The no­tion that chil­dren sim­ply go through a “horse phase” un­der­es­ti­mates how early ex­pe­ri­ences at the barn can pro­vide lessons that last a life­time.

EQUUS - - Contents - By El­iza McGraw

Qual­ity time

Horsepeo­ple tend to agree on the big stuff: plenty of hay, sun­shine and wa­ter for all. Take care of your tack. Mend fences. Af­ter that, peo­ple get a lit­tle more par­tic­u­lar. One per­son in­sists that bri­dles must be hung with reins draped in a fig­ure-eight; an­other shud­ders at the sight of a shaggy mane.

My pet peeve is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent be­cause it mainly comes up when I’m away from the barn. But it’s some­thing that I hear fairly fre­quently, es­pe­cially among the non-horsey par­ents with whom I spend a lot of time. Here it is: I re­ally dis­like when peo­ple talk about kids, young girls in par­tic­u­lar, go­ing through a “horse phase.”

Why is a love for horses seen as a phase, in­stead of as a gen­uine pas­sion or even as a valu­able pe­riod of per­sonal growth? The em­pha­sis is on the tran­sience, I think, and that is what gets to me. It’s as if th­ese par­ents be­lieve lov­ing horses is an in­con­ve­nient de­vel­op­men­tal stage, and their daugh­ters will re­turn to their senses even­tu­ally.

I’d like to re­frame this idea. I think that when kids fall in love with horses, they’re ac­tu­ally see­ing the world around them in a new way. Whether it’s a sum­mer spent with a friend who has a horse or three years of rid­ing lessons---those ex­pe­ri­ences with horses are im­por­tant.

My own two chil­dren never went through any phase. They take horses for granted, be­cause they’ve al­ways been around them, but nei­ther ever begged for their own pony or rid­ing lessons or ex­tra trips to the barn. They’ve en­joyed our fam­ily horses---my horses, re­ally--and they’ve in­ter­nal­ized the sac­ri­fice and joy horses bring. They’re high­school­ers now, both can ride and they are ex­cel­lent animal guardians. But I can’t point to a time in ei­ther of their lives when they were par­tic­u­larly be­sot­ted with horses, just as I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t.

The only way I can rec­on­cile the idea of a horse phase is to think of it this way: Some peo­ple love horses in a cyclic way, like the phases of the moon. Some­times I’m at the barn to see my 26-year-old Paint mare, Su­gar, when a woman who rode as a child will show up to visit her friend's horse. The woman en­joys sim­ply be­ing around a barn again, and she of­ten stops at the store on the way to buy some car­rots or an ap­ple to share with the horses. This is a per­son who is drawn back to horses. Su­gar is half-leased right now to a grand­mother who takes her on long trail rides. She uses my mare to teach her young grand­child about horses, too. Su­gar helps each of them with dif­fer­ent phases of the cy­cle.

Any child who’s lucky enough to spend real time with horses gains em­pa­thy and that all-im­por­tant sen­sa­tion of be­ing around some­thing big­ger than her­self, lit­er­ally and sym­bol­i­cally. Horses teach chil­dren about fear and hu­mil­ity; they see how some­thing big and strong can shake at the sight of a skit­ter­ing pa­per bag. Horses teach chil­dren about power and in­tro­duce them to the ex­hil­a­rat­ing feel­ing that comes from con­trol­ling an animal with enor­mous phys­i­cal po­ten­tial. And horses teach chil­dren about the beauty in­her­ent in life’s rhythms, both when they are rid­ing and while they are go­ing about the rou­tines of horse­keep­ing.

So please, hu­mor me. Help me con­vince peo­ple not to de­scribe the time chil­dren spend with horses as “a phase.” Be­cause ex­pe­ri­ence with horses isn’t some­thing you go through. Whether it lasts for weeks, months or decades, it pro­vides you with lessons that stay with you for life.

DOWN­PLAYED: “Why is a love for horses seen as a phase in­stead of as a gen­uine pas­sion or even as a valu­able pe­riod of per­sonal growth?” asks El­iza McGraw, shown here aboard her mare Su­gar.

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