Anxiety,  Life,  Parenting

Riding It Out: Helping my daughter find her confidence through horses

I walked into a horse barn last night and the smell of my childhood wafted through the air, stung my eyes and filled my soul with the familiar…


As a child growing up with a father who (still) is a large animal veterinarian, I can tell you stories. Girrrrls (and boys), I got stories.


I used to bring jarred horse fetuses to school for Show ‘N Tell.
My dad would blow up latex surgical gloves like balloons for our birthdays.
I watched my dad perform surgery on a tiger when the circus literally came to town.

Yep, I got stories.

I grew up with a certain level of pride that my dad had the coolest job ever (in my eyes). While other dads were sitting at desks pushing paper (I thought), my dad had his entire arm up a pregnant horse’s ass checking on the baby foal inside.

Beat that, Amy’s Dad, the accountant.

I can’t imagine my dad being anything other than a veterinarian. It is just who he is. And this was confirmed when he visited my office once in Chicago, and I proudly showed him my desk filled with paper and folders. He took one look and winced, “Don’t you get bored?”

Well, pardon me. We can’t all spend our days delivering two-headed calfs and saving neighborhood hamsters, Doc.

My dad also traveled off and on internationally when we were young, escorting horses on planes to be delivered safely to their destination. Upon his return, we would always get trinkets from the country he went to. Little pens with boats that would float inside, moving up and down as you turned them over in your hands. Wooden dolls from Holland and Germany… These are the two items that are still vidid in my mind. I can feel them in my hands as I type this as well as the joy I felt over having something new that was from far away.


Apparently, my sister and I weren’t ready for the real thing yet.


Along with my dad healing horses, we also owned one. She was a quarter horse named Mickey and when we rode her, my dad didn’t even need to put a bridle or lead rope on to guide her. She would just follow him wherever he turned, like a puppy. In later years, my parents had a few thoroughbred race horses as well, which were a thrill to watch – especially when they won.


Mom with Mickey and her colt


My siblings enjoying a ride on Mickey.
Me, thoroughly enjoying riding Mickey as well.
(For the record, right before this shot, Mickey had stepped into a hole and flew back on her hind legs; I was clearly still recovering.)


When we were young, my siblings and I would take turns once in awhile going on “calls” with my dad. He would take us to work and we would start out at his clinic, where he would check in with his staff and the other vets and sit at his desk (for mere minutes). Then we were off to the farms. I have clear memories of standing aside as he wedged into stalls with these beautiful thousand-pound animals and poked and prodded them for answers, while soothing them in a caring but stern voice.

There is something about watching someone in their element that defines them wholly for you. I haven’t known my dad to be anything other than a veterinarian and I inherently know that is what he was born to do. I have never witnessed him unconfident, unsure or weak in his job. Never. With all the anxieties that I carry, I have never worried about my dad getting into a stall with a half-ton horse nor have I become nervous when he has entered a gated field with a mean old bull – both of which I’ve witnessed firsthand.

Who my father is slides so easily into what he does, as if he was always there. Since the moment he arrived.


Dad, Mickey and her colt.
Dad, like Ivy, also speaks dog fluently.
My dad on his friend’s horse, which sparked his interest in equine medicine. (He also told me not to post this photo, because he looks ridiculous.)

My dad lives in his element. A comfortable, familiar spot that I can’t imagine ever seemed unfamiliar to him at all.

So, maybe that is why I became so emotional watching my four, soon to be five, year old take her first riding lesson last night. The oh-so familiar smell of the barn and horses. Watching my baby arrive calmly and then seeing her fearlessly, excitedly mount this beautiful animal. An enormous rush of pride and relief and pure happiness filled my entire being, and it’s a feeling I don’t think will leave me for some time.

For as much as my baby girl is funny and sarcastic and outgoing and goofy in some areas of her life, she is equally (if not more) shy and skittish and anxious in others. She will not speak to much of her extended family, much less strangers. In that regard, she requires a lot of investment if you want to get to know her.

And people give up on her so easily.

I do understand, because it’s a lot of work to crack that shield of self-protection she enforces. So, when people actually do invest the time in her, the amount of love and gratitude I have for them multiplies tenfold.

Recently, my brother Ryan and his family visited us in St. Louis over spring break. I will be forever grateful Ryan didn’t give up on Ivy after she spent a good part of their initial visit barking like a dog on all fours. (Animals are her go-to persona when she’s faced with visitors.) But my brother didn’t give up on her, and he kept interacting with her in small bits until she was completely comfortable with him. By the time their visit was over, she was stuck to him like glue.

I understand how people don’t have the time for something like that though, the investment. Especially when we are having quick visits and there’s not a lot of time to connect with her. But as her mom, I will always invest in my daughter. And, as she’s about to embark on kindergarden in the fall, I felt we really needed to invest and work on her confidence. And, maybe we could find a way to relieve some of the paralyzing shyness that has worsened in the last few months.

Ivy has always loved animals. From the minute she was born, she has been completely at ease and comfortable with any kind of animal. She gets irritated at the zoo when she can’t climb in behind the wall with the elephants. She will approach any animal, big or small, with complete comfort as soon as she has permission.

And she has always had a particular love for horses.

The first time she wanted to ride a pony at a festival, Brian and I told each other our wait in the long line was going to be for naught. We just knew she wouldn’t let anyone touch her, much less pick her up and put her on the animal. And then walk her around a pen away from us? Not a chance. So, we were more than a little shocked that her desire to get on that horse far outweighed her fear of a stranger. She enthusiastically and emphatically reached out for that woman to pick her up the minute she was at the front of the line.

I knew early on that I wanted to get her into riding and the above experience confirmed my suspicion that she would enjoy it. I watched and waited until we felt she was ready, and then I researched and found a fantastic riding stable near us. Last night, we headed off for her first lesson.

On the way, I cheerfully (and repeatedly) told her how she’d have to go with her instructor alone, but we’d be close by watching. I wondered silently if her desire would again outweigh her fear. We pulled up to the farm and saw pens with goats and pigs and she was immediately excited. We got out of the car and she spotted some horses and squealed. We entered the barn and that kid walked in like she owned the place.

For the next hour or so, I watched my anxious, shy little girl in her element. In my dad’s element. In an element they both individually and wholly own. There was no trace of panic, only a slight shyness when first meeting her instructor. But that horse was no stranger to her. That horse belonged in her circle as if she was always there, an old friend she stumbled upon with pure comfort and familiarity.

When I had initially called the stable, I explained Ivy and my concerns. The manager listened patiently and when I was done (over-explaining), she calmly and cheerfully told me that horses would be the best thing for my girl. “When you’re that little and you have control over that big of an animal, you have no choice but to become confident,” she said.

As I watched this tiny little girl riding this tall, beautiful horse, I knew that woman was right. All this time, I have been searching for the key to Ivy’s safe place. I had no idea it would be on the back of a beautiful, 800-pound gentle giant.

As a parent, I think we are all winging it 95% of the time. Sometimes we make decisions that turn out wrong, most times we make decisions that simply keep our kids alive. Rarely do we make decisions that feel one hundred percent right and good.

Watching Ivy handle and care for that horse last night, I knew riding was the right and good decision. But I don’t necessarily think it was a decision that we had anything to do with other than logistics. Ivy would have found her way to horses, just as my dad found his way to being a veterinarian.

Mickey didn’t need a lead rope to follow my dad. She just knew that’s where she wanted to go.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.