Friday, November 18, 2011

Memoirs: A Horse Girl Gets Carded

I am somewhat consumed by the fact that I look very young.  I am young, at heart and physically, but I have spent most of my life trying to prove to people that, despite my appearance or the sound of my voice, I have had worthwhile learning experiences and I have acquired a good deal of knowledge, oh yes, and, since my 18th birthday, that I am an adult.  I am in no hurry to stop learning or to be "finished", to use horse training terms, but I am also not wet behind the ears.  Most people do not consider looking young a problem, especially in a society that worships youth, however...

... trust me when I say that "looking young, gets really old."

Would you like a taste of my world?

Example #1)

As a riding camp instructor, I was waiting with a new group of campers at the beginning of our first day of horse camp.  Sometimes the moms hang around for a while and make sure that their kids are settled in before leaving them for the day.  One mom in particular was hanging around for quite a while.  I was speaking with her and getting the kids ready for the introductory activities and the "Barn Rules Game", when she turned to me with a concerned expression.  Here is basically what she said to me:

"I would like to get going.  Will any actual adults be showing up soon?"

Sigh.  Yeah.  This was like three years ago.  I was in my late twenties, not my late teens.  I did not miss a beat in explaining that I was an actual adult, a certified instructor and public educator, and the counselor for the week and she was welcome to stay or leave, as her schedule allowed.  To her credit, she apologized and looked genuinely embarrassed for saying that to my face.  She was certainly not the first and will not be the last.

Example #2)

A new boarder at the barn where I used to work was riding her horse in the ring while I was riding Harley.  We made some aimless chit-chat as we schooled our horses.  The new boarder, who is probably not that much older than me, decided that she was finished riding her warmblood and ready to leave the arena.  Before leaving, she walked her horse up to me and said,

"I am done riding, but I could stay.  Are you allowed to ride by yourself?"

Again, this was only a few years ago, I was a certified staff member at the barn, often responsible for an afternoon's worth of volunteers and riders, as well as training volunteers and horses, and I was riding my very own, sane quarter horse with a helmet.  This time, I was annoyed enough that I simply answered "yes" with a glaring look that basically said "just spare me" as I trotted away.  I do not like to offer lengthy explanations if I think someone is being patronizing and this may have been the case.  Hopefully, she was just jealous that my former trail horse was working much more honestly than her highly schooled mount.

Example #3)

Before I met my heart horse in Harley, I went shopping at a dressage barn for trained ponies.  I had my sights on a cute bay quarter horse, with a nice foundation and a kind disposition.  The barn owner loves to tell this story, because she was really the one who experienced it.  As the test riders were bringing out horses for me to try, the horse dealer starting speaking with the barn owner about liability waivers.  She asked if I was the barn owner's daughter and when she said "no", the dealer asked if she would sign off on my paperwork anyway.  The barn owner laughed and exclaimed "What for?  She is a teacher with two degrees, married, and living with her husband.  I think she can sign for herself!"  I am told that the horse dealer was in disbelief and insisted that I looked no more than fifteen.  I did think that it was a little strange when she demonstrated how I should lead the horse.  I have been leading horses since I was seven years old. 

Still not convinced that looking young is such a big deal?

Just imagine that nearly every person that you ever meet assumes that you are a newbie, a beginner, or naive.  Besides the exhaustive process of continually reaffirming one's competence to new acquaintances, this often initially comes with secondary levels of respect.  I have been laughed at on the phone by a customer service representative and told that "it was so weird" because I sounded like "a really smart child".  Before Hurricane Irene, I was asked to show my identification before purchasing a camping stove.  And, of course, Back-To-School Night inevitably culminates with new parents commenting on my age and asking if I get mixed up with the kids.  I know that this is in good humor so I laugh with them and the answer is "yes, sometimes", but this has more to do with my height and long hair, than my demeanor or countenance.  On the plus side, the really wonderful people do reveal themselves to me almost immediately.  Really nice, genuine people often treat children and young people with respect, whereas some adults will automatically talk down to young-looking individuals.  I must also assert that I have never had a problem with equine professionals, college professors, and most experts in their respective fields.  The rule of thumb seems to be that the more broadly educated the person, the less likely they are to recognize me as an underling or miniature person.  Oh yes, and other short people treat me like an adult.  I guess they may be able to relate.

