Women, men, girls and boys compete on equal terms in the equestrian sports and it’s no secret that females dominate the sport by numbers. But it’s also no secret that we have a CONFIDENCE CRISIS in young women and girls in sports and the world at large. Coaches, in particular, have a responsibility beyond the riding ring or the soccer field or the basketball court. A coach can have a profound impact on a student’s life that goes far deeper than just teaching the technical aspects of any individual sport.
In honor of International Women’s Day my fellow equestrians, I’d like to tell a story.
The girl standing in front of me was brooding and sullen. Sam stood next to her mother with her arms crossed, clearly wanting to be anywhere but here in this stable. Her mother pulled me aside and told me her story. A few months prior, Sam had experienced a fall during a lesson. She had the wind badly knocked out of her and had broken two ribs. I felt bad for the girl because high-speed falls can be pretty traumatic. Unfortunately, when she couldn’t get back on right away, her coach berated her in front of the class telling her she had a choice – she either went to the hospital or she got back on. Struggling with pain and not wanting to let her coach down, she tried to get back on, but was having too much trouble breathing. One of the broken ribs had punctured a lung. This unleashed another tirade from her coach who called her useless, a wimp and a loser. Her mom was furious and pulled her daughter out of lessons.
Over the next few weeks and months, long after her ribs healed and the bruises faded, her mom noticed a change in her daughter. She said Sam had always been a happy girl with an affinity for animals, especially horses, but she now refused to go back to riding. She became depressed, her grades started falling and she withdrew from her friends and all the activities she used to love. Her mom realized that giving up something she loved under such awful circumstances was having a profound impact on her daughter. So she decided she needed to find a riding school. There were three in the area so she was visiting each one, meeting the coaches and watching lessons, because she knew how important her daughter’s next experience would be. I was pretty proud (and highly stressed) when she decided to entrust me with Sam and I took this job seriously, knowing that this was not just about posting a trot or a correct release over fences. It went far deeper than that.
The Long Road Back
To start, I chose Beauregard, a horse that I knew would be good for this job and made sure I could have him for every lesson. Then to take the pressure off, I told her we were doing nothing but grooming for the first few lessons. I do believe true horsemanship starts on the ground, but more importantly I knew this broken little girl needed to get to know me and trust me first. She was clearly unsure of herself and was quiet and tentative around me. She was, however, active and engaged when it came to Beauregard and he took to his role perfectly as the gentle silent listener. She learned all the parts of the horse and correct horsemanship skills, but our turning point really came when I read a “Tree Grows in Brooklyn” after she mentioned it was her favorite book. After that, she willingly discussed books, TV shows and told me about her life, school and her recovery from the injuries of the fall. After a few weeks, I told her I’d like her to get on, but we were only going to walk because I believe you must master the walk before you move on to the faster gaits. I don’t really believe that, but I knew her confidence had been so profoundly shaken that it would take some time. You cannot rush fear. After this slow and steady start, it didn’t take long at all to get her cantering and jumping cross rails again. She was an incredibly dedicated, tough, hard-working little rider and was a joy to teach.
A New Beginning
I taught her for about a year before her mom told me she was relocated for her job and the family had to move away from the area. Her last day was sad for all of us. Even though she had long ago graduated past Beauregard, I found her in his stall with her face buried in his mane, telling him she would never forget him. When her mom told her it was time to go, she came out of the stall with tears streaming down her face. She hugged me with a whispered goodbye and ran out to the car.
Two months later, I received a card with this letter inside:
“We’ve settled into our new house and Sam has started school. She’s not riding yet, but she’s made new friends and is playing in the school band. She’s back to the happy girl getting good grades that I always knew. I wanted to send you a note to thank you. Even if Sam never rides again she’ll always have those wonderful memories. Thank you for not only teaching my daughter to ride, but for giving her back her belief in herself.”
This was many, many years ago now and that letter has survived about 27 moves, 5 countries and 2 continents. And even if I lose it or it disintegrates with age, I will never forget that last sentence, because everybody wins when we – all of us – give girls the confidence to take on the world.