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How Families Balance Raising Toddlers and Training Horses
By Liz Arnold
If you’ve attended an AQHA show in recent years, you may have noticed an increase in the number of two-year-olds strutting their stuff around the show grounds. Like most two-year-olds, they love to spend their time making new friends, playing in the dirt, and getting into any trouble they can find. Though they share many of the same characteristics, we’re not talking about two-year-olds of the four-legged variety. It’s toddlers that are taking over the show grounds. The size of the typical horse show family is on the rise, which means more youngsters than ever are calling the horse show their second home.
Showing and training horses is arguably one of the most demanding professions, or hobbies, out there. It takes time, money, dedication, and travel. How do busy show parents make it all work? The Equine Chronicle spoke with several parents of little ones about how parenthood has changed their lives, how they balance competing and raising a family, and why they believe the horse industry is one of the best places in which to raise a family.
Farley McLendon balances a successful training career with raising her two kids, 7-year-old Ellie Mae and 2-year-old Cross. For McLendon, the key to doing it all involves keeping things small. She shares, “I like to take my time with the horses I have in training. That allows me to keep my business small and only take in a few outside horses.” That philosophy is working for McLendon who recently took home a 2015 AQHA Reserve World Championship title in Junior Hunter Under Saddle aboard Sleep A LilBit Longer.
Focusing on a few outside horses at a time allows McLendon to spend time with her children, whether she’s at home or on the road. She admits that juggling her training demands and those of motherhood proves more difficult at shows. “It’s tough to take kids on the road,” she says. “I usually don’t take them along to the really big shows because, at their ages, it’s difficult to keep them entertained that long.”
Most horse show parents would likely agree that the key to achieving a successful balance at the show depends largely on outside support. For McLendon, support is essential because sometimes kids simply can’t keep up. “They don’t have the stamina we do. There are so many times when I’m busy at a show that I don’t take time to stop and eat. It’s not easy to keep a schedule at the horse show,” she says.
She continues, “You have to understand at night, when they’re having a fit, that it’s probably because they’re exhausted. That’s where you have to figure out how to make time to take them to the trailer to lay down for an hour. Sometimes, that’s just not possible for me, because I have class going soon. That’s why the people that help me are so great.”
McLendon admits that, as a trainer, her first priority is to her horses and customers. “My kids are pretty great at adapting. That’s just part of this lifestyle. I have to look out for my customers and be a good parent at the same time,” she says.
Though balancing a career and children can be hectic, McLendon is grateful for the opportunities the industry has afforded her kids. “Both of the kids have been to Australia twice because of horses. I love that they’re able to travel and be exposed to so many different people.” She adds, “At this point, my daughter loves Reining and has done Leadline. My little guy loves to ride in front of me. I don’t know if they’ll love horses the way I do, but I know I’ve built lifelong friendships because of horses. I hope my kids will be able to do the same.”
Sean Knowles of Ocala, Florida, understands the difficulties when it comes to filling the role of father and full-time horse trainer. Together, he and fiancée Anna Ingram are parents to two-year-old Hayden Marie. “We call her Hurricane Hayden,” Knowles says with a laugh. “We’ll come in from the barn and have a clean house, and then we don’t.” Knowles doesn’t seem to mind the hurricane potential having a two-year-old has brought to his life. He says, “We just love taking Hayden to the shows with us. When we go and she’s not with us, Anna and I feel a little lost.”
Knowles specializes in Western and Hunt Seat futurity horses, along with preparing yearlings for Longe Line and sales. Anna works as a photographer and also has an ad design business. For them, working as a team is essential to running two successful businesses. Knowles says, “We’ve both become better at time management. In each of our careers it’s important to dedicate a lot of time to your craft and to constantly improving. But, family is important too, so you have to make choices.”
He adds, “It used to be that I’d go to the barn, ride, and then spend extra time fiddling around with things. Now that we have Hayden, I find I’m much more focused. Now, it’s important to me to get home and have family time and also to free Anna up to do the things she wants to do.”
Along with focus and time management, Knowles believes flexibility is one of the most important traits any parent, or horse trainer, can have. “Most of us in this business know how to go with the flow. That’s become even more true now that we’re balancing parenthood,” he says. He believes following a strict routine is often setting kids up to fail in a lifestyle where routines are hard to come by. In Knowles’ opinion, “Kids are adaptable; if you start them out in a fluid routine, they’re content just being with you.”
Yet, at the same time, he says, “There are many cases where you have to alter how you do things. People like us are used to commitment, because horses are animals that take 24/7 care.” But, he jokes, “You can’t put a child in a stall.” Knowles shares that one way he and Ingram have adapted to parenthood is by altering their travel schedule in relation to the shows they hit. “We’re planning to stick close to home this year because we en-joy taking Hayden along so much. She loves going and loves the horses. But, it’s a full time job taking her with us,” he says.
Knowles believes this is where the recent baby boom comes in handy. He says, “It’s great that so many people at the shows have young kids. There are times when you really have to lean on your family, customers, and colleagues, even if just for ten minutes, to make everything work.” He adds, “Now that she’s so mobile, things can get really hectic. She needs constant supervision and has a mind of her own, so that can be a challenge.”