To this point, this memoir has been mostly background information.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I do not like being reminded that I look young, but this has less to do with age and more to do with experience.  I do not like the implication that I am inexperienced, which is attached to being young.  Although my tolerance has limits, I am not super defensive, more just tired of the same old comments every time I meet someone new, like when my husband and I bump into his coworkers at the supermarket and someone squeals "She is so cute!"  Hi.  I am standing right here.  You can speak directly to me.  Thanks.

I have learned to let some things go.  I can joke about my looks.  I am not perturbed enough to alter my appearance, like chop my hair, start wearing high heels, or dramatic makeup (I despise all of those things!  They are just not me!)  I have allowed a few friends to grant me diminutive pet names and I like that I can ride any horse, large or small, and can see eye-to-eye with most middle schoolers.  Contrary to what many non-teachers seem to think, this actually appears to be an advantage when working with students.

So let's get to the story part of this memoir, a horse girl gets carded...


One of the most fantastic horse shows that I ever attended was a Haflinger Breed Show in Syracuse, New York.  There were blond, tousle-haired horses everywhere!  Haflingers attached to carriages.  Haflingers leaping over fences.  Haflingers performing dressage.  Hafliners running triangles for the judge.  Mare haflingers.  Gelding haflingers.  And stallions.  Remember Harry the petite stallion?  I rode Harry in this show.  It was the first and only time that I have traveled to a weekend show which required that my horse sleep in a temporary stable and that I sleep in a hotel.  My parents accompanied me and my fiance waited at home.  This was approximately one month before I married my husband and two years before Harley.

Waiting for our class.  Another stallion stands at the right.

Okay, now picture twenty more Haflingers and a couple carriages squeezed in the show ring with us!

So at this show, I rode a stallion.  I did not ride him in a special stallion class.  I rode him in a class with geldings, mares, and other stallions.  The warm up ring and classes were so full that the horses just about touched nose to tail as they walked, trotted, and cantered around the ring.  It. Was. Nuts!  I had to navigate around carriages in the jumping schooling ring.  Carriages!  Harry and I definitely had some experiences together.  He was basically a good boy, but was not above letting a few bucks fly in the canter and rushing over fences.  I actually jumped a couple fences in the class blind, because my helmet tipped over my eyes when he bolted and leaped over the first fence in a line.  I guess that my helmet was a little loose, but I did not panic.  I just tapped into years of going with the flow and felt for the takeoff.  Thankfully, the jumps were small.  Harry also competed in the sport carriage classes and he was evaluated as a breeding stallion.

I had forgotten what I nice mover he was.  Harry had a lot of charisma!

Haflingers are a versatile breed.  Many competed in multiple disciplines at the breed show.

After a couple days of schooling and preparation, our competition finally arrived.  Under the tutelage of my original dressage instructor who was also Harry's owner, we warmed up and prepared to enter the "living carousel", which is how I refer to the cramped conditions of the show ring.  While waiting around with the other competitors, a steward approached my trainer.  She explained that a complaint had been raised and some of our competitors questioned my eligibility to ride Harry in the class.  When my trainer asked what she meant, the steward indicated that only riders 18 years of age or older were permitted to compete stallions.  In her usual no-nonsense style, my trainer asserted that I was indeed over 18, engaged to be married, a college graduate, professional chemist, and accompanied by my parents whom would certainly vouch for my age and date of birth down to the minute.  Although she still looked skeptical, the steward apologized, refrained from asking for my identification, and disappeared into the show office.

My family enjoys laughing about this one.  And really, it was funny.

I was carded for riding a stallion!

I hope this meant that the other riders were trying to eliminate some competition.  Even though this was our first experience at this type of show, Harry and I took this as a compliment!


Sadly, I have learned that Harry was humanely euthanized this past weekend, on my birthday actually.  I had lost track of him and did not know of his accomplishments since his owners left New Jersey and I married and moved away.  I was told that he was suffering from the possible effects of EPM and his owners made the difficult decision to say goodbye.  He was only thirteen, the same age as Harley.  He will be dearly missed as the sweet, petite stallion who served as an exemplary ambassador for his breed.

