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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and PhD's: Horsing around
September 23, 2009 - 8:47am

My mom grew up on a ranch, and she made sure when my brother and I were old enough, we learned how to ride horses. We both took lessons on a weekly basis for years, between the ages of about 8 and 14. English riding and jumping, trail riding with western saddles, even some bareback – we both loved it. Then I stopped as high school life got too busy and, until a week ago, hadn’t been on a horse since. This semester, I happened to notice an advertisement inviting new members to the university equestrian club (I never knew it existed before!). With my positive memories of riding in mind, in amazement that a suburban university can offer such an amazing (and inexpensive) opportunity, and in the hopes some exercise in an unusual but somewhat familiar venue, I joined the club.

Here are a few random things I’ve noticed so far:

1. I entered the room on the first meeting to find that of the +/-50 other people there, only two were male. Even with the awareness of the whole “pre-teen girls love horses” phenomenon, no-one could help but be struck by that ratio. What is it about horses that preferentially draws girls (and women) so strongly? Lise Eliot has recently written a book with interesting-looking insights into development of gender differences. Haven’t read it yet, but it’s probably got light to shine on this. I was also intrigued to discover that, of the two men members (menbers?) at the meeting, one turned out to be the club’s president. He called everyone to order: “Ok, guys!” (I’m not sure whether that irony was lost on the crowd).

2. A panel of 20 undergraduate student officers runs the club. These students are involved at every level: acquiring the horses; training the horses; training, organizing and helping club members to clean and feed the horses; staying on top of horse health and working with vets for more serious sicknesses and injuries; taking care of and ordering equipment; teaching lessons to club members; raising money and keeping track of finances. The officers represent a concentrated pool of hugely knowledgeable and capable horse handlers; I presume most of them have chosen to be around horses for years and years (and despite full class loads, they are consumed with horses, spending most of their non-class time at the barn). For many their childhood passion is now blossoming into a career: most members I’ve met so far are majoring in animal science; in that major about a third go on to vet school. I’m eager to discover where these students found their horse passions as I get to know them more.

3. I am enjoying having students teach me. I’m a young-looking 40(ish) - my grey hairs camouflage well – but still I stand out as a non-traditional member and I see the students trying to figure me out before they finally ask me what my major is. (I’m not the only faculty member of the club, but us old folk are a small percentage of the membership). I’ve worked with students a lot, but rarely in the role where they truly are the experts and I’m the novice. I enjoy seeing their confidence; none of them seem intimidated by me being older. Also, I note their understanding and regular use of each other’s expertise: for e.g. in a little lesson on tacking up the horses: “I don’t know why this one is designed this way, but if you’re really interested in styles of bits (the metal piece of the bridle that goes in the horse’s mouth), you should ask Jasmine about that, she knows all about bits!

4. These students know how to handle animals. Many of them also have (well-trained!) dogs that they bring along to the barn with them. They approach animals confidently and assertively, with a definite aura that they are in charge. Rogue behavior is nipped quickly, but I also hear lots of praise, and friendly nice voices. Hmm… There are some good young children parenting skills here, skills that took me years to figure out with my kids. I’m keeping my ears and eyes open for pointers!

5. It has been a long time since I last learned directly alongside undergraduate peers. It’s humbling to be aware that some of my learning skills – especially memory-related! – are not quite as sharp. It’s also rewarding to see that some of the things I learned so long ago and haven’t thought about since come back almost magically with just the tiniest prompt. I think about this as I push my kids to keep up their suite of activities – music, languages, dance, (maybe I’ll even encourage them to start horseback riding lessons). These things they learn and experience now may well be activities that, even if they don’t immediately inspire the course of their lives, my kids will feel comfortable coming back to and enjoying again in the future.


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