Raise your hand if your dad carried hay bales for you? Water buckets? Drove the truck and trailer? Like so many horsey kids out there, I was bitten by the horse bug with no explanation. Neither of my parents knew anything about the animals, and while I was born in a rural area, I was miles away from pastures full of ponies.
And yet, when it happened, however it happened, my parents stepped up to support my crazy passion in whatever ways they could.
My father’s role was one of physical strength, mechanical know-how, and general willingness. I look back on the years of 4-H shows, riding lessons, and “free horses” now with the distinct realization that this man made it all possible–quietly, competently, and patiently. And I am profoundly grateful.
Perhaps that is part of the reason why horse dad Chad Oldfather’s wonderful book A MAN WALKS INTO A BARN: NAVIGATING FATHERHOOD IN THE FLAWED AND FASCINATING WORLD OF HORSES resonates so with me. That, and the fact that I am now the parent of a hockey-mad child myself, and its demands on a parent are directly comparable. In his funny, forthright memoir, Chad shares his experience of the pivotal role a father can play in the evolution of the child with a true and all-consuming passion–in his daughters’ case, horses and riding. His is an honest exploration of the support system that comes from behind the scenes, and how that not only affects the child’s experience, but ultimately, the parent’s own evolution. As he writes in the pages of his book,
Back when I signed Ada up for her first riding lesson I didn’t imagine myself to be doing anything more than that. She had been deeply in love with horses for over half of her short life. Riding lessons were the inevitable next step. I appreciated on an intellectual level that it would lead somewhere.
That it would lead to the development of a set of skills was no surprise. The extent to which it would immerse us in a community was. I’ve often thought of that community via the metaphor of a river, always the same, yet always changing. It’s wide, and it’s deep, and it’s been running for a long, long time. It has many tributaries, and a powerful current, and you needn’t get too far in for it to pick you up and carry you along.
You meet people on the river. Some of them took their first steps in when you did. There’s comfort in being with people who have the same questions and are learning the same things, and you bond with them. Others have been in the water for a long time. Many are wise and have a feel for things, and if you’re lucky one or two will guide you. They’ll teach you how to read the surface of the water, let you know where the rapids are, teach you how to navigate them. After a while you develop your own knowledge and share it with those who come after.
I had a chance to catch up with Chad as we neared this weekend’s recognition of Father’s Day, and I asked him how that holiday resonated as the parent of horse girls.
TSB: Did you ever spend Father’s Day in a barn or at a horse show?
CO: I can’t say for sure that we were ever at a horse show, though it wouldn’t surprise me. Thanks to the magic of the search function in my iPhone’s photo app, I can confirm something else that doesn’t surprise me: I absolutely have spent portions of Father’s Day in a barn—including, once, doing some riding myself. And it’s no surprise: probably the only holiday where I haven’t spent time in a horse barn is Thanksgiving, and that’s only because we spend Thanksgiving with my family in Minnesota and far from any horses my daughters have ridden. And of course it totally stands to reason: horses have been such a big part of fatherhood for me that there’s hardly a more appropriate place for me to spend time.
TSB: What is the most important lesson you learned as a “horse dad”?
CO: Probably that it’s so, so important to stay mindful of the balance between doing it for its own sake—for the love of horses that was the initial draw—and striving to achieve certain goals or milestones. I think it’s a positive thing to want to be good at whatever it is you’re passionate about, and it’s natural to look to achievements for validation. But it’s so easy to get focused on the external markers—winning things, qualifying for things, and so on—that you lose sight of the reasons you’re doing it and some of the fun goes away. Parents are just as susceptible to this—and I suspect a lot of people who work with young athletes would tell you parents seem to be more susceptible to it. But it’s better, I think, if we remind ourselves that the overall goal is something else. Think of it as happiness or enjoyment or something along those lines, in a way that recognizes that part of happiness can come from putting in the work to become good at something for its own sake.
TSB: What is the most important piece of advice you’d share with other “horse dads”?
CO: In addition to the lesson above, I’d note that it’s in a lot of people’s interest to tell you things you want to hear. I don’t think those people always realize they’re doing that, because we’re all good at telling ourselves stories to justify why things that are good for us are also good for other people. Find people you trust.
TSB: What is the best part about being a father to horse-crazy girls?
CO: There’s a lot that’s good about it, but for me the best part was that it gave me a reason to spend a lot of time with my daughters, and in a situation where, after the first few years anyway, they were the ones who really knew what was going on and what needed to be done, and I’d have to check with them to make sure I was doing things right—whether it was cleaning a bridle, rolling up a leg wrap, or putting something away. That, and seeing who they’ve become. I’m extraordinarily proud of each of them, and I’m grateful that they’ve made it look like we had some idea what we were doing.
TSB: You share a lot of memories in your book A MAN WALKS INTO A BARN. Tell us about one that didn’t make it into those pages.
CO: I can’t remember entirely whether this is in the book, but one moment I think of often came not long after we leased a horse named Sonny for Ada. This was her first lease, and she was probably ten. It was at Appy Orse Acres, where all of the dozens of horses live together in a large herd, which meant that riding them meant walking out into the herd to get them. Because she was so young I had to go out with her even though she was going to be the one doing everything so long as all went smoothly. But Sonny wasn’t being entirely cooperative, and I think a couple of the other horses were, whether intentionally or not, helping him. After a couple of frustrating minutes Ada very matter-of-factly said, “Dad, if you weren’t here right now I’d swear.” It was both funny and one of those small moments where as a parent you notice that there’s been this progression toward adulthood that had escaped your attention before.
Whether he is carrying hay bales, holding a horse, or not correcting us for letting out a curse word or two when things don’t quite go as planned, the horse dad is there to help make that horse dream come true. So this weekend, we celebrate him: We are offering A MAN WALKS INTO A BARN for 20% off plus free shipping from our online bookstore HorseandRiderBooks.com through Monday. THANK YOU, DADS.