One of my finest parenting moments was the day I decided my daughter, who was six years old, was ready to take the reins of our 16-hand (quite large) Tennesee Walker, Mack.
Eva had been riding in front of me, sharing a saddle, for a couple of years, and over time, I had handed the reins to her to steer. She was comfortable with the horse, and he was with her. Everything seemed just fine.
Any horse-loving parent dreams of the day their child will graduate to their first solo ride. It’s a big rite of passage, up there with potty training and first pee-wee soccer goals. And you know, in our excitement to share the big wide world, we often introduce these things way too early. So, can you really blame me for one day deciding that Eva was ready to steer Mack around the wide-open yard for a few circles, with me on the ground, puffing my chest proudly while giving encouraging direction?
Eva steered Mack around the yard for a few minutes. This was good, and felt like a big coup in my parenting world – my daughter’s first solo ride on a horse. The self-confidence we were cultivating. What a moment.
It didn’t take long for Mack to begin to test Eva’s amateur ability. Mack stopped unquestioningly taking direction, and slowly began to manipulate the situation closer to the (stupidly) open gate leading to the long driveway out. I called out to Eva to turn him hard, but her skinny arms were no match for his big, strong neck.
Mack is not a bad or mean horse. He just saw an opportunity. An open gate, a road leading back to a farm a few miles away where he had spent the winter and made some nice friends, and a little girl holding the reins with weak muscles and no real experience. This was a no-brainer. Mack began to pick up speed.
There is a special feeling you get when you watch an animal of yours run away up the road. It takes only a second to assess the fact that they are much faster on foot than you are. You realize that without the boundaries of fencing, this chase could take place over miles of fields and woods, not all of it paved for a vehicle. You factor in a scared little girl and your heart plummets to your diaphragm and stays there, beating hard.
Luckily, my teenage son, Ben, was in the yard with us, and as Mack began trotting up the drive, and I began my useless attempt to follow, I yelled at him to get a car. In a moment I was hopping in the passenger seat as he swooped past in the black Altima and we began the chase.
It was about a mile when we caught sight of Mack and Eva. Mack’s head was high, and he was moving along at a brisk canter now, but luckily still in the grassy edge hugging the side of the gravel road. Other than keeping my fingers crossed that he wouldn’t veer into the wide open field next to him, I had no plan of what to do when we caught up. Any attempt to intervene in their course could make things much, much worse.
This sight, of Eva hunched and crying on a runaway Mack, will stay seared in my brain forever, as will what happened next. And here I interject a spiritual lesson:
Every single one of us, at some time or other, even if you don’t ride, has been on a runaway horse. Maybe you’re riding a situation that seems to have a power of its own, and you feel out of control, scared, confused, or heading in a direction that is not of your choosing.
You are on a runaway horse.
Perhaps you feel weak, like your skills are just not up to the task of pulling in the reins and retaking control. You feel like it’s impossible to change your trajectory.
You are on a runaway horse.
You have two basic choices: first, you can hang on. Perhaps you look down and decide it’s not worth jumping off and risking a rough landing in the gravel or even a painful injury and long recovery. Maybe the horse will slow down. Or change course to a safe place. Maybe somehow you’ll brainstorm a way to recover control. Sometimes staying on the horse’s back and riding it out seems like the best choice.
But, sometimes the risk of real danger in the road ahead is stronger. Maybe you even see it. Your horse is heading toward a wooded area thick with trees and low hanging branches. Perhaps there’s a steep ravine, or even a cliff ahead. An out-of control animal isn’t always thinking logically, and certainly not with your safety in mind. Sometimes, the safest and bravest choice is to loosen your grip, close your eyes, and leap.
I think the gods looked down and saw the situation and my lack of ideas and decided to throw a terrified mom a lucky break. As Eva bounced atop Mack, small and scared, she began to tilt off to one side. A little more, a little more…slowly she slipped off the saddle and fell to the grass. She sat up. My heart rebounded back up to my chest, now floating with gratitude and relief. Eva was safe.
In Eva’s situation, the decision was made for her. She lost her balance and fell, and that fall probably saved her. But often we feel forced to make a decision, to stay the course or leap. We never really know what waited ahead for us, and if our decision was best, but for it to be successful, we need to commit wholeheartedly. Either grab those reins and pull hard, or look for the softest landing we can find and jump with gusto. Half efforts have no effect on a running animal.
I know that after Eva slid off and sat up, sobbing, Mack did veer off into the open field, running far from our reach. We pulled up to Eva, and I yelled out the window, “Eva, are you all right?” She hiccuped and nodded, and while I know the better solution might have been to park, and sit next to her with a big calming hug, I told her we needed to follow Mack and we sped off. The hug would need to wait as we caught Mack by a fence line, and walked him home.
The good news is that Eva did try riding solo again. It took some time, but eventually she learned to love riding Mack, especially the feeling of a canter, this time with control. She is now 20 years old, and took Mack, who is well over 30 years old today, on what I believe will be their last ride this past summer. The two of them rode that very same road together, this time Eva was calm and relaxed, and old Mack’s head hung a little lower. I guess if we want them, we all get second chances.