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Courage for a Child's First Ride in the Saddle

By Lou Torok / May 26, 1995

`OH look, Daddy -- the horsies.''

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Whenever my five-year-old son, Tony, and I drove past the riding stable on the outskirts of town, his eyes would light up and he would point a stubby finger toward the horses. And each time he would turn his bright little face to me for confirmation. The look in his eyes was pure ecstacy.

But it was my opinion that he was still much too young to ride the ''real'' horses. It was much safer for him to ride the merry-go-round. And so we would eventually end up in an amusement park where Tony could soon lose himself in an imaginary game of cowboys and Indians with the other children riding the carousel.

Looking back on it, I guess I was just being a typical father trying to protect a very small boy from overextending himself. I think I did practically everything to distract him from riding the ''real'' horses.

''Look, Honey,'' I pointed toward the lake we were passing. ''See the ducks and the swans. Do you want to feed them?''

He nodded eagerly. My distraction worked over and over. We fed the swans in the park. We rode the tiny toy train around and around. We did all the things a father and son can do together. We did everything but ride the horses.

It just seemed out of the question to allow such a little boy to ride such a big horse. But each time we rode past the riding stable, Tony's interest grew stronger. And it seemed to me that we were passing the stable more frequently than usual. Tony had no concept of what I felt was the danger of riding a horse. That was why it was easy for me to work so hard to distract him and discourage him.

LATER, when I thought his interest in the horses had waned, we happened to drive by the stables again. Tony became so excited that I thought it might help calm him down if we just took a close-up look at the horses. We parked the car, and Tony tucked his tiny hand into mine as we walked slowly toward the tethered animals. A wrinkled old cowboy looked up from mending a saddle.

''Want to ride today?'' He jerked his head toward the row of waiting horses.

''No. We're just looking,'' I answered. ''My son loves to watch your horses.''

''Help yourself,'' he shot back, returning his attention to his work.

''Want a closer look at the horsies, Honey?'' I asked Tony. He seemed delighted. As we approached the nearest horse, a large brown animal, Tony tensed up. He pulled back in fear when we neared the horse. I put my free hand on the sleepy old nag's neck.

''Want to pet him, Honey?'' I asked. Tony nodded his head. But he held back.

I lifted him closer to the horse, and he looked captivated as he finally summoned up enough courage to actually rub the old horse's head. His brown eyes sparkled with the delight of a small boy's discovery.

Tony looked deep into my eyes to reassure himself that he was doing a manly thing. I grinned my approval. Sensing a great inner victory, Tony shouted, ''Daddy, I touched the horsy.''

I was proud of him. ''You sure did, Honey.'' I placed him back on the ground.

The old cowboy just sat squatting in the dust working on the saddle as we walked toward him. I didn't know that he had been studying us and listening to our conversation. It was a quiet midweek day and there wasn't much business to keep the wrangler busy.