On the morning of July 4th, we loaded up one small pony, what seemed like a ton of red-white-and-blue decorations, our 4-year-old son, Wesley, and ourselves to drive into the middle of our hometown of Healdsburg, Calif. We were there to participate in the annual children’s parade, but while most kids were going to be riding scooters, bikes or tricycles, Wesley going to ride his wonderful pony, Little Bit.
We try to always welcome people to our Phoenix Farm and to take the time to educate them about what we do and about the animals with whom we share our life. But I never cease to be amazed how foreign animals that aren’t dogs or cats are to people these days. Their unfamiliarity is even more noticeable when you actually take your horses somewhere else.
We arrived early to be sure we could easily park the trailer at the downtown plaza, and we then took Little Bit out to acclimate him to the situation. Instantly, we attracted visitors. Of course, he is a ridiculously adorable pony (whom Heather had spent the early morning hours bathing and decorating), but there was clearly a novelty aspect too. We spent a good two hours chatting with passers-by and their kids, and they wanted to admire, pet and cuddle Little Bit.
There were a lot of “Muggle” questions: “Is that a pony?” “Is he full grown?” “Can we pet him?”
But we noticed an odd trend, especially since Healdsburg is a largely rural community. (There are nearly 20,000 horses in Sonoma County, plus several thousand cattle and other livestock.)
Most of the kids, and not just the tiny ones, went straight for Little Bit’s eyes or his nose. Heather would say politely, “Hey Sweetie, be careful not to poke him in the eye. Why don’t you pet his shoulder?” But after the 20th time or so we started to wonder what the deal was? Do they not understand that he’s a living, breathing creature? That he, like them, doesn’t care to be poked in the eye? Surely some of these kids have dogs or cats at home? Do they get to poke them in the eye?
My meditations on this topic increased when we started the actual parade. We were asked to lead the parade (since Little Bit was the only pony), and Heather ended up spending the entire parade walking behind Little Bit with her arms spread out wide, gently but constantly reminding the pack of kids behind us that they needed to not run in to Little Bit with their scooters and bikes. The kids were reasonably obedient about it, but they were clearly confused, as though, again, they couldn’t understand why the pony would have an issue with getting a bike wheel rammed into his backside.
Because Little Bit is the World’s Greatest Pony, he handled all of it with great aplomb, and I’d like to believe that he was an excellent ambassador for his species. Still, animals do not care to be poked in the eye or run over by bikes.
But, as we move forward in this century, this July 4th parade experience reminded me that, as the rest of our population moves further and further away from animals, farms and nature, reaching out and drawing in our next generation of riders and horseman is going to be ever more challenging. In addition, we’re going to need to educate their parents as well as the kids, to ensure that they too become ethical, educated horse owners.