it’s immediately followed by the second lesson of the sport: Always get back on the horse.
(Or, in the words of the esteemed George Morris: “On or hospital. On or hospital!“)
Now, I don’t have kids, but I have to imagine that if you’re a non-horsey parent and you witness your child’s first fall from old Dobbin or Prince or Patches, that it’s enough to make you want to bundle your child in bubble wrap, whisk them to the hospital for a barrage of tests, and sign them up for piano lessons (a nice indoor activity wherein the piano bench won’t bolt if it sights a plastic bag).
But here’s the thing: when a kid is horse crazy, they won’t go for it. Instead they haul themselves back on that horse and they get it right, whatever it was. Either they fix their balance or their approach to a baby crossrail or they learn to steer the bolt into a tight circle (a maneuver I affectionately refer to as a jockey stop). And as time passes, they get braver and better and the next thing you know, their (probably still nervous) parents find themselves standing at the rail of a major competition where they see that the same kid who got bounced off a pony at six has become a sixteen-year-old who can expertly maneuver a 1.3 meter jumping class on a warmblood with a penchant for bucking or make the optimal time on a cross-country round at the Kentucky Horse Park or turn the beginning of a spook into an immaculate half-pass in the middle of a Prix St. George dressage test.
And what do the parents of these high school-aged horsemen and women say to the other parents as they stand on the sidelines?
They don’t discuss fear for their child or distress that the horse might spook on a chilly fall morning or slip in muddy going. No. Instead, you’ll hear things like, “I hope she gets the tempi changes this time – it was a problem in qualifying” or “Six strides to the triple – six strides to the triple!”
Equestrian parents are conditioned to be tough.
I suppose the process of mentally riding the horse along with the child could probably be construed as a form of helicopter parenting, but it really isn’t. It doesn’t control the child or shield him or her from the inevitable result (a dropped rail, a miscue in the canter pirouette, a run out at the water complex) – which is why when it comes time for me to work with students headed for their college academic and riding careers, I think it’s a lot easier for this type of parent to let go in the process. (After all, once you’ve seen your kid turn a skittish off-the-track Thoroughbred into a successful sporthorse without getting killed in the process, the idea of them talking about colleges is not only tame, it’s downright boring.)
Are there important considerations to discuss? Absolutely – and parents should be involved in the process to help support and guide their child because they have a personal and financial interest in the outcome. But at the same time, they also need to feel comfortable allowing their son or daughter to investigate schools, write essays, make phone calls to admission counselors, and weigh academic options without feeling as though they need to insert themselves into every single step.
This is what the parents of equestrian students do so well.
After turning their son or daughter’s life over to the safe-keeping of a horse for so many years, it’s easier for them to watch their students go through the college search without interfering. (After all, no one ever got thrown into the water complex on a campus tour – to the best of my knowledge, anyway…)
In our initial conversations, I meet with parents and students together and we go over things like family budget for tuition and fees, any considerations the parents might want me to keep in mind while working with the student, and any concerns or questions they would like me to address. But once we get going, the wonderful parents of my equally wonderful students turn the reins over (forgive the pun!) to me and the student and we come up with a strategy to navigate the college search waters together. I include the parents in my post-meeting follow up emails and in other pertinent communications and they contact me with questions along the way, but for the most part, I don’t see a lot of Velcro or feel the wind whipped up by helicopter rotors as they encroach on my work with their kids. They trust in their student’s ability to take control of their future the same way they’ve learned to control the equine partners in their lives; it’s been built over time and makes everyone more confident when we set out.
Besides, we’re not talking about the approach to a Grand Prix fence here; we’re just talking about college. My equestrian students? They’re fully prepared to handle both – and so are their parents.