Parenting for Horse Professionals
By Tania Millen
Parenting is a difficult job. Parenting while working is even tougher. But parenting while working as an equine professional has unique challenges.
“Horses are as demanding as kids,” says Carmie Flaherty, an upper-level dressage rider and high-performance coach based in Langley, British Columbia. “So, it’s a lot to juggle. You’re at the beck and call of both, all the time.”
Flaherty’s two children are now in their twenties but when they were young, the family moved around the United States following Dad’s hockey career. She developed a riding and coaching business while parenting full-time, as her husband was away eight months of the year. When the kids weren’t in school, they joined Flaherty at the barn.
The Millar family (L-R) Jonathon, Lynn, Amy, and Ian at the retirement celebration for Big Ben at the Royal Winter Fair in 1994. Photo: Clix Photography
“I could teach,” says Flaherty. “I just brought snacks and entertainment and they stayed in the lounge.
“A lot of stables had a TV, microwave and bathroom,” she adds. “The kids could go jump on the trampoline or play in a tree house. One place had a tennis court. If they needed something, people around the barn helped out. There were dogs around. We got a pony that my daughter would ride.”
“You have to be resourceful,” Flaherty says. “I’ve had a kid in a snugly [while] lunging a horse because that’s the best I could do.”
But Flaherty made a conscious decision not to pursue top level competition even though she had a horse listed for the Canadian team when her daughter was young.
“You have to be willing to sacrifice time with your kids to compete internationally,” she says. “I think it depends [on] how committed you are to your kids and your riding. It would have been too big of a distraction for me to go to California, Florida or Europe with my kids in tow. So, it’s something I chose not to do.”
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For professionals in the horse industry, these are difficult choices. Some riders choose not to interrupt their competitive careers by having children. Other men and women choose to put aside their riding or competitive aspirations to parent their kids. Some, like Flaherty, decide to do both.
“I don’t know that there’s a good time for a rider to be pregnant,” says Flaherty. “That was my initial concern. I didn’t want to be sidelined from riding while I was pregnant.
“I think having kids is scary for anybody,” she says. “It’s such a big undertaking, such a commitment and a big part of your life. You have to be a selfless person to parent and ride because both are so demanding.”
Support from a partner, extended family, or a paid nanny certainly help horse industry professionals pursue their chosen career while parenting. It may even be imperative.
“I know [women] who had kids and then decided they wanted to pursue an international riding career,” says Flaherty. “They’ve sacrificed time with their kids to go abroad and left their kids with the father.”
For some children, their exposure to horses as part of the parenting they received has determined their life trajectory. Being immersed in horse sport has resulted in several top Canadian riders’ children developing their own high profile careers in the horse industry. Dressage rider Eva Maria Pracht and her daughter Martina both represented Canada internationally. Ian Millar’s son Jonathon and daughter Amy have both show jumped for Canada and Amy is now balancing parenting with her equestrian career. Waylon Roberts, son of Canadian three-day eventers Ian Roberts and Kelly Plitz, grew up eventing with his parents and has now represented Canada. Canadian show jumpers Mario Deslaurier and Jay Hayes both have daughters who have followed their fathers’ successes and now excel at show jumping.
Canadian Olympians Eva Marie Pracht and her daughter Martina Pracht in 1991 (above, below). During her career Eva Marie coached many equestrian athletes including Martina. Eva Marie’s granddaughter, Sabrina von Buttlar, continues the family tradition by competing in the hunter/jumper ring. Eva Marie passed away February 15, 2021, at the age of 83. Photo: Alamy Stock
Eva Maria Pracht riding Emirage at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Making it Work
But developing parenting skills while balancing a demanding, unorthodox career, is tricky.
“It’s not what you know about parenting that matters, but how you manage to parent while being a horse professional,” says Alicia Harper, an English and Western competition coach in Prince George, BC who owns and operates Hylee Training, a coaching, training, and boarding facility. She and her husband have two boys, ages seven and 11, neither of whom are interested in riding.
“The biggest challenge about having kids when working as a professional in the horse industry is getting through the younger years,” says Harper. “When they were babies, I had to arrange showing around when we had child care. I certainly wasn’t traveling out of town. I had a nanny who would cook their meals and take care of them throughout the day. Now I can go to whatever show I want. I just take them with me.”
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Alicia Harper (above) is an English and Western competition coach with two sons who are not interested in riding. She says her children are good at entertaining themselves and making new friends when she is busy with the horses. “I think you have to be more of a free-range parent to be in the horse industry,” she says. Below is one of Harper’s sons holding horses for his mom. Photos: Alicia Harper
“The kids show with me all summer in a living-quarters trailer,” says Harper, explaining that her husband is often out of town for work. “They make friends at horse shows with other trainers’ children. My younger son is really good at getting a little gang together. The other kids flock to him and soon there are ten kids running around the showground.”
“We bring everything from TVs and video games to bikes and scooters,” says Harper. “So they’ll bike around and come back to the trailer to play a video game or something. They’re pretty self-sufficient.
