California Riding Magazine • December, 2011

Horsey Humor:
Oaks and Acorns

by Bob Goddard

I recently received a horse related mail order catalog offering clothes and novelty items. The cover of the catalog features the Lynn Brown print "Trees and Branches." This illustration depicts a father and son on horseback in the foreground with a large oak tree in the background. The dad looks to be sharing some nugget of wisdom with the youngster who sits looking up at his father in rapt attention. My guess is that the Elder is warning the Younger of the dangers of falling acorns. I would have titled the picture "Not Far From the Tree."

The inside of the catalog is dominated by a parent-child theme, particularly in the clothes section. Here, we see mothers and daughters, fathers and sons dressed in matching outfits. I guess this would help you remember which ones are (allegedly) yours. So it's a good system.

As a Recreational Social Scientist and keen observer of all equine related matters, I completely understand the wisdom of using the parent-child relationship to market cowboy/girl clothes. Horses can be an intensely family oriented activity and there is a sense in these photos of a parent passing their passion for all things equine to the younger models.

This marketing approach works, I think, because of that wonderful relationship young parents have with their young children. A young parent views a young child as a kind of mirror image with unlimited potential – a "mini me" who, because of the parent's guidance and wisdom, will certainly never be plagued by the uncertainties and insecurities of the bigger version. The young child looks upon the parent as an all powerful, all knowing being and the ultimate source of right and wrong.

Of course, this all goes to hell in a few years. As soon as the kid hits adolescence she is going to reject anything that reminds her that she even has parents. So marketers know just when to knock off the matching outfit bit. Nothing says "latent dysfunction" like a fifteen year old girl dressed like her mother. Or vice-versa.

It's natural for kids to go through a stage of rebellion. But this rarely consists of years of uninterrupted rebellion without end, unless you're Lindsay Lohan. The rebellion sort of comes and goes, the kid will cooperate for a bit (when he is getting his own way), rebel for a bit (when he is not getting his own way) and often rebel in secret (kids lie). This is all very exhausting for a parent and it would be so much easier if the child would just have the decency to pick one approach and stick with it.

Horse's can actually help us understand this whole phenomenon. Throwing horses into the milieu provides a stage in which the entire panoply of parent-adolescent interactions is played out. And I can think of no better place to witness this than at a horse show. Here, in condensed form, we observe the generational struggle played out in all of its forms, from beginning to end. This may be because there are few instances in the life of a family where the parent and the child are in the same place doing the same thing for an entire day.

I've observed enough of this phenomenon to know with certainty that the above is true. However, as a Recreational Social Scientist, I am required to provide hard data to back up my suppositions. For this, I developed a system of horse show data collection. I began by assigning a numerical value to the quality of observable parent-child interactions. It goes like this:

Positive Interaction - 5 Points
Example: "nice ride"

Neutral Interaction - 4 points
Example: "you have a rein dragging"

Testy Interaction - 3 points
Example: "at least you didn't fall off"

Physical Acting Out - 2 points
Example: throwing equipment on the ground

Shouting - 1 point
Example: "PICK UP THAT DERBY"

Threats - 0 points
Example: "I'm calling the police"

Then I note what phase of a typical horseshow day the interaction occurs in:

Prior to Arrival at show grounds: 0 points
Unloading/unpacking: 1 point
Morning Classes: 2 points
Lunch Break: 3 points
Afternoon Classes: 4 points
Loading/packing up: 5 points

After spending an entire show season recording my observations, I sat down to correlate all the data. It did not take me long to reach this inescapable conclusion: I don't have a clue how to correlate data. Nonetheless, I think I have a general idea of what happens here.

It's simple really: horseshows knock the crabbiness out of the combatants. The accumulative effect of repeating a pattern of long periods of boredom interrupted by short spurts of intense activity results in a psychological cease fire. It wears down the combatants, drains them and even humbles them into a numb, accepting exhaustion. By the end of the day, both parties are completely in sync: they just want to go home.

Of course the struggle between the Oak and the Acorn is far from over. The Acorn instinctively knows that it has to find a way to establish its independence. While the Oak has given the Acorn all the genetic material it needs to become an Oak itself, this can not happen until something propels the Acorn from the shadow of the Oak. A horse can do that.