Rest peacefully, Harry.
My once fluffy friend and one of the special horses in my memoirs.


  1. I'm so sorry for the loss of such a wonderful friend! He was a beauty for sure.

    I am on the shorter side myself and just bought a 12.2hh welsh "b" mare to start showing dressage on. She is ISR/Oldenburg main mare book approved as well. I've been getting a lot of criticism for purchasing a pony to ride, instead of riding a full sized horse. I have ridden her previously and we got along great, so I'm not super concerned about what people think.

    The point of this long-winded post (lol!) is that I'm glad that there are other adults out there riding ponies and enjoying the freedom in riding mounts that don't leave them gasping for air because of how high up they are! I'll give my petite mare a kiss on the nose tonight and be thinking of your petite stallion.

  2. Oh heck - sad ending :( Harry was a lovely guy. I would have a haflinger in a heartbeat!

    About your looking young issues... you'll (probably) be thankful one day - I'm sure you've heard that too ;)

  3. Oh Val, I'm so sorry to hear that. He is such a beautiful animal. It's never easy to get news like that, he was too young.

    One of the many jobs I have had was a substitute staff assistant for the school district here. I was ready to get back into the workforce when my children were of school age and I still basically had the same hours and days off that they did, that part was great. However, one of the places that I had to sub at was a middle school, and I'll tell you what, middle schoolers can be very mean. I am about 5'1" and 90 lbs soaking wet, I felt extremely intimidated. Once, I was sent to a high school and I was actaully asked for a hall pass...from a student no less. After that I only took the assigments that were at the grade schools. I can totally relate, and not many people out there will have much sympathy for your situation, but I truly do. It's terribly frustrating to get people to take you seriously. My daughter is 23 now and she recently got carded to get into a PG 13 movie. So she has the curse too. When I tell people I have a 23 year old a look of shock comes accross their face, I just laugh. I was 24 when I started having children, pretty average.

  4. Nice post, Val!

    I feel your pain, although not as frequently anymore. I am 5'3, slender, and from the back, you can't tell me apart from my 5th graders especially if I wear jeans and a school t-shirt. For many years parents gave me skeptical looks during conferences.

    I turned 40 this year and my age must finally be starting to show as I don't get carded as often as I used to. Enjoy your youthful appearance - it will be an asset as you age!

  5. HammersArk- Thank you. I have not seen Harry since he was six years old, so I pretty much lost touch with him and his owners a long time ago. Good luck with your little mare!

    Calm, Forward, Straight- Sorry, just trying to keep it real. I was inspired to write about him again when I heard of his passing. And you are right. I do not get much sympathy, but I am used to it. I treat others with respect so that is all I am really asking for. I take after my mother and grandmother. My grandmother always looked decades younger than her age, even in her 80's. I am thankful.

    Mare- It was funny. Probably a one time thing, too. ;)

    Mary- Substituting is a tough job. I do not envy substitutes. I have learned to use an array of facial expressions and short tolerance for nonsense to keep kids in line. My experience is that my size has been more of a problem with adults.

    Karen- Conferences are another story. I can tell when the parents are looking at each other like "is she really the teacher?", but once I start talking they usually forget their suspicions and I have never had a parent be anything, but nice about my young appearance.

    I do purposely not dye my graying hair to try and look older. I have a noticeable gray streak forming in my "forelock". It seems to help and surprises people, to my delight. :)

  6. Great story!! That is too funny about the stallion class....

  7. Thanks, Jenny!

    I remember reading that you are tall. Would you believe that my father's shortest sister is 5'10"? My father himself is 6'2" and all five of his siblings tower over me and my mother (5'+), with my tallest uncle pushing 7 feet tall! My Oma and Opa, father, and most of his siblings were born in Holland. Dutch people tend to be tall!

  8. So sorry to hear about Harry! There are new treatments for EPM now, too bad Harry didn't get the chance.

    But Haflinger shows are amazing! I went to Equine Affaire in Ohio and they had the driving drill team. . .awesome! There is something about those horses that makes my heart smile!

    1. They do have the fairy-tale-horse look to them. :)


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