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