I feared the worst.
My 11-year-old son had never been horseback riding, and he was making his first attempt in front of a dozen classmates.
Connor and I were at a youth camp in East Texas last weekend for a father-son retreat sponsored by his school.
Now, I’m not real keen on horseback riding myself. I’ve only been a handful of times, most recently almost 40 years ago.
Horses scare me, to be honest. They’re big and seem to have a mind of their own. Once as a kid, I remember our family going horseback riding, and my dad’s horse suddenly bolted from the pack and broke into a flat-out sprint. My dad tried to hold on, flapping on the saddle like a rag doll, until the horse settled down.
So I was nervous about Connor getting on his first horse.
Introducing Nocona and Pig
These days, horse instructors make riders wear a helmet – good idea. Connor and I strapped on our helmets like we were going for a bike ride and waited with our group for our horse assignments.
Connor got Nocona, a pretty, mid-sized, brown-and-white mare. He seemed docile as Connor stuck his left foot in the stirrup and hoisted himself (with a little help from the instructor) onto the saddle.
So far, so good.
Next, I mounted my horse, oddly named Pig. He was black, shiny and muscular.
“How much does he weigh?” I asked.
“About 1,200 pounds,” the instructor said.
Oh. That’s about five times as much as me. I didn’t want to mess with Pig.
All the kids and their dads – two dozen of us – started riding single file down a trail. I was right behind Connor.
“You all right?” I yelled.
“Doing OK?” I asked for reassurance. “Not scared?”
Clearly, I was more nervous than Connor. I’d seen horses act erratically; he never had. And that was a good thing for a first-time rider.
My fear becomes reality – for someone else’s kid
We sauntered about a quarter-mile down a dusty trail and into a pasture. Now, the instructors wanted us to break into four groups.
Here’s where I really got nervous. For the first time, we weren’t just sitting atop the horse passively and walking in a line.
The instructors told us how to make the horse go left or right (pull one direction or the other on the reins), stop (pull back on reins) or go forward (kick the horse in the sides with both feet).
I worried that one of the horses – maybe mine, maybe Connor’s, maybe someone else’s – would wildly buck or tear across the pasture.
Just the opposite. One boy’s horse wouldn’t move at all. Instead of turning with the other horses in his group and forming a new line, the horse just sat there, as if he was testing the young rider.
“Pull the reins to the right,” the teenage girl leading the group said.
The boy was too gentle in his pulling and the horse too stubborn.
“Pull harder,” she said. “It’s OK, you won’t hurt him.”
Reluctantly, the horse turned his head to the right, but his body didn’t follow.
“Now, kick him in the side,” the instructor. “Do it hard. You won’t hurt him. These horses are big.”
The boy tried three times without success.
“Come on, Danny,” the boy’s father encouraged him. “You can do it.”
The pressure of the situation – a first-time rider with 24 people staring at him – was too much. The boy started crying.
Now this is what I feared from Connor. He’s not prone to crying. He’s not prone to panicking and losing his cool when he gets frustrated.
But, then, he’s never been on a horse before either. And I could see the scenario above easily playing out.
Finally, the stymied boy overcame his hesitation and gave the horse a good boot in the side. It got the message and joined the rest of the group.
No one else had any trouble with their horse. We formed into a square C around some longhorn cattle. Our goal: drive the cattle about 100 yards down the pasture.
This seemed like a tall order for some first-time riders. But the 10 longhorns had been prepped and were good sports. They casually loped along in the center of the C with little encouragement from the horses or instructors.
“This is going really smoothly,” the girl leading us said.
We completed our mission with the cattle, then got back on the dirt trail and headed for the barn.
Again, Connor seemed perfectly at ease, and his horse did beautifully. We finished our ride, dismounted and took off our helmets.
“Cool,” Connor said.
“You liked it?” I asked.
“Yeah, it was awesome. We should do it again.”
Surprise, surprise. This is a city boy accustomed to sleeping late and playing videos games, not waking up early and riding a farm animal.
I was proud of Connor. Sometimes kids surprise us – in a good way. This was one of those times.
I’ll remember it forever.
It’s good to expose kids to new experiences, even when we’re not sure how they’ll do. They may succeed or they may fail. Either way, they learn lessons. And we learn something about our kid.