For the Amateur Arabian Horse Exhibitor


Occasionally we hear some pretty cool stuff about families, support groups, and friends who are doing some great things for their amateur peers.  We are always asking those folks to share with us, and in this case, we were able to convince Keith Middleton to tell us a little about his role as a "Horse Show Parent."

A Parents' Role

Parents always want the best for their children.  From that magic moment in the delivery room, or even before, we spend countless hours in the wee hours of the morning wondering what we can do to ensure that they have every opportunity to realize their potential.  How can we mold them into a well rounded person with values, varied interests, and the necessary skills to succeed in their life?  What can we do to help them determine how they will define success?

I worried about how we would afford college.  I wondered if I could be the role model that I wanted to be.  I never could have believed that I would one day worry about how we could afford a quality show horse, let alone the training costs.  When Lisa (my daughter) first started taking riding lessons, at eight years old, it started an activity to provide an interest outside of school.  If she just would have practiced her piano lessons, none of this would have happened!  We had never had pets and had no thoughts of ever owning a horse (a what?!?).  We did not even know there were horse shows.

We were extremely lucky to have wonderful people to help us along the way.  This, coupled with our extreme lack of knowledge to begin with, may have made it possible for us to observe and learn about what it takes to maximize the enjoyment and success of a child who wants to show horses.  

As a parent, there are four things that I feel have been important to Lisa's success and enjoyment with her horses:

           Get help

          Do not let winning be important to you

          Let winning be important to your child

          Allow your child to realize their potential

I believe any parent can benefit from making these prominent factors in the way you approach any activity that your child decides to participate in.

Get help

In our case, it was obvious that we had to have constant help if Lisa was going to learn, enjoy, and be safe in her equestrian endeavors.  Ruth, my wife, and I were dumb as rocks when it came to horses.  Only after years of observation have we moved through the stages of being dumber than fence posts, to possibly having the collective intelligence of sophisticated carrots...as long as you don't ask Lisa's opinion!  However, my personal observation and experience also indicates that there are few parents who can effectively teach their children, even when they possess the necessary knowledge.

I have seen many instances where the very precious relationship between a child and a parent was threatened and ultimately compromised due to the tensions of competition and teaching.  As a parent, your real role in any activity is to support your child, but not necessarily to teach them.  Besides, this is an opportunity to have great fun and meet wonderful people; do not jeopardize these things by trying to do too much.  Further, if your child progresses, at some point a change in instructor will probably be necessary to maintain their interest and allow them to continue to succeed.  As a parent, you can support them and help to reinforce the things that they are learning when the instructor is not there, but if your child is succeeding, they almost certainly will eventually know more than you.

We were extremely fortunate to have the right people to help us at the right time.  I learned very early that it was extremely important to have an instructor who was not only interested in helping our child to learn, but also accepted that child as a person.  We made our first instructor change out of necessity due to a relocation.  After talking to several instructors, we ended up choosing (and staying with) one who did not view the conversation as me conducting an interview but rather as an opportunity to meet my daughter and find out what she had done and wanted to do.

Do not let winning be important to you

One of my greatest fears in this endeavor was that I would become a "Little League parent."  You know the ones that I'm talking about.  They are upset with the umpire's calls...I mean the judges placing.  They start to second guess the coach...er, the trainer.  Ultimately, they may even directly or indirectly criticize their own child because they did not win!  This final expression is masked by the implication that the child did not try their hardest, but for the parents its really about winning.  This is one of the most disgusting conduct that I have ever seen in a parent at children's activities.

If your child progresses through 4-H and smaller shows with success, it is easy to get caught up in watching them win...and wanting to move on to "bigger and better."  About three years into Lisa's show career, I caught myself worrying about her winning and losing.  Honestly, I do not remember if I woke up by myself or if Lisa's instructor psychologically (or physically!) slapped me upside the head, but somewhere along the way I realized what an idiot I was becoming.   I was becoming that "Little League parent."

That is when I adopted a personal rule.  When warmups were finished and it was time to go into the ring, the last thing I would say to Lisa would be, "Have fun!While I said it to her, it was my own reminder.  I would not be watching her go into the ring if she was not trying her hardest through all the preparation, as well as in the ring.  On those days when she does not do her best, it may be that she is not having her best day, the horse may not be at its best, the judge may just not like the horse, or maybe there are just better horses in the ring.  I know there are no better riders and certainly none who is trying harder.  In any case, my role is still to enjoy it while it lasts and to be there to understand and support her when she comes out of the ring.  Its easy to be there when your child comes out a winner, but its far more important to be there with a sympathetic smile, and possibly a hug, when he or she comes out empty handed.

