Both of my children have been riding and spending large chunks of their free time around various barns for over 10 years – most of their lives, really. And considering that we could have paid for a cottage in Muskoka with the money we’ve ‘invested’ in lessons and the care and feeding of our horseflesh, I decided to make an accounting of whether or not that investment was worth it.

We have a boy and a girl – what they call a millionaire’s family for some reason (by the way, if someone was supposed to send me a cheque for a million when the second one was born, it hasn’t arrived yet – just sayin’). The two sexes approach riding, and its potential benefits, in entirely different ways.

Generally speaking, when girls come for their first lesson, they’ve been dreaming about it for years. They have a stable of My Little Ponies, a Barbie who rides, and a few video games on the subject. Often, they are so emotionally overwrought by the entire experience, that they weep tears of joy through the whole first lesson. They come an hour early each week, in hopes of spending some extra time grooming, stay late at the end and always have a treat for their lesson pony. They will go home and draw pictures of their favorites and long for the day that they will have a horse of their very own.

Boys just want to go fast.

For the most part, my daughter worries about position, posture, technique and balance for their own sake. My son doesn’t care about any of these things – he just learned them so that he could go fast. But in the end, they both learned the lessons required to ride very well – which would be great, if it was 1850, and riding well was a basic life skill. I guess there’s always the chance that the Road Warrior days may come, and if post-apocalyptic movies have taught me anything, it’s that the people who rule the world after we blow it up all ride horses. But apart from that, there’s limited value in the skill itself, apart from recreation. Not much in the way of return on investment there.

So, I decided to look at the more ethereal benefits of their time spent at the barn. The most obvious advantage is the endless list of things that they might have been doing with that time if they weren’t riding. I’m sure that there is value in hanging out at the mall food court, texting catty things about the girl sitting next to you, to the girl sitting across from you – but I’m pretty glad she missed that. I usually see a half-dozen boys standing on the curb in front of the variety store, endlessly flipping over skateboards and not landing on them until someone twists an ankle – no loss there. Grandma Breen always said, ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’ The ponies have kept them far from idle.

Critics have long criticized (because that’s what they do) our school system for sorting kids by age. The thinking is that their social development is actually stunted, because they spend too much time with people as immature as they are. When everyone around you is at the same level of social development, the group loses perspective, they have no clear leadership or pecking order, and they often make poor group choices. Lord of the Flies is an excellent example; the fact that Justin Bieber has a career is another. One of the best things about the barn, is that children need to interact with teenagers, and in turn with adults.
Multi-generational cooperation and compromise used to be very common, and is very valuable. Both of our children function much better in groups, due to their stable training.

Legend has it that Winston Churchill once told his daughter to stop worrying so much and to concentrate on her horsemanship. The idea being that if she learned the lessons of good horsemanship – discipline, kindness, patience, determination, compromise and the like – that all of her other problems would take care of themselves. There’s no question in my mind, that this is absolutely true. A horse is gentle, unless you treat it poorly, at which point it can kill you. The very act of riding is compromise in motion. Like people, each one has its own personality, and a rider’s ability to understand that, deal with that, and overcome that – is a life lesson with endless ramifications. I knew an older British woman who insisted that horses ‘taught her manners.’

So, if the original question was whether or not the decade of investment of having two kids on horseback was worth it, the answer is a resounding yes. I honestly believe that they are better human beings for the experience; and will continue to be, whether they continue to ride after they carry on with their own lives or not.

No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle. – Winston Churchill.