After I graduated high school I spent a year working on a horse farm. While there I became involved in the farm’s “Itty Bitty” riding lessons which had students ranging in age from three to seven. On the first day of lessons we had a student, who I will call Julie, who was very excited about lessons. Her grandparents had promised her that if she learned how to ride, they would buy her a pony. Much to her dismay, on meeting her first pony she was terrified. She was crying and despondent. She still wanted to ride. She still wanted her own pony. But she was scared.
We spent that first day talking her into approaching the side of the pony and eventually sitting in the saddle. She sat there for less than a minute. Her grandmother was unsure about what to do, but as she left Julie insisted that she wanted to come for the next lesson. Again, she was scared. We got her in the saddle and I took her for a very short walk. And she was done.
Over the next couple of weeks I managed to coax Julie into staying in the saddle longer. She stopped crying at lessons. She learned to let go of the saddle horn. To hold on to the reins. Eventually she progressed from our one-on-one lessons to participating with the rest of her group. She walked and trotted and went over poles (laying flat on the ground, none of the ponies jumped for itty bitty lessons).
That summer, when the farm held it’s annual riding show, they included a round to showcase the itty bitty riders. There were two classes, and with both classes riding at the same time we didn’t have enough ponies. So Julie, who had cried when meeting a shetland pony, volunteered to ride one of the full sized quarter horses in the show. I can’t express how proud of her I was at that moment.
All of the itty bitty riders got medals for participating. And I learned what participation medals really mean. Because for some people participating is really hard. Sometimes participating means doing something that is frightening. Sometimes showing up is a huge accomplishment that deserves recognition.
I hope that Julie still has that participation award. I hope that when she pulls it out of the bottom of a drawer where it has lain, long-forgotten, she smiles and remembers how brave she was as an itty bitty rider.