Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Risk and Reward

Following up on Monday's blog post, "How Young is Too Young?," I thought I would address another issue that plagues many parents who want their kids to ride - how should falls be handled?

Every sport has its risks, and while we would love, as parents, to eliminate those risks, we also want our kids to grow up unafraid, and as well-rounded, tough individuals.  After all, the world is a scary place, and the only way to learn to deal with fear is to face it, and find ways to conquer it that are age appropriate.  Sometimes, it seems that there is a parental Murphy's Law in place: try to protect your kid in one area, and they find a way to hurt themselves somewhere else.  So, to stay sane and live a full life, we must simply accept a certain amount of risk with nearly everything we do.  The trick is to manage that risk, and find a way to learn from accidents when they happen.

Kids who ride horses frequently, with the intention of improving as riders, will eventually fall off.  [I am not talking about riding on a dude ranch once a year, on pony strings where the horses are chosen for their ability to walk quietly and ignore pretty much everything.  Those experiences are expressly designed to keep riders from falling off, and protect the ranch owner's liability.]  Riders who challenge themselves to get better will have to do things on horseback that throw them off balance, make them push their limits and ask their horses to do things they haven't yet done.  But if you choose a good instructor, and have chosen your horse carefully, the risks will be stepped up incrementally, so that the rider can face their fear, challenge their abilities and achieve their objectives - earning the right to ascend to the next level.  It is like allowing your child to take surfing lessons.  You know when you sign up that they will be wiping out and swallowing some ocean, but that doesn't mean you allow them to go out when the waves are 20 ft high.  You trust your instructor, and your instincts, to have good enough judgement to gradually increase the difficulty, so that the child isn't discouraged and doesn't get seriously injured.

So, there you are, watching your child take a riding lesson; they lose their balance, and hit the dirt.  What happens next is critical to how your child will deal with every unexpected setback that they have with horses.  Try very hard to control your emotions.  Most likely, your child will be more shocked, scared or angry than hurt.  They may cry, but they will get up.  As much as possible, let the instructor handle it.  They have dealt with it before, and as long as they aren't upset with the child, don't intervene.  When I have had kids fall, I calmly get them to their feet, check them over to make sure that nothing is broken, and then give them a pep talk, getting them back on as soon as they have calmed down.  I have had parents really freak out; and it is usually those kids that lose confidence afterward.  When a parent behaves as if the child narrowly avoided being eaten by a shark, the child is left to wonder how dangerous this activity really is, and doubt their own ability to handle it.  And this isn't good for their self esteem in any area of their life.  There is nothing worse to a kid than knowing that their parents believe that they can't handle something, especially something that they really want to try.

In all my years teaching, only once have I had a child break something so that they could not get back on.  This young girl was an excellent rider - one of my best ever.  Her mom also rode, and the girl's horse was a small Paint mare that they had bred themselves.  They had been having some difficulty with the mare though; she was lazy and a bit spoiled, and was always looking for a way out of work.  As a mount for the daughter, she was very much 'on probation' but hadn't done anything at that point to make us think she was dangerous. 

The day she fell off, they had come to my house for a lesson, which had gone very well.  We worked the mare for about an hour, and finished on a good note.  I told the girl 'good job' and told her to walk the mare out on a loose rein.  I was standing near the gate, talking to the mom, and the girl was on the opposite end of the arena, walking calmly, when the mare took off bucking, for no apparent reason.  Being relaxed and not expecting something like that, the girl was thrown.  I went to the girl, and the mom caught the horse (there were other riders in the arena, so the loose horse was a danger to them) and then she walked over to us.  We were both calm and matter of fact.  The girl was only temporarily upset - I think we were all shocked that the mare had chosen to do what she did - but it was apparent that she would need an x-ray for her arm.  I had to hand it to her mom - 100% in control, she did not blame the girl or the horse, she spoke to her daughter calmly and very matter-of-factly.  We gathered her up, got her to the car, and I took the horse.  It ended up that she had fractured her wrist, an injury that is pretty common from horseback riding falls. 

After much soul searching, it was decided that the little mare wasn't going to be suitable for the girl, and despite their attachment to her, they decided to sell her.  After finding her a good home, they purchased a POA that, while not always perfectly behaved, was much more willing to work than the Paint mare.  When I asked the girl later how she felt about what happened, she told me that she wasn't afraid of riding, but rather, that she realized that falling off wasn't the worst thing in the world.  Yeah, it hurt at the time, but she healed up and was riding again before her cast was off.  Fear of falling wasn't going to stop her from riding.  And she still hasn't stopped.  Since then, I have moved and her family has moved, but we have kept in touch.  It has been fantastic to watch this beautiful young woman continue to ride and challenge herself.  She now competes in dressage and eventing, but also excels in life, in no small part because she isn't afraid to take risks, and because her parents lovingly allow her to take them.

Not matter what you do, life will throw you curve balls.  It is how you handle them that makes all the difference.  You will find that your child will flourish when you model for them how to handle adversity: by staying calm and cool, and by shrugging off the fear that cripples us.  Only when we face great risk do we reap great rewards.