Our daughter rides. A lot. She spends as much time at the barn and riding as she does in school.
By the time kids get to the USEF Pony Finals I can assure you they’ve made similar commitments to the sport. Their parents, like us, have spent countless hours watching them ride, driving them to the barn, sitting around horse shows, and collecting ribbon upon ribbon. Upon ribbon.
Some days our kids have a great day and the show goes fabulously. They pin in the class and perhaps get a prize and we go home with a few coveted photos for Facebook.
Other days, the kids have a bad day. Maybe the horse is misbehaving or The Child is tired or just off their game. When that happens she gets frustrated, but keeps pressing on in hopes for a better round next time. In a typical three-day show we can have a bad round or two and recover over the weekend.
Then, a national competition such as Pony Finals comes along.
Months of preparation and showing goes into just qualifying for Pony Finals. With some 1,000 odd ponies being shipped into Kentucky Horse Park, Lexington for the annual event, it’s the mecca of pony land and, for many young riders, the first chance to compete on the national stage.
It’s also big business. All those riders, parents, grooms, trainers, farriers, vets, vendors, officials, spectators, and dogs zipping about in golf carts—it’s a mini city of munchkin-sized people and ponies run with seamless coordination, precision, and hairbows.
If you’re a Pony Finals virgin, it can all be a little overwhelming. At least, it was for us. My daughter competed in Lexington this year for the first time. We’re from Washington. It’s the furthest we’ve traveled for a competition and her biggest to date. We met kids and their parents who were participating in their eighth year. That’s practically every summer of their daughter’s youth.
We knew coming in that we didn’t have a pony that could compete against some of the flashier models that were perhaps favored. Our goals were more modest: to experience a national level event, learn, and have fun.
I’m pleased to say we did all of that.
There were moments of disappointment and frustration when our daughter didn’t have her best round or our pony didn’t model well. But she grew as a rider and matured as a competitor. Whether she continues in this sport or not, I know she learned valuable lessons about being humble and graceful in her sport. She also developed friendships with the next generation of horse professionals.
Here’s the thing: I learned a few lessons that week, too. Specifically, things about my role as a Pony Mom.
As a parent, getting your kid to actually heed your advice is an
impossible ongoing challenge. Nevermind, helping your child athlete get in their “zone.”
We primp and polish and fuss about the minute details instead. The braids on the pony, the shine on the boots, the stray hairs in the hairnet, which, don’t get me wrong, it’s important to show up prepared. But, in my experience, it can be the mind of the athlete that seems to fall apart.
Take Pony Finals. It broke my heart to see little girls with their ribbons and hunt coats in a sobbing mess after coming out of the ring, or to hear the sighs of the crowd at a refusal in the ring. Horse showing is an exercise in mental toughness.
So, I found myself wondering what parents do to help their kids develop that mental toughness? The short answer: I don’t really know. It’s different for each child and what works best for mine has changed as her riding skills and age develop.
These are the fail safes that are working for us, so far:
I’m there as a support for my child.
When she needs it. Often times, she doesn’t. For me, that usually means simply reminding my daughter to love her pony and have fun.
I appreciate that I hired a trainer.
We learned from experience: If you don’t fully trust a trainer, get a new one. Then let them do what they do best to support your child, which means…
Get out of the way of the trainer and athlete.
Once my daughter gets on the horse, I move to the side, away from the gate, and keep my mouth shut. I defer all riding related items to her trainer. My job at the show is to sign checks, hold her pony, video her round, and make sure she stays hydrated and fed. Some of those jobs more than others.
I stay away from other parents if they don’t make me feel positive.
You know the ones, the parents who get overly competitive, offer up passive aggressive “tips,” or just generally suck the happiness out of horse showing. I avoid those people like the plague.
I control my own nerves.
There are few things more nerve-wracking than watching your child ride into the show ring where it’s just them and their pony against the course. Especially at an event like Pony Finals. Transferring that anxiety to my daughter and those around us isn’t going to help. I try to let that anxiety go and lighten up. If that doesn’t work, I get a quiet seat away from others.
But, most of all, I try to enjoy the moment.
Seeing your kid work so hard for something and grow as a person and a competitor—well, that’s a moment I never want to miss. Even if it gives me a few grey hairs in the process.
‘Til next year, Pony Finals. It’s been real.