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Cooke: Hay is for horses, Hey is for kids
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When I was a kid, I wanted to be like my Grandma Lee.

She was not a typical grandmother. She came from privileged stock but preferred life's fun and dangerous adventures, especially horseback riding. She was an extraordinary and brave woman, different from the women of her time and the grandmothers of her age. When she died in 2008, my sadness was two-fold: I missed her and lamented that I had not been closer to her.

In her home, she left behind a museum of things that enabled me to know her better. I recognized her spirit in what she kept around her: fragile statues of wild horses, hand-picked rocks from places she'd been, towering cacti she'd raised from green nubs, bookcases stuffed with French and American poetry and the hand-painted portrait of her beloved horse Shoshone. It hung in the room where I slept when my family would visit my grandparents. As a kid, I wanted to be like her because she was a cowboy.

But I didn't know what being a cowboy meant until I tried my hand at it and discovered something new about myself.

This discovery began recently when I stopped at a nearby horse farm to inquire about horseback riding lessons. I needed to learn to ride before heading to Montana this year for a family reunion to honor Lee — talk about an easy sale!

Within 30 minutes, I had a weekly session with my teacher Lisa. I told her I wanted to be a cowboy.

I had no idea how much these riding lessons would affect my life.

Who knew a deep, enduring connection existed between being a cowboy and being a parent? My son Evan is 18 months old, so parenting territory (like Montana will be this August) is unfamiliar. With a little one around, it seems the terrain changes almost constantly underfoot. You "old hand cowboys" (and by that I mean parents of older children) must know what I mean.

When I arrived for my first lesson, I was a mix of emotions: nerves, excitement, delight, fear. I had no idea what I was in for, but I wanted to go for it nonetheless. It was a familiar feeling. In November 2007, when the pregnancy test was positive, that's kind of how I felt, too.

Thankfully, Evan wasn't as big as Dakota, a 19-year-old painted Appaloosa who stood waiting for me in the ring. It looked like someone dropped giant Oreo cookie crumbs on her rump. Dakota also happens to be blind in her right eye. I fretted over that, but my cowboy teacher Lisa assured me, saying, "Dakota's a sweet girl." That was enough. There was strength in Lisa's voice. I trusted her even though I barely knew her.

Butterflies flitted in my stomach as I climbed onto the saddle, walked Dakota around the ring a few times and steered her around obstacles. I pulled the reins in the direction I wanted Dakota to go, and she followed my instructions. I said "Whoa," "Stop " and "Stand, Dakota," and she ignored me.

And this was the moment that I realized working with a horse might be a lot like raising Evan.

Sure, he does what he's asked or told to do most of the time. But when he's got it in his head that coloring on the walls is awesome, "Whoa," "Stop," and "Give me that crayon, Evan" work about as well on him as my timid cowboy commands to Dakota.

Good cowboys convey confidence, control and courage to their horses. They anticipate and know their horses because they must. Everyone's safety is at stake.

Moreover, horses sense and respond to both self-assurance and nervousness in the people around them. Even a mare as sweet as Dakota would walk all over the hesitant rider, sometimes literally. And it's not that different from being a parent, I think. Evan knows when I'm feeling in and out of my element as Mommy, so he behaves (and misbehaves) accordingly.

He listens when I tell him in a firm, controlled voice to "Leave it" (whatever the "it" happens to be, and there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of them in our home). But when I'm exasperated and gripe at him for what seems like the 1,294th time not to throw food on the floor, he laughs and gleefully tosses another morsel. He knows, just as Dakota knows, when a tenderfoot is nearby.

As my lessons progress, I know my cowboy and parenting confidence will get a workout. Like all good things, that will come with patience and practice ... and lots of testing from Dakota and Evan. My Grandma Lee was no tenderfoot when I knew her, but she must have been when she first started. And as I've begun my own new adventures — parenting and being a cowboy — I see emerging in me that adventuresome part of her.

There's still plenty to learn; I'll keep you posted.

Jessica Cooke is a Gainesville mother. Look for her next column in the Feb. 14 Sunday Life section.

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