But horse show kids are nothing if not resourceful. Though Hayden is constantly on the move; even she needs to slow down now and then. Knowles says, “We were at a show in December, and we didn’t have our living quarters because it was so close to home. I was busy riding, Anna was banding, and Hayden had been playing in the aisle. She decided she was tired, so she grabbed one of her blankets and curled up to take a nap on a bag of grain outside the stall where Anna was banding.”
Jessica Gilliam could probably swap stories with Knowles. She and her husband, Jason, have two active, outgoing kids and they also operate Gilliam Performance Horses in Greensburg, Indiana. Gilliam says that like McLendon, they believe in keeping things small. “We have a limited number of outside horses. Jason does all of the riding, and I work full time as a client service manager for a health care billing agency.” Along with working full time and managing the family’s training business, Gilliam is an AQHA judge. She says, “Judging is really my social time. It lets me get away and keeps me current on industry trends.” Adding to their busy lives are the Gilliams’ two kids, five-year-old Shayne and one-year-old Caleb.
When it comes to showtime, Gilliam says that having a support team and organization are her secrets to success. She says, “I have my calendar planned a year in advance. I know my days off, and I know when Jason is going to shows. It just makes everything easier when you’re organized.” Luckily, for the Gilliam family, showing is a family affair. Jessica says, “I usually go to the nearby shows on weekends. Sometimes, Shayne will go to shows with Jason, and Caleb stays home with me. My mom has a horse with us, so she goes to all the shows and that support system really makes all the difference.”
Gilliam likens going to a horse show while taking care of kids to creating a patchwork quilt. She says, “At the beginning, it’s hard to know how everything will fit. Every person on your team is involved in patching things together, from watching the kids for ten minutes to helping someone make it to their class. You don’t always know how, but everything always seems to work out.”
Gilliam goes on to say that along with support from her own family, parents of other horse show tots form a weekend family that can be incredibly beneficial in making the two worlds work together. “Shayne has lots of buddies to play with at every show, which is a huge help. No matter where we go, there are great moms, families, and grandmas that look out for all the kids, which is fantastic.”
Making buddies at the shows is just one of the benefits of raising horse show kids, according to Gilliam. “I was a shy kid, and it was often hard for me to talk to people. My mom used to have to tell me to introduce myself to other kids in the lineup when I was showing, just so I’d make new friends,” Gilliam shares.
She adds that her daughter hasn’t quite followed in those shy footsteps. “I’ve loved watching Shayne talk to people and meet new friends. Taking kids to shows is great because they learn quickly how to find other kids, introduce themselves, and start playing. It’s been great for me to watch her turn into a social butterfly,” she says.
Learning people skills early on is something many parents attribute to growing up in the horse industry. Gilliam agrees, saying that, as a family, they desire to raise their kids in a positive environment. Jessica says, “We strive to surround our kids with people we respect and would be proud to see them become. One of the challenges in this industry is separating family time from the horse world. It’s easy to get caught up in what we do. It’s how we make a living, and we wouldn’t know life without it. But, at the end of the day, it’s always important to come together as a family.”
Kaleena Weakly and her husband, Josh, live in Shelbyville, Illinois. Josh owns and operates Barker Implements and enjoys showing Halter horses. Kaleena is a staple on the amateur all-around circuit. Their two-year-old son Jax shares his parents’ love for all things horses and tractors. “Jax loves going to work to see his Dad,” Kaleena says. “He adores climbing all over the tractors and riding in the combine with his grandfather.”
Jax already has a pony of his own, Popcorn. But Weakly says her World Champion mare, Hours Yours and Mine, aka “Blondie,” is Jax’s first love. “He adores Blondie. She’s always his first pick to ride. It’s amazing to me how some horses know the difference between adults and children. She’s so gentle with him. One of Jax’s favorite things is to go in when Blondie is laying down and give her treats and kisses,” Kaleena says.
Weakly admits that having Jax in the picture has changed the way she shows, but she says she wouldn’t trade those changes for anything. “Since having Jax, we haven’t gone to nearly as many shows as we used to. The traveling is probably the hardest part for us, because he’s at an age where it’s tough to keep him occupied in the car,” she says. Like several other parents, Weakly says she often alters her plans to accommodate Jax’s sleep schedule. “We often travel through the night if we have a long drive.”
Taking a more laid back approach to training and showing has helped Weakly balance her responsibilities. Doing so has certainly not hurt her show ring success. “I find that I do a lot of my riding at night when Jax is sleeping. Honestly, I probably haven’t practiced as much as years before. But, I had a really easygoing, green horse, and I realized that sometimes you just have to let it happen.”
Weakly shows under Jason Gilliam’s guidance and says that being part of a barn family where family values are at the forefront has had a big impact. She says, “Showing with Jessica and her mother, Janet Gunn, has been a great influence on me. I really admire their mothering skills, and I’ve learned a lot from them. Plus, I know that Jax is in the best hands when he’s with them.”
Though parenthood has changed the Weakly’s horse show routine, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Kaleena says, “It makes it so fun to go together. We look forward to seeing our friends, and now Jax has toddler friends that he looks forward to spending time with.” She goes on to say that sharing their love of horses with Jax has only strengthened their family. “This industry is a great place to raise kids because of the family unity and the ability to do it together and share this passion. How many people can say they have this thing they love and are able to do together?”
Spending life together—despite the crazy schedules, hectic show days, and occasional toddler tantrums—is what keeps these busy horse show families on the road. For them, sharing their love of horses with the next generation insures that the industry’s future is in good hands.