“The kids know where to find me and people get to know who your children are,” Harper explains. “The lady at the show office will send me a picture of my kids down there, chatting away.
You just have to give them activities that they want to do. If they want to take their hockey nets and sticks to the horse show, then guess what we do? Or if we’re at a horse show and they want to go swimming, then I take time out to go swimming.”
When not showing, Harper works Monday to Friday from 8am to 5pm in her facility at home. However, she admits the kids miss out on things because of her horse business.
“We don’t get much homework done,” she says. “I don’t go to parent-teacher things or volunteer at school. Plus, sometimes they miss school for my competition schedule.
“We try to balance that out by taking them to hockey all winter,” says Harper. “They both play, so we travel a lot for hockey. I’m the manager for one of the teams and my husband coaches.”
Like every parent, Harper is learning on the fly how to work while parenting her kids. But the demands of operating a boarding facility while coaching students and advancing her own riding provide additional challenges. Meeting those challenges every day requires developing effective management and parenting strategies. Here are four tips for those wondering how to do it:
1. Be Resourceful
“I think you have to be more of a free-range parent to be in the horse industry,” says Harper. She allows her kids to make choices, entertain themselves, and make new friends, sometimes with minimal supervision.
Flaherty had a similar strategy. Her kids went everywhere with her and learned to become good at finding things to do when she was busy with horses. It’s taught them life skills of resilience, independence, and confidence.
2. Make Time for the Kids
“I give them 30 minutes of my day, where I pay attention to them and I’m not on the phone or the computer,” says Harper. “That keeps them happy.” Although it doesn’t seem like much, Harper says regular short bursts of one-on-one time helps her understand what the kids are feeling and thinking. It prevents surprise outbursts and encourages them to share anything that’s upsetting them. It also shows that their concerns matter and that she’s there to help them with their everyday problems — dividends which will hopefully pay off when they become teens.
No matter how busy your schedule, always make time for one-on-one activities with your children and the things they want to do. Photo: Shutterstock/JaySi
3. Balance Trade-offs
Flaherty says life was a continual balancing act, ensuring the kids got to school and their activities, plus ensuring that she could ride, care for her horses and teach lessons.
“I would get home from the barn tired and the kids were hungry,” says Flaherty. “So, I learned to plan ahead and have entertainment ready for the kids. Plus, maybe they wouldn’t do chores because they’ve got homework and it’s taken so much time just to get everything done.”
“Sometimes horse professionals don’t think they can keep riding or teaching and have kids,” says Harper. “But it’s definitely doable.”
4. Get Organized
Both Flaherty and Harper say they’ve had to schedule everything. That means sitting down before the show season and planning which shows they will attend, which major activities their children will go to, and who will be parenting at each stage. They also plan each week, thinking about and discussing with the kids how it will roll out, and negotiating schedules to ensure everyone is somewhat happy with the compromises.
Ultimately, parenting while being an equine professional is challenging. But many women and men are managing to balance both. Some top international riders have had children and carried on, their careers seemingly unaffected. Others have chosen to reduce or alter their competition plans at different stages of their children’s lives, depending whether their horses or kids are the main priority. Those personal choices are difficult but not insurmountable, and they’re choices that parents have been making for decades. There are lots of parents in the horse industry making it work.
“You can still be an athlete and do what you like to do,” says Flaherty. “Kids don’t take that away from you.”
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Spotlight on Ian Millar
As a coach, trainer, father, and grandfather, Ian Millar wears many “hats.”
In the article The Magic of Ian Millar Ian Millar describes competing with son Jonathon and daughter Amy:
“Some years ago [in 2000] Jonathon, Amy and I were three parts of the Canadian Nations Cup team [at the BMO Financial Spruce Meadows Masters tournament],” says Millar. “Jill Henselwood, a student of mine, was the fourth rider. As if I didn’t have enough stress myself doing it, that was a long day’s work for my late wife Lynn and I, but it was a fantastic thing to have the whole family doing the Nations Cup for Canada.”
Millar also described “switching hats” in order to coach Amy for the 2016 Rio Olympics after his own mount, Dixson, developed sinus haematoma issues and Amy stepped up to take his place on Team Canada.
“This was Amy’s first Olympics. I was so happy and proud for her to have that. But it was the toughest job of training I’ve ever had because of the pressure and the importance of it all. To take my father’s hat off when I walked down to that warm-up area and just be 100 percent trainer was very difficult. I could not think of Amy as my daughter at that point, but as the rider I was training. This was an athlete we were getting ready for an Olympic competition and sometimes it can go wrong. So, to get out there with that attitude with my daughter, mother of my granddaughter Lily, it’s not an easy thing to do. When she came out of the ring we’d talk afterwards. I’d talk as a trainer and analyze the whole subject in a very clinical way. Then at another time, I became her father. Switching those roles back and forth throughout Rio was an exhausting, rewarding, magical experience to have with my daughter.”
Related: The Magic of Ian Millar
Main Photo and "Spotlight on Ian Millar" Photo: One of Canada’s best-beloved equestrian families: Ian Millar (left), with daughter Amy, and son Jonathon. Credit: Pam Mackenzie