To this day, whether it is a small show to get ring time or a National Championship, if you are close by, I hope you hear me say, Have fun!  As a parent, if I am not there for the fun, I should not be there at all.  Winning and losing is not for fans or parents, it is for the exhibitors, and I promise to remain a fan and a parent as long as my child is an exhibitor.

Let winning be important to your child

While winning should not be the prime objective for a parent, it is naturally going to become important to your child.  During one of my self imposed therapy sessions with my daughter to help in getting my role in perspective, I explained to her that for me it had to be most important that she have fun.  She understood and supported my perspective and agreed that my approach was the right one.  However, she was also quick to provide her position on the subject as the exhibitor, Winning is fun.  Second place sucks!

 This concerned me a bit at first, and I quickly responded that I would be extremely disappointed, no down right mad, if I ever saw any temper tantrums or childish pouting when she did not do well.  She assured me that I had nothing to worry about and that she would always lose gracefully but never wanted to go into the ring if she did not have a chance to win.  Her sincerity was born out during the 1998 Regional Championships, when she struggled with a horse that was ailing.  There were countless hours spent with the trainer, adjusting her riding style to make it as comfortable as possible for the horse to perform.  There were also repeated sessions of crying in the dressing room after each failure in the ring.  The tears were of disappointment, but they were also out of the frustration of feeling that if she could be better, the horse could still put together one more ride.  This was the time that Id prepared myself for as a parent.  Because of my previous therapy, I was able to be there and understand but not present any pressure to win.  Finally, in the last class of the show, she was able to get that one last ride, pull everything together, and came out with a Top Five award.  As a parent, it was one of the single most rewarding experiences I have ever had.

There are many expressions regarding the importance of winning.  One of the most common ones is from Vince Lombardi, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing!Unfortunately, that may be true for professional athletes.  But remember, were talking about amateurs, and in this case children.  From a parent's perspective, I would rather embrace the perspective of Charles Schulz, who, through Charlie Brown said, "Winning isn't everything, but losing isn't anything."

You can help make sure that winning does not become the only thing but you should not try to make it unimportant to your child.  There are many facets of life where winning is important, and after all, one of our primary roles as parents is to teach our children about life.  Whether it is a business proposal, an election, or a job interview, there will be many circumstances in your child's life where winning is important.  In many cases, second place will not be considered successful.  Just as in showing a horse, the value in these setbacks will be to learn, adjust, and move on.  It took another horse, and two more years, but Lisa kept working hard, and won a Regional Championship.

 Allow your child to realize their potential

As I stated earlier, we were extremely fortunate to have wonderful people helping us throughout this endeavor.  Quite possibly the best part of the help was to have instructors who told us when it was time to move on, both to better horses and to new instructors.  In a couple of instances, an instructor sat me down to explain that in order to keep my daughter enthused and allow her to progress, we needed to move on to the next level. 

I was always adamant that we would keep our horses under our own care as I felt that it was important for my daughter to be involved in all aspects of the process.  For our situation and our daughter, this was a very sound approach to a point.  It kept Lisa very interested and maximized her learning experience.  However, the time came when the instructor explained to me that it was not possible to get the horse "right" if it was at home.  I resisted at first, but as so often happens to parents, I finally realized that I was wrong.  One factor in this realization was that the instructor was not proposing we put the horse in her care, but rather that we send the horse to a professional trainer.  We found that taking the horse to a professional trainer not only improved the horse through consistent work, but it also brought a different work ethic to the animal since it was no longer a "pet."  Our horses are still a part of our family, but our show horse, like a professional athlete, has an entirely different routine than the family dog.

Ultimately, I learned that it was not just the horse who benefited from a professional training environment.  Several of our friends questioned why it could be better for our daughter when she no longer had the responsibility of caring for the animal.  The fact is, it allowed her to concentrate on her riding and not to have to worry about fixing or training the horse.  The instructor who sent us away was absolutely correct.  Lisa's riding progressed because she was working on a horse that was ready to be ridden.  She had an excellent foundation, and she was able to address problems if they showed up, but her riding level was elevated because the horse was ready to be ridden when she got on.  We were also lucky to have a trainer who would let her work at the horse shows.  This allowed her to expand her knowledge of care and grooming beyond any level that she would have learned had we not given her this opportunity.

Taking a horse to a professional trainer, and eventually purchasing a horse that could be competitive at all levels were two of the most expensive decisions we (as Lisa's parents) have ever made.  However, as I look back at the effect its had on my daughter, I would do it all over again.   Where I once saw a timid, unsure but cute little girl, I now encounter a vibrant, self-confident young woman who possesses a set of values, varied interests, and an understanding of what will define her success.  I have no doubt that she will pursue and obtain that success.  As a parent, there is nothing more that I could ask for in the world.  I I am content to simply have fun watching her.

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