When supportive parents become a liability – Coaches need to speak up
There are two types of supportive horse show parents and we have all encountered them:
1) Parents who push their children – These parents don’t hesitate to rush their children up the levels. They seem to forget about the child’s confidence and safety. Usually, the children of this parent group are slightly delusional about their abilities because their parents pump up their egos as the parents do not seem to grasp what skills are truly required to compete at the different levels. Coaches either love or hate these parents. If the parents have large sums of money, they are dream clients since they will spare no expense to get their child ‘made’ horses and ample lessons. However, the downside to coaching the offspring of pushy parents is that they expect you to get their child on an Olympic team by the time they leave Young Riders.
2) Parents who hold their children back – Safety first is the motto for this type of parent. They see Eventing as a dangerous sport and have respect for the process required to move up the levels. They understand that their children do not have a fraction of the experience of the average four-star rider. These parents are realistic because they will not indulge their children’s fantasies about how they would be as good as Phillip Dutton if only they had a better horse. These parents do not buy ‘made’ horses with the hope that the right mount will land their child on the next Olympic team. They set boundaries for their children: “You cannot upgrade to Preliminary until you are consistently competitive at Training level and your coach approves of the upgrade.” Coaches appreciate this type of realistic and sensible parent.
In the Eventing world, it is easy to decipher the type of parents behind the child. Too often, you hear accomplished riders and coaches commenting on how certain riders should be downgrading after witnessing scary cross-country riding; but nobody takes the time or has the guts to have the conversation with the parents and child.
There is no benefit to parents pushing their child beyond their abilities, but sometimes parents do not grasp the consequences of pushing their child in this sport. I believe it is a coach’s responsibility to try to tame pushy parents. Coaches have roles in this sport beyond coaching the students. As the ‘sport authorities’, that role includes educating parents on the risks of rushing up the levels for the sake of the child and the horse. When a rider makes mistakes at lower levels, the consequences for horse and rider are never as severe. Establishing skills at lower levels is easier than trying to hone them at the upper levels. A coach of mine once told me, “You are better to upgrade a year too late than a day too early.” Coaches, parents, and riders should live by this advice.
Producing confident and skilled riders will benefit everyone in the sport. A coach should never indulge a parent’s delusions to “feed the dream,” while making some extra money on a horse sale. Losing clients because they will not wait to upgrade until they are ready, is truly no loss at all. If coaches would refuse to work with students riding above their capabilities, the sport would be safer. I am not suggesting this is a rampant problem, but for the few instances where it is going on, it is worth talking about. We need to address every situation that can improve the sport.
My parents realized very early that Eventing is dangerous and being the worrywarts that they are, they were never keen on me upgrading. They always made sure that I was cruising safely around a level before moving onto the next. They would consult with my coaches to find out what level of competition I was capable of riding at safely. When I was 13-years-old, I was desperate to compete at the Training level because I felt that riding at a higher level would “class” me as a better rider. My mom said to me, “Why would you want to upgrade when you are not successful at your current level? You will not miraculously ride better at Training.” This reality check stung slightly although it made perfect sense. I had no concept of riding my horses to a good distance. As a result, my horses were baling me out quite a bit, which was fine at Pre-Training but would be troublesome at Training and beyond. After jumping around 38 Pre-Training events on a variety or horses (my dad keeps stats, so this a fact) my coach finally gave my mom the thumbs up to let me upgrade. My upgrade went smoothly. In hindsight, if I had upgraded when I wanted to, it would have been moderately terrifying for spectators.
Witness to a pushy parent
You cross paths with all kinds of people in this sport over the years. With the benefit of a bit of experience now behind me, one situation stands out as I think back. I witnessed first hand, a mother ruining her daughter’s riding aspirations. We rode at the same barn and this girl’s mother was hungry for her daughter to be top dog. At a local hunter/jumper show the girl’s mother made the choice to enter her in the highest jumper class. This young girl and her pony were not even schooling jumps at the height of this class. When the jumps were set, the girl expressed concern to her mother about the height of the jumps, however, the mother told her that she was fine. The girl and her pony made it over two jumps before the pony made a sliding stop into the fence and the girl flew off. I felt awful for her. She was unharmed but clearly shaken up by the ordeal. Her mother literally dusted the dirt off of her, threw her back on the pony and told her it was no big deal and to try again (since it was a schooling show, riders were allowed to jump in a class multiple times). Wiping her tears away, this girl tentatively went back into the ring to try again. At the exact same fence, her pony did the identical stop as the round before and she fell again. The poor girl was very rattled and would not get back on her pony. This was actually the last jumping round she ever did. This young girl tried a bit of dressage afterwards but her mother over-horsed her (surprise!) with a terrifying mount. After a few frightening rides on that horse, this girl was pretty much turned off riding completely. The mother blamed the jumping coach for not showing up to the jumper show to warm her up and she ultimately blamed the dressage coach for a bad clinic. But everyone else at the barn knew that several years of riding experience and confidence was blown to smithereens because of a ‘pushy parent’.
Just because your child meets the national federations’ and/or the FEI’s requirements to compete at a level does not mean that they are ready. Delaying your child’s upgrade until his/her coach gives them an honest stamp of approval will ensure that your child and his/her horse are never over-faced.
If you think your child is going to the Olympics or World Equestrian Games any time soon, think again… There is no rush in this sport, a majority of the top eventers in the world are older than 30.
In order to raise a successful eventer, never rush your child up the levels – multiple rails, cross-country refusals and falls are a good indicator that the rider and horse may be over-faced. Encourage your child to be the BEST at his/her current level with multiple solid rounds.
Being a good rider is not about what level you are riding at, it is about how well you are riding at your level.
What type of parents did you have? What are your thoughts on parents’ involvement in their children upgrading? What role do coaches have in holding back students? Share your parent stories with us…