(REPUBLISHED FROM AUGUST, 2012)
I learned something very important from my youngest daughter yesterday. Probably a lot more than she would think.
She is 18 and moved away to college last week. Her passion in life has always been riding horses and showing them. She began showing horses when she was 7 years old. Every year, she has competed in numerous horse shows. Each year, the World’s Championship Horse Show is held in Louisville, Kentucky, near our home. She has entered every year and to her great disappointment, never won first place.
Long ago, she made it her life’s dream to win a World Championship. Over the years, it became more and more apparent to me that her chances were low that she would. In this business, the horses that win are usually very, very expensive. More expensive than we could afford. Several years ago, when she told me about her lifetime dream of winning a World Championship, I told her she would probably never win. She was crushed and ran off crying. I knew right away I had made one of the worst mistakes I would ever make as a parent. My intentions were good–I simply didn’t want her to aspire to something that wasn’t possible. I also felt guilty because I couldn’t afford to buy her a horse that was needed to win.
What I failed to realize in that brief moment, is that she subscribed to the story-book notion that as long as you work hard, believe in yourself, and never give up, you can always achieve your goal. Being a pragmatist with pessimistic leanings, I subscribed to the “life isn’t fair” theory and I wanted to protect her from further disappointment. What I told her that day was just plain stupid and it’s something I’ll regret until the day I die.
Despite the growing odds that she may never achieve her goal, she never gave up and she worked very hard at countless lessons and countless horse shows–many of which led to only more disappointment. She persevered.
I’m one of those parents that NEVER misses the activities of my kids unless something totally unavoidable prevents me from doing so. So, as the years dragged on, my heart was crushed each time she entered a show that ended in disappointment. I dreaded going to each show, knowing we were getting closer and closer to a lost dream.
Several years ago, we told her once she went off to college, we would no longer be able to afford keeping the horses we had, so just as she began college this year, she entered her last event at the World Championships. This was going to be her last ride.
What happened next was nothing less than remarkable.
She was entered in a large class of 33 horses. Her horse had been giving her trouble all year long and the prospects did not look good for the last ride of her career. Because the class was so large, the class was split into two divisions to compete separately. She was to ride in the second division. As the first class was about to enter the arena, she was preparing to warm up her horse just outside the entrance.
Along with the rest of my family, I was anxiously awaiting her ride in the fabled Freedom Hall at the Kentucky State Fair Grounds–hallowed ground among this community of competitors. Unknown to us as she was preparing to warm up her horse, a trainer from the first division yelled out “I need a rider for our horse! Right now.” It turns out, one of the riders had become suddenly ill and could not enter the ring. If someone did not show her horse, it would be disqualified for later showing. My daughter’s trainer heard the call for help and said “My rider can do it!” The other trainer told ours that this horse was game and had mostly only been ridden by professional trainers. Our trainer responded “Yes, you bet she can!” Somewhat intimidated, but excited to ride the other horse, my daughter mounted this horse she had never seen before and within seconds, entered the arena with 13 other riders. My daughter and her trainer instinctively knew that not being able to warm up her own horse would likely mean they would do poorly in the second division. Besides, who knew, maybe she would have a better chance on this horse she didn’t know.
From that point forward, she dominated the class and was cheered on by the crowd. And when the announcement of the ribbons came, my little baby girl was announced the winner, a World champion rider. She smiled and cried her way through the award announcement and her victory pass. Afterward, she sobbed uncontrollably for nearly 30 minutes. All those years of hard work had finally paid off and she got her story-book ending in the last ride of her career.
Her tears were mostly tears of joy of course, but combined with thoughts that validated her abilities as a rider. No more doubts about whether she had not won because of lack of ability. She had indeed proved her abilities in that single event. Riding a game horse you’ve never been on before and doing so well is a remarkable feat.
So, what did I learn from my daughter? Well, if you work hard and never give up, and you believe in yourself (no matter what your Dad says) you can indeed achieve your goal. I learned this from my daughter. The very thing I was supposed to teach her.
It later occurred to me that this was a God thing. No, I don’t think God made her win that championship. I don’t think God helps people win things as trivial (in the grand scheme of things) as a horse show, but I do think he helps things along that shape a young person’s life. I have little doubt that winning that championship was more important to her than anyone else at that show. I think God set some extraordinary things in place to give her the opportunity to do so–to allow her to prove herself. And when she did, I’m confident that God smiled with the rest of us and said “Well done daughter. Well done.”
Oh, and Caroline, first I want to say how sorry I am for saying such a terrible thing to you at a such a vulnerable time in your life and when you needed encouragement. Parents aren’t perfect, and I proved that in spades that day I told you you couldn’t do it. Secondly, you’ve made me the proudest Dad in the world. Not just because you won. But because you proved to me and many others that perseverance and hard work will always pay off and you did it with grace, humility, and joy.