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Are Toddlers Just Green Horses? A Quandary 

Photo 53153694 | Horse Child © Juliasha |

Having ridden my fair share of young or newly started horses “just back from the cowboy” in my youth, I thought I’d come into parenting my toddler with a few techniques I could use.

That’s not to say that children should be treated like horses, or vice versa. The cost, alone, is prohibitive. But at three years of age, respectively, the two have plenty in common. 

Taking your diaper off and running naked around the house, for example, is the toddler equivalent of flipping your tail over your back and snort-prancing around the ring for no discernable reason. It certainly feels good in the moment, and young horses, like young children, are nothing if not rampant hedonists. 

That’s one reason it’s advisable to keep things simple in parenting and in training. When working with young horses, clear, uncomplicated communication is paramount. Go forward. Respect the hand. Don’t run off when mounting. 

This theory can also be applied to small children, who benefit from similarly stripped-down directives, with a few social niceties sprinkled in for good measure. “Hold my hand, please.” “Let’s use the potty.” “Don’t put sidewalk chalk in your nose. (Please. But seriously, don’t.)” 

When it comes to toddlers, though, this approach can go a little sideways.

Equines have been conditioned since domestication, eons ago, to seek out a livable solution with human beings. Call it the, ‘you-feed-and-shelter-me, I’ll-plow-this-field-and-pull-you-to-church’ arrangement. And so, when a young horse fails to move forward from leg pressure, or turns to bite your foot when you get on, or thinks the new orange cone to the left of the ring is a neon bridge goblin come to take his soul back to the Underworld, it’s usually a result of miscommunication rather than malice. 

In most cases, horses are seeking the right answer. They are amenable to being taught what you want with the help of a cluck or kiss, or, failing that, a gentle tap of the whip or swish of a rope coil. By comparison, toddlers feel no such evolutionary obligation. 

“Please put your toys in the box so we can go” may seem like a clear, concise, parental request for a three-year-old child. It is likely that if the small blonde boy before you was instead a small blonde pony with hands, he would simply do as asked. Or failing that, he might admit his confusion at the task and gallop in circles for a bit, killing time, while he tries to work it out.

But what to do with the toddler, who perfectly understands the direction, but chooses instead to stage a full-scale, William Wallace-style rebellion, culminating in his reduction to a weepy pile of self-pity with no bones? Now, from this new horizontal vantage point, he is unable to receive secondary instructions, nor are you, as his designated caregiver, able to coax his shrieking, flailing, dead-weight in any direction whatsoever.

Your further attempts to command, cajole, or finally “cluck” him into action go unnoticed.

At this point, you may wonder, what exactly is going on here? Were the toys that numerous? The task of lifting them into a box that taxing? Could it be you’re the worst child-trainer in the world for asking him to bring a small modicum of order to the seemingly endless chaos he creates wherever he goes? No, you are not. 

In these moments, while glancing at your watch, secretly praying for a wine-appropriate hour, you, like me, may find yourself recalling the horse training days of your youth, and the simple clarity and camaraderie they provided. 

You can still remember, for instance, the feeling of opening your hand, of moving your feet in just the right way. Watching that alert, eager young horse at the end of the rope halter, ever-seeking to please, as she studies your body language like an attentive student. Then, searching, she chews, lowers her head slightly, and moves her own feet off in the correct direction. In this miraculous moment, both of you were bolstered by the power of connection in this simple, wordless exchange.

But that was then, and this is now. 

“Now” is 3 p.m. on a weekday, staring, hands on hips, at your incensed, lolling offspring lying prone amidst the detritus of his toy box. In this case, the parental manuals say, counting to three can provide a second line of defense, but choose wisely. Should you arrive at the dreaded #3 without a well thought-out consequence at hand, should you stutter in the delivery of it, or quaver ever so slightly, your toddler—neonate carnivore that he is—will smell blood in the water. 

Best case scenario: You’re in for an extended battle, crying (him first; you, quite possibly, second), anxiety, and racing thoughts. What do I do now? How did I get here? Am I being punished for the sins of another life?

Oh, he’s screaming again, hurling Magna-Tiles at the wall, and can’t even hear the faltering “I think we need a time-out!” you’re trying to dispense in a last-ditch effort to wrestle back the remaining shred of your authority. 

Were your child a horse, and this a training session gone wrong, you’d likely be in traction now; trampled, spun-off, or dragged to smithereens. Thankfully, however, he’s mad as a hornet but only three-feet-tall, albeit with a solid arm and a stubborn streak you’re beginning to recognize.

As you’re pondering all this, for some reason, you realize, the storm has suddenly passed.

He’s whimpering a little but otherwise quiet; eyes wide, face tear-streaked. You haven’t fared much better. Already replaying the afternoon’s incident for your therapist in your mind, you proffer a tissue as a kind of peace-offering to the tiny sniffler next to you. Then, you sigh deeply as you kneel down on the ground and begin dropping the blocks and cars into the box yourself. And you realize, you’re not alone. 

There’s a small hand on your shoulder, steadying for balance, and the small person attached to it is also stooping, bending, gathering up toys. Neither of you speaks a word, and for some reason, you’re reminded again of those dusty summer days in the arena, patiently watching and waiting for the horse at the end of your line to show some sign of recognition. A lick, a chew, the flick of an ear.  

He wipes his nose on his sleeve and lets another block drop into the box with a thud. And you think, Maybe not so different after all.

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