He passes through our town on a Friday evening, stopping by on his way to join his wife and daughter at an equestrian event that starts the next morning. He can’t stay long — has already been on the road for more than four hours and still has an hour to go — but before he leaves we wonder. Could we come tomorrow morning and watch, too?
He’s one of those friends who becomes a part of your story, weaving into life’s narrative in profound ways, then disappearing for chapters on end until one day you turn the page and there he is again. Even before the pleasant sense of surprise has a chance to lift, you realize this page of this chapter really would have lacked something essential without him.
And life is busy, always busy, but we set aside the long list of to-dos, and we go. Here he is, in our story once again, and how can we not? The day is pleasant and overcast, and we drive, threading our way through red and gold patchwork hills, turning in at the gate to a sophisticated world of polished black boots and braided manes. We find our friend and warm to his wife’s welcoming smile — how many years has it been? a dozen at least? — and meet his thirteen year old daughter for the first time since she was a newborn.
She’s darling and eager, and still a beginner in the sport. This is her fourth competition, and the first her father has been able to attend, and when we arrive she’s focused, preparing for her first event of the weekend: dressage.
“Dressage” is the guiding of a horse through a series of complex maneuvers by slight movements of the rider’s hands, legs, and weight. It’s very precise, and judges look for subtleties as rider and horse move through a prescribed course of walking, trotting, and cantering. Yesterday she’d learned that she’d practiced the wrong test and had to spend the evening memorizing the correct one. I listen now as she rehearses the paces aloud for her coach, and I’m amazed by the intricacy of the test, impressed with her poise, and enamored with the elegance of the whole scene.
She knows this test. She’s ready. She enjoys performing, and her confidence shines in her smile. But as she’s warming up moments before entering the arena, her horse gets edgy. And then he bucks.
From where I stand, she seems to take it in stride. But what I don’t know is that he’s never bucked with her on his back before. And she’s terrified.
Her mother feels the weight of her daughter’s fear and watches the test from a distance. She can’t bear to come any closer. The rest of us stand beside the rail fence as she enters and circles the course until the judges give her the cue. Then she guides her horse into the ring and begins.
I stand beside her dad, taking pictures, and watching him watch her. I know this man’s story. Or, at least, I know enough of it to know that he has learned a lot the hard way. He’s been bowed low and has learned to lean, and he knows that the best gifts often come in unexpected and even unwanted packages. I see his love for this child in his eyes, a love strong enough to carry her and her horse through these paces, if life worked that way. But it doesn’t.
She’s nearing the end of her test when it happens. Her horse breaks stride, kicks his legs out behind. This horse who has never bucked with her on his back before today.
His wife steps up behind us and says, “Don’t say anything to her yet. I’ll meet her at the barn and talk to her.”
He nods, and she leaves, and I glance at his face as he watches his first-born finish her course, ride to the middle of the ring, and bow to the judges as the rules require. He knows what’s going on in her mind. Knows her humiliation and disappointment. And he says it softly.
“This is good.”
I raise an eyebrow. “What’s good?”
He nods toward her. “This. All of it. The discipline. The competition. But especially this.”
“Learning to fail?”
Yes, he says. Learning how to keep going. How to cope. How to live.
And I think of all the parents I’ve known who’ve lied, cheated, bribed, or finagled to make sure their children got to be first or best. Parents who wanted “the prize” at any cost, and modeled deceit to secure it. I think of those parents — perhaps at times I need only look in the mirror to see one? — and then I look at this man, this friend, who knows the value of pain, because he’s chosen to receive its good gifts in his own life. I admire him in this moment, probably more than ever before, and I give him one of the highest compliments I can.
“You’re a good father.”
I wonder what the world would look like if every parent valued character over winning. Virtue over popularity. Honor over honors. If we let the applause of men fall on deaf ears and kept our eyes on the real prize.
Her next event is cross country, and she considers dropping out. Both of her parents leave the decision with her. “A horse is a lie detector test,” her mom tells me as we’re walking toward the cross-country field. “If you’re nervous, he knows, and it affects his mood.” They do this riding thing together, and she teaches her daughter about the different kinds of fear — how there’s no shame in walking away if you’re sincerely afraid you’re going to injure yourself or die. No matter what people may think or say, real bravery is making the choice that’s right for you. But some fears? Some are meant to be conquered.
Neither parent knows if she should walk away or conquer now. She will have to decide.
We arrive at the course as she’s beginning her run, and her father joins us. He was with her before the race, and he says he’s never seen her so afraid. He was certain she would back out, and he assured her that was okay, but when her time was called, she went.
Even as he speaks we see her approaching the first jump and we hold our breath.
She sails over it, and her parents both know.
“Wow. I have chills,” her mother says. “This changes everything. It doesn’t matter what happens now. Even if she falls off or doesn’t finish. By taking that first jump, she just rose to a new level.”
And she doesn’t mean a new level in the sport.
The cross country course is hilly and moves in and out of sight. The last time she ran one, her horse balked at the water and she fell off. We walk toward the water challenge and arrive just in time to see her ride through it without a problem. Then she rounds a corner, galloping toward us, and we watch her take the final two jumps.
She finishes her best cross-country ride. Ever.
And I stand back capturing these moments with my camera, giving them space to celebrate, this growing girl and her good parents.
Today she failed gracefully. Today she succeeded magnificently in the face of fear. And her parents rejoice with her in the one as much as the other.
Good parents want good gifts for their children. Even, or in some cases especially, the hard ones.
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! ~ Matthew 7:11
Giving thanks in community (#327 – 336)
friendships that span decades
grace in transition
lost treasures found as we pack
George’s diligence and hard work
his delight in finding notes we’d written each other before we were married
new mercies every morning