Raising kids and horses reveals many similarities


Portia Jones vividly remembers the day she walked into the field behind her home and two of her horses failed to trot up to her as they normally did. She rushed to them and found their heads swelling and mouths foaming—a rattlesnake had bitten them. A vet performed emergency surgery, and they survived, but for weeks Portia had to clean and tend their wounds daily. It proved messy work, but as a mother used to dealing with messy diapers, she got on with the task, and both horses recovered.

Over many years, Portia has noted similarities between caring for horses and children, from the importance of understanding and responding to different personalities, to the need to limit expectations yet provide enough guidance so that her charge, be it horse or child, can develop the confidence to stand on its own.

Portia has two kids, Amber (twelve) and Bronson (six). She also has four horses—Spinderella, Bella, Jewels, and Pistola. Because these four-footed family members range in age from one to thirteen years old, Portia might as well have another four children—it’s certainly four more mouths to feed.

“Sometimes I feel like I spend all my time feeding children and horses,” she says as she doles out hay to her horses in their stables.

Just as her kids do, each horse has its own personality. When Spinderella was three years old and first went under saddle, she was prone to being spooked, so Portia had to ride her more carefully than she did the other horses. The effort paid off: Spinderella is now a fantastic horse to ride.

Horses, Portia explains, need daily exercise in order to thrive. And just as with children, she says, it’s also important not to overwhelm a horse with too many expectations. Horses develop steadily with a lot of riding, which is why Portia has let people ride her horses for free for the past thirteen years. But it’s also about paying it forward and letting others enjoy the same passion that has shaped and enriched her life.

Portia grew up in Rockport, Texas, loving horses—every school report she did was about them. She learned to ride by sitting in the saddle with her mom, and she’d sometimes find a saddle in the barn and sit on it, pretending she could ride on her own.

Eventually, of course, she could—now she even does yoga in the saddle—and she made sure that by the time Amber was two, she was riding in the saddle with her mom. At four, Amber sat behind her mom in the saddle; by six she sat on her own horse, while Portia rode alongside, leading it on a line. Eventually, Amber could ride by herself, line-free.

“You can’t keep kids in bubble wrap,” Portia says. “As a mother, it’s hard, but you have to let the lead rope out slowly.” You do this as intelligently as possible, she says. Hence, you put the kids in helmets. But you can’t guard against everything; kids learn from the bumps and scrapes.

“When I was thirteen, I was bucked off my horse so many times that it taught me how to hang on,” she says.

Each group of horses has a hierarchy, so owners have to be kind but firm and demonstrate that they’re the leaders; otherwise no horse will follow them, Portia says. In her equine group, she’s the “lead mare,” responsible for the herd, which typically involves the exhausting job of bossing the others around. Her description probably sounds familiar to many parents taking care of their kids each day.

Just as children learn through doing, “It takes years [for a horse] to become saddled and safe,” Portia says. “The only way is learning through experience, and that means you need to saddle up.”

By James Jeffrey
Photos by Carol Hutchison

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