I’d like to sincerely wish a Happy Mother’s Day to all of the horse show moms who tirelessly support their young riders in the often expensive, sometimes frustrating, always passionate pursuit of their equestrian dream.
But…this isn’t that kind of reflection.
My mom, in fact, had passed long before I walked a horse through the in-gate of my first horse show at age 55.
When I was growing up in the late 50s and 60s, being labeled a Momma’s boy had a decidedly negative connotation to it. It meant you couldn’t handle things on your own, that you were always dependent on someone else to fight your battles.
I was called many things in my youth, but never a Momma’s boy, and I was proud that I had avoided that moniker.
My dad was stoic, cool. He never asked anyone for help that I can recall. He was a tradesman, and we took care of any and all repairs and improvements in our little post-war house in the suburbs of New York City ourselves. I learned the basics of everything to do with construction from him, and lived for his very reserved nods of approval.
My mom’s name was Helen, and she was into the arts. She was a professional ballerina, and later a teacher of ballet in a small studio Dad built in the basement of our home. She was also a lover of animals, the importance of which was lost on me until much later in life. She had the heart of a rescuer, if not always the means and the opportunity.
To me, it seemed obvious that I was my father’s son. I had learned a trade, was reasonably adept at it…and I did everything I could to avoid asking for help.
But as the layers of the onion of life got peeled back, I began to see things from a different perspective.
I always liked animals, but they were in the background. I would play with the neighbor’s dog, feed my mother’s cat, and occasionally dog-sit for an employer or a friend, but shied away from the responsibility of having a dog of my own.
At age 43 I took the plunge and got my first dog, a German Shepherd puppy we named Jessie. Jessie put a leash in my hand and taught me all about the great outdoors and the beauty that I had been looking right past in my relentless pursuit of the American dream.
A few years later, a construction project placed me at a Hunter/Jumper barn for several weeks and, to my surprise, I experienced a connection to the horses. I began to take riding lessons and pursued it with a passion.
How did my mom, a woman who had never been involved with horses, influence my new-found love?
I couldn’t see it right away, but a random incident a few years ago helped to crystallize the images of the influence she has had on my life all along. I was sitting in the backyard of a close friend who I had met through riding. Actually it was like being immersed in a Disney movie, with squirrels coming up on laps, looking over shoulders, hanging from screen doors: a real sensory overload for the uninitiated.
On this particular afternoon, we were feeding them nuts, and I was in awe of the connection I felt to the wildlife. Moreover, I was transformed back to my youth, when my mom had this incredible connection to the flora and fauna on our tiny plot, feeding and caring for squirrels and birds of all description.
For 20 years she took care of a neighborhood cat that had wandered in and never left, and she made our little yard into a botanical garden. We made fun of her squirrel stories as adolescents, but now the memory of them was pulling me closer as I embarked on a voyage of discovery into my own identity.
With the clarity of hindsight, I began to see how so much of the quiet shaping of the man I was to become, had come from my mom:
I got my entrepreneurial spirit from Mom.
Dad was a skilled and hard worker but it was Mom who hung her own shingle and put herself out there in the world at the ballet studio, which inspired me to the 30+ year self-employed career that ultimately allowed a horsey lifestyle.
My love of animals definitely came from my mom.
Dad tolerated them and was never unkind, but they brought pure joy to Mom, as they have to me in later life. She saw responsibility as a gift, not a burden, and her example proved valuable to me when I was faced with rehabilitating injured or ill horses.
Mom was a person of faith, whereas Dad was a little jaded by the sometimes harsh experience of inner city parochial school life in the early 20th century.
I learned the rituals of our religion as a child, but only fully embraced my spiritual side in later life. Mom never forced her beliefs on me, but possessed that quiet assurance that I wanted for myself and eventually accepted.
She communed with her creator in the quiet splendor of nature, and her example inspired me to do the same. She sent out love to the universe, and believed that the joy she got from her animals was the universe loving her back. These days I find that, similar to my mom’s experience, I am on my highest spiritual plane when in the company of my horses.
My mom had a spirit of adventure, and I definitely inherited that from her.
Starting in my early twenties, through the decades I flew small airplanes, sailed boats, did semi-extreme off-roading and rode my horses in eventing and jumper competitions. Mom supported and occasionally joined me in all of my hobbies, including riding one of my horses at age 84. Dad, on the other hand, offered support and interest but from a safe distance.
Mom was a social person, though not particularly outgoing and definitely not an extrovert. But she really came alive on the stage, or so I’m told (her days performing as a ballerina had ended by the time I came along.)
To my surprise, after an initial season learning to deal with show nerves, I found that (though during the actual riding of a course I was in my own world) I rather enjoyed being the center of attention for those few moments. When a show staff member would trudge across the field to where my trailer was parked to deliver a ribbon, I couldn’t help but think if this is how Mom felt getting flowers at curtain call.
I hope it was.
I grew up with two great parents, who both taught me life’s important lessons, mostly with me never realizing I was being taught.
Dad gave me the tools with which to make a living; Mom gave me the tools with which to live my life. She taught me, by example more than words, how to put the welfare of another before my own, and without that tool I wouldn’t have understood what it was to be a horseman. While Mom was not a horsewoman, by her influence I was able to become the horseman I was meant to be.
Mom has been gone for some time now, yet she is with me every day. Although she always wanted to, she never did teach me to dance, but I think she would have been pleased to see me dance with my horses in the dressage ring at the horse trials.
While I would have cringed at the thought of being a “Momma’s Boy” in junior high, I now wear the title proudly.
About the Author
Thomas Gumbrecht began riding at age 45 and eventually was a competitor in lower level eventing and jumpers. Now a small farm owner, he spends his time working with his APHA eventer DannyBoy, his OTTB mare Lola, training her for a second career, and teaching his grandson about the joy of horses. He enjoys writing to share some of life’s breakthroughs toward which his horses have guided him.