Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"You're taking this really well!"

The Nerd on Ellie in 2009.
The girls are at riding camp this week at the barn where they've been taking riding lessons for 5 years. Yesterday at lunchtime, my cell phone rang, and I could see it was the camp. When I answered, it was S_____, one of the owner's two 20-something daughters who help run the camp.

"The Nerd got knocked down by her horse. She's OK, just bumps and bruises, but she's a little shaken up and would like you to come pick her up."

The longer story, which I got later, is that The Nerd was leading Lily (the horse) at a trot with a more inexperienced rider on her, Lily was having an off day and something set her off, and she and The Nerd got their feet tangled up together and Lily bumped The Nerd with her shoulder. The Nerd fell, and Lily partially stepped on The Nerd's thigh (she has a rather spectacular hoof-shaped bruise...) She wasn't wearing her helmet, since she wasn't riding the horse, and Lily may have just clipped her behind the ear with a hoof, as she has a sore spot there.

Anyway, as I was talking to S_______, she said at one point "You're taking this really well!" I heard that again from the owner's other daughter when I arrived to collect The Nerd, and yet again from the owner when I went back at 3:00 to pick up Rapunzel.

I'm sure they're used to more panicky parents... It's not that I was unconcerned, but then, I've had The Nerd to the orthopedic urgent care for x-rays following falls from a horse enough times that they know us. So my biggest worry was that I would have to take her for x-rays or to the pediatrician to be evaluated for concussion and not get any work done that afternoon.

Or maybe they're used to angrier parents who blame them. But after 5 years, I know them, and I know they are very careful and responsible. Any time you deal with an animal, unexpected things can happen, beyond anyone's control.

But here's the thing: I'm a risk assessor by trade, so I have perhaps a better awareness than most that life is inherently risky. Everything we do is risky to one degree or another. Even things that seem innocuous: The Nerd broke her arm at 18 months falling off a rocking horse a foot off the ground (yet she's fallen off real horses at least 4 times and never broken anything). Rapunzel broke her ankle 2 years ago on a slip 'n slide. My mother broke her ankle 25 years ago just by stepping on it wrong. And I tripped and fell and broke 3 fingers in March just walking down our street, for pete sake...

We can't eliminate risk from life - we can only weigh the risks of a particular activity against the benefits. That's often a subconscious calculation. We all engage in an extremely risky activity every day: driving. Why? Because the benefits outweigh the risks. (Well, also because we underestimate the risks, which is common for activities where we perceive ourselves to be in control. That's an illusion when it comes to driving - no matter how good a driver you are, you can't control the other drivers around you, who may be incompetent, distracted, or impaired.)

Horseback riding is riskier than walking down the street (but almost certainly less risky than driving). So we take reasonable precautions: they wear high-quality riding helmets, and sturdy boots to guard against feet getting stepped on. They take lessons at a barn where the instructor goes slowly, making sure they have mastered and repeated basic skills until they are second nature. But even so, falls are going to happen: horses spook and start cantering, or galloping, unexpectedly. Or they balk at a jump. Sometimes a rider has to do an emergency dismount (something they learn early). Sometimes the rider falls off before they can dismount. Bumps and bruises are going to happen. Yes, more serious injuries can occur too - broken bones, even broken necks (Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in a fall from a horse).

But there are also benefits - it's athletic (anyone who thinks horseback riding is not athletic has never ridden a horse), promotes good posture, and with this teacher, promotes empathy (she's always saying after they've completed something "Thank your horse") and responsibility (they tack up and groom the horses as well as ride, and if it rains, they clean tack). Plus, they enjoy it immensely. How many things can you say your kid enjoys immensely that also build character and muscles?

There's always that urge, as a parent, to protect your kids from all possible harm. But overprotectiveness is just as harmful in its own way as negligence. Kids need to learn to deal with risk, not be wrapped in cotton wool for 18 years and then turned loose on the big bad world, unequipped to deal with risk or failure or setbacks.

There was no question that The Nerd was going back to camp today. What's more, she requested the same horse. She fell, she got back up, and she was ready to get back on. There's no better life lesson than that. So yes, I'm taking this really well.

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