Two-Way Roads: On Fathers, Daughters and Horses

Horse show dads know more about horses (and their daughters) than those daughters give them credit for. Kristen Kovatch tells her story.

Trista Huey/Flickr/CC

Trista Huey/Flickr/CC

The landscape outside the truck window remained unchanging: miles upon miles of gray farmland under a gray sky broken only by the gray highway as we sped west on a quiet drive in mid-November. It was junior year and we were in the thick of college visits, connecting the dots from one equestrian school to the next, state after state, long weekends alternating between cars and motels and brief, cheery college tours. We had saved the best for last, I thought, other than this boring drive across the flattest state I had ever seen.

Except that I was stuck here, sitting silent and sullen in the passenger seat, with just my dad. My horseback-riding mother was staying home this weekend to support my younger brother in the middle-school play. We were on our own, my non-horse-friendly father and his teenage daughter with whom he had absolutely nothing in common. He came to the barn or horse shows only when forced, and when he did come, he left a trail of embarrassing ignorance and awkward comments in his wake making me wish he had stayed at home. He didn’t understand horses, and so he didn’t understand me.

And yet the further we drove from home, the happier he seemed to become: he sang along with the radio, pointed out landmarks, told me little vignettes about places he had seen along the route. Daddy was formerly a truck driver, hauling semis out for days at a time; this eight-hour drive was a mere blink of the eye to him. He didn’t consult any maps because he didn’t need to. From time to time for the first few hours he tried to get me talking, singing, laughing along with him. After awhile, resigned to my silence, he gave up, grooving along unaccompanied as we pushed westward.

The next day, after a quiet evening in our motel in the college town, we headed out to the equestrian campus: one of the most prestigious horse colleges in the country, there were actually two separate properties, with English and western divided into their own farms. We headed to the western barn, a low-slung building barely visible from the road thanks to a long, long driveway. With the rest of the prospective students and their families, we clustered inside to watch part of a class. Dad stood in the back with a few other fathers, and I prayed he wouldn’t say anything stupid to any of them.

Just an hour later, we were back in the truck, starting the long drive home.

“What did you think?” he asked as we turned onto the main road.

I thought for a moment for how best to enunciate my thoughts in a way that he could hope to understand. Truthfully, I was disappointed: I didn’t think for a moment I would ever be able to be happy in a place like this. The barn was full of well-bred top-trained horses, but it looked like an industrial complex; there was none of the feeling of friendly community that I had thrived in at my 4H-based barn at home. I realized now how little I knew about western riding, and how over my head I would probably be.

“I wondered why no one was wearing a helmet,” Dad volunteered.

“Yeah,” I echoed tentatively. “I guess you don’t have to wear one when you’re over eighteen.”

“And they were holding a colt starting class at the same time as a beginner riding class? That didn’t seem right, did it?”

“No,” I agreed, then thought. How did Dad even know what colt starting was? How could he recognize what was even going on in the arena? As the miles ticked by, he offered his opinions on the program, the tack requirements just to be a student (other schools recommended books, this school required a certain brand of saddle) and what I would be learning if I chose to go there. He made a joke about the barn and I actually laughed — it wasn’t only funny, it was accurate. We discussed the school, compared it to other schools we had visited, and before I realized it, we were pulling off at an exit for dinner — one of my dad’s old places to stop on his east-west trucking routes.

“You’re gonna love this place! I can’t believe it’s still here.”

In the parking lot after dinner, just as we were about to climb back into the truck for the final stretch of the trip, I noticed Daddy pausing to look down over the highway below. He pointed out a set of custom lights on a semi as it streaked past, heading west. The steady traffic of big rigs was a quiet, constant roar as he smiled, looking over his old domain.

As I watched him there in the darkness, looking over the highway, I realized that I had gotten it wrong for this entire trip: he knew so much more about me and the horses than I thought. Where I thought I had been inviting him into my life, my passions and my dreams, he had really been inviting me into his.

Dad, on a trip much further west several years later.

Dad, on a trip much further west several years later.

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