I am a cowboy’s daughter, and as a 42-year-old competitive dressage rider, I’m not ashamed to admit it. I rode before I walked—propped up in front of my dad in his 100-year-old Western saddle. Later, a demonic Shetland pony named Impy was my first (very own) equine partner; every tumble I took, my father said, got me closer to being a “real rider.”
As a tiny girl, I passed innumerable hours in my father’s pickup truck, traveling from farm to farm to help him with his work as a trainer and a farrier. My early jobs included keeping track of his daily appointments and handing him his tools. Later, I oozed with pride when he’d let me back a green horse for the first time or introduce leg yield or flying changes to a client’s young prospect. I have few memories of my childhood with him that do not involve horses; my father’s parenting and his horsemanship were the same thing.
But as a young teenager, I rebelled. No, I didn’t mess around with boys or take drugs—I started riding English. My dad groaned and made prissy “pinkies up” gestures at me as I donned my hunt coat and velvet cap and began posting the trot. But still, he beamed with pride as I won hunter classes with my blue-eyed former gymkhana Quarter Horse and, later, excelled in three-day eventing with my Appaloosa-Thoroughbred rescue project. The fact that I had chosen English tack did not, in my dad’s mind, change any of the basic rules: Ride with sympathetic hands and a quiet, hugging leg. Whisper your aids and don’t make extra “noise.” Be consistent and fair. Don’t be overly impressed by a spook, a buck or any other attempt to change the subject; just laugh it off. For every hour you ride your horse in the arena, spend an hour doing something else outside the arena. Ride away from the barn, just you and your horse out on the trail—that’s how you learn to trust each other. Most of all, appreciate and be worthy of the horse’s willing consent and voluntary partnership—the heart of the horse who gives you everything he’s got and the little twinkle in the eye of a horse who knows he just put in a breathtaking performance. It’s real, and it’s precious, but you can’t buy it; you can only hope to earn it and gratefully accept it when it comes.
For a decade, education, marriage and motherhood obscured horses from my life. When circumstances aligned and I took my first step back into the horse world by leasing a mount and seeking out a dressage trainer, I excitedly called my dad to report this news; he responded simply, “It’s about time.” Within a few years, I had bought my own horse and was actively competing in dressage, juggling riding with my full-time job and raising my twin son and daughter with my (patient and eternally supportive) husband. Both my father and I are delighted with the advent of a third generation of horsemanship in our family; my 13-year-old daughter is a successful hunter pony rider. She is a quiet, elegant and respectful rider. My father proudly reports to his weathered cowboy colleagues that although his granddaughter rides in an English saddle, she “speaks horse.” It’s the highest compliment he could ever bestow.
These days, my dad attends my dressage shows and my daughter’s hunter shows. He seeks out the farriers’ tent where he passes the time trading war stories and comparing bruised fingernails with the shoers. Recently, someone asked him if he was excited about the advancement of Western dressage; he chuckled and said (with only the subtlest hint of sarcasm in his voice), “Oh, yes, ma’am; training horses in a Western saddle is an exciting new idea.”
My father’s 100-year-old Western saddle is mine now. I ride my Third Level Oldenburg mare in it proudly, despite the curious looks I sometimes get when schooling half pass, renvers and piaffe! Am I the only competitive dressage rider out there who can chase a cow, turn a barrel or throw a rope? Probably not. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who has her cowboy father to thank for the foundation of horsemanship that makes me successful in my chosen discipline. This Father’s Day, I’m taking a moment to halt and salute.