My son, Wesley, turns 4 this month, a time period that’s a long one for a relationship with a horse but just a short time in a relationship with a child. I have two horses who’ve been with me longer than Wesley has been, and I often consider how my experiences with them, and other horses, affects my relationship with my son, and vice versa.
The first thing that having a child has helped me with is patience, with myself and with my horses. Wesley has emphasized to me that children aren’t born knowing how to communicate in whatever language we speak—and that horses only ever learn the meaning of a few basic words.
So we have to be patient with both horses’ and children’s lack of understanding—of our directions, of our rules, and even of our praise—and we must always ask ourselves how to express these things better, or differently. Mentally, a horse really is a lot like a very young child—if nothing else, they can each have temper tantrums.
Similarly, being a father has increased my empathy for our horses. Experiencing life through a child’s eyes forces you to see life as others see it. Since a small child can’t communicate with words, you have to figure out what they want or what they’re worrying about through body language and other forms of non-verbal communication. And when you see your child experiencing new things with joy or fear, you realize how horses see a lot of their lives. It’s reminded me that life for horses involves a lot of surprise and anxiety.
Being a father has definitely made me a better competitor. Not less intense, but far less easily unraveled by mistakes or misfortunes. Whenever I’m disappointed in my own or my horses’ performance or placing, Wesley is there when I get back to the barn or the trailer to ask, “Daddy, will you play with me?” or just to announce, “I need a juice box.” Whether I’ve won or lost, I’m still his daddy.
That leads me to probably the most important thing that fatherhood has done for my horsemanship—it’s reminded of what’s really important in life. I’m devoted to the development and welfare of our horses, but my son is still more important than any of them.
I think that being a horseman makes me a better father too. Horses have taught me to try hard to be patient, they’ve taught me empathy, and they’ve given me a sense of how to teach and support Wesley.
I just hope that, someday and in some way, horses will do for him some of the things that they’ve done for me over the course of my life.
John Strassburger, Performance Editor