The Horse Riding Lesson: Life is about Winning and Losing — and Coping with that Fact

Serendipity offers an amazing array of life-long learning opportunities — mini seminars, I like to call them — if only we can appreciate the lessons presented at the most unexpected time and in the most unexpected places.

My last mini seminar was this weekend, when I accompanied my daughter and grandson to a suburban Chicago riding stable where Patrick, 8, would participate in a horse show. We were looking for his trainer to let him know that Patrick did not want to ride the horse assigned to him. The big gelding, one of the largest horses the stable used for riding lessons, is a retired police horse. Though well-trained and normally gentle with children, it had become skittish and then jumped a few weeks back, when it was startled by a loud bang! accompanied by a chunk of ice falling off the arena roof. Patrick, too, had been very startled, and though he had remained on the horse, he feared riding the same beast again.

There was a lot of pre-show activity and soon we were surrounded by a bevy of animals that included free-range chickens, dogs, and the barn cat, all of whom live together in amnesty. The handlers were moving saddled horses into the arena, side stepping dogs and people alike. Almost all of the children were chattering or talking to themselves — it’s a therapeutic riding stable, meaning that the children accepted into the program have a variety of disabilities or challenges.

A few children had arrived wearing leg braces; at least one waited in a wheelchair; others had obvious cognitive disabilities like Down’s Syndrome. All were excited by the wonderful snacks prepared by the staff — including iced cookies and cupcakes — and more than a few sugar highs were apparent.

Finally we found the trainer. While we waited for him to finish a discussion with the judge — a mounted Chicago police officer — a young woman lacking “normal” social graces pointed to the number pinned to my grandson’s shirt and said very loudly, “The riders are supposed to have disabilities. Why does he get to ride?”

The adult holding her hand whispered something in her ear and then smiled at me in apology, and I smiled back. No offense was meant or taken; the subtle nuances of spectrum disorders — one in 20 children are affected today — often are [thankfully] invisible to the general public.

This was my grandson’s first horse show, following his admission to the program last fall. He’s been having bi-weekly lessons and his confidence and ease with all animals has progressed at a most unexpected pace. But getting assigned “Big Boy” was a definite step backward. My daughter explained the situation to his trainer and asked if Patrick could be given a different horse to ride.

I expected that would be the end of the conversation, but it was only the beginning.

The trainer, an outdoorsy sort of guy with a gentle demeanor with children, turned to my grandson and went down on one knee so that they were eye-to-eye. He said that he had picked out that horse for Patrick himself, and he wanted Patrick to tell him about his anxieties so they could decide what to do. “Here, you can say anything to me, and I won’t think any less of you, Patrick,” he assured. “This is a place where we don’t have things like ’embarrassment.’ This is where we talk about our feelings and make the best choices about what to do. I want to work with you to make the best choice for you, but I need to know why you don’t want to ride the horse.”

Patrick fidgeted and looked away, swallowing hard. He has a great anxiety that people not think less of him for anything he does or doesn’t do. Already, he was upset because although his mother and I had repeatedly assured him that the horse show was not a contest and that he would not be judged, all three of us noticed the “first place” through “third place” ribbons waiting to be given out and realized we had been wrong. He had to cope with that seeming betrayal even before he learned what horse he was to ride.

The trainer tugged, tugged, tugged, patiently — without apparent worry that the show was about to begin, making it clear that Patrick was the only person who mattered in the world at the moment — and slowly Patrick began to talk. When the trainer understood the magnitude of Patrick’s feelings, he nevertheless suggested that it would be good to get back on the horse. He offered to walk beside Patrick to make sure the horse wouldn’t jump again. “I promise that won’t happen,” he said standing. “But it’s important that we don’t let our fears get in the way of us doing what is expected or what helps us grow.”

“Is this show going to be judged?” Patrick asked nervously. “Because Mom and Nana said it wouldn’t be, but I see ribbons. But we’ll all be winners, right? This isn’t a competition.”

“Ah,” the trainer said, taking a knee again, understanding this to be an additional burden on Patrick’s back. “Yes it is, Patrick. I’m going to always tell you the truth, my friend, and this show is a competition. I don’t believe in the ‘everybody is always a winner’ thinking because that isn’t life. And making you think that won’t help prepare you for life.”

He continued, “In life, there are winners and losers, and doing your best is what you want to do all the time, but sometimes other people around you win, and sometimes you lose. That’s part of what we are here to teach you, too — how to congratulate people who win, and how to congratulate other people when you win. I’m here to help you learn, whether you win or lose, how to have good sportsmanship and care about everybody else in the show. And we’re here to have fun. That’s the most important thing, more important than a ribbon. You’ll see that tonight, my friend.”

Because he realized this was a second challenge, the trainer did, in fact, lighten the load by exchanging the big horse for a much smaller one. He also walked with Patrick in the show, so that he could go through this first ridership judging experience with a friend literally at his side.

Patrick officially won third place in his class of rider. But despite his anxieties, he sat up straight and he trotted and went into positions, and he reversed and posted. He did great.

But not great “enough” for first place, which went to (gulp) a GIRL. Insult atop injury. But then the best thing of the evening happened: He coped with it like most eight-year-old boys cope with losing. There was no meltdown. There was only age-appropriate grousing and grumbling. And then there was the golden sentence, “Next time I want to win second or first place.” Not the expected “I quit and I’m never coming back.”

The next day, Patrick had his usual scheduled riding lesson. The next day, he got on top of Big Boy and rode that horse!

I feel like my grandson brought home the biggest trophy in the room. And so did I, because I got to witness that little caterpillar move one inch closer to his butterfly promise.

Just FYI, those therapeutic riding lessons are $50 a session. The stable supplies the horse and helmet. If you have a special child in your life who might benefit from this type of extraordinary facility, consider this area’s Three Gaits therapeutic riding stable in Stoughton, which offers similar lessons for a comparable price.

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