Z approaches the horse slowly, eyes wide, one set of fingers in her mouth, the other intertwined with mine. I smile and restrain myself from pushing her forward, kneeling down beside her instead.
"It's okay, darlin'. You're going to learn how to groom the horse before you ride her."
The teacher comes over and hands her a brush, tells her what it's called and how to use it. Z steps toward the horse's chest and starts grooming. Sandy colored hair falls away under her little circling hand.
Suddenly, the horse sneezes, sending a thick stream of snot down Z's arm and she jumps back with a scream. The teacher quickly wipes it off and applauds, telling her she's a real horsewoman now that a horse has sneezed on her. This stops Z's tears and later she will happily ride without incident but she won't resume grooming today, she's still too scared of this wild animal and its unpredictable expulsions.
Z's been having problems in school. Girls have already formed alliances, tribes, cliques. Girls shift and morph from friends to "best friends" to "you're not my friend... JUST KIDDING!" and back again.
Girls will be girls.
The friendship games these girls are playing are confusing and painful for Z and it doesn't help matters that she's still prone to throwing herself on the ground, sobbing, at the first sign of frustration. She's extremely sensitive and deeply emotional and takes everything literally and I HAVE NO IDEA WHERE ANY OF THIS COMES FROM except, oh, maybe, DIRECT FEMALE LINEAGE.
And I swear, I would stuff her back into diapers and deal with teething and sleepless nights and every hard baby thing, over and over again, for ever and ever, if it meant that I would never again see the terror and confusion on her face when someone tells her they don't want to be her friend or laughs at her tears. It makes us both sob with big inconsolable breaths.
A book I read recently slapped me upside the head with this basic truth: just because our girls are emotional doesn't mean they know how to deal with these emotions. One of my jobs as a mother is helping my girls learn how to understand and channel the bewildering emotions inside them. And how to communicate with other girls with those same churning emotions. Since I'm not sure I ever learned how to do this for myself, I feel like I'm standing beside her, or even running behind, trying to catch up, as we both stumble our way through the politics of preschool friendship.
So I talk to her, because that's all I can think to do. (Besides, of course, talking with her teachers.) I talk about how people can be unpredictable, how we need to be clear about our needs, how we must listen to our instincts when interacting with people who may not mean what they say or say what they mean. How sometimes underneath "I'm not your friend!" is "I'm frustrated!" or even "I'm scared!" and how "Just kidding" doesn't excuse whatever hurtful teasing came before.
Since I don't know much, we talk about what I DO know. How it's always a good idea to use calm, clear, nice words and, if they aren't respected, finding someone else to play with. We talk about how sometimes, no matter how nice we are, some people aren't going to be nice to us. We talk about how we can't control what other people do but we can control our own reactions to it.
We talk about how people who don't treat us well don't deserve our friendship.
Because THIS I know.
At her next horseback riding lesson, Z grooms again, this time a little further back on the horse, a safe distance from the horse's nostrils. She knows how to hold each of the brushes and what they're called. She tells everyone who will listen how "last time, I got HORSE SNOT on my ARM!". She tells her teacher a long story about the horse race we saw the previous weekend and asks hopefully if she's going to learn how to jump today? Like those jockeys she saw?
She's talking a blue streak and she's smiling and she's a little nervous. When her horse whinnies loudly, she jumps back and refuses to help lead her from the barn to the ring. I glance at an older girl tacking her horse. Her chest is covered with a stiff metal vest - to protect her organs if she's thrown, I guess?
I should take Z home, read her books, stay inside. Preferably until she's 25.
I wonder if that vest comes in Z's size?
But Z says she wants to ride so we walk beside the horse, out of the barn. Soon she is up and walking around the ring, learning more about how to kick the horse to get her walk and how to hold the reigns with her thumb and pinky on the outside.
The smart, smart teacher teaches Z "jumping position", which Z does with an eyes-closed grin for the length of the ring.
She pulls back lightly on the reigns to stop but it's the handler who actually stops the horse as Z hasn't earned the respect and control of this big horse yet. She listens intently to the teacher, about how she's supposed to be in charge, how the horse listens to everything she does with her body so she needs to be clear and confident in her actions.
One of the other mothers leans over and tells me Z's doing a great job. When I thank her with a nervous smile, she tells me her daughter started out at Z's age last year, how she was shy at first but that being in charge of this wild, unpredictable animal has given her tremendous confidence. We both watch silently as her 5 year old daughter trots alone on a horse that is at least twice her height.
Even though I went through my own youthful horsey phase, these huge animals make me nervous around my tender, precious daughter. But I want Z to experience things she loves (which, for now, include horses). I want her to learn how to be in charge, and how to communicate that power with confidence and sensitivity. I want her to feel her own strength as well as the strength that is beneath and around her. I want her to learn to have a conversation in every way that matters. I want her to be aware and respectful and clear.
But often I want, more than anything, to protect her.