Raising Seabiscuit

Raising Seabiscuit


Parenting is like taming wild beasts. And some kids are more beastly than others. (I mean that in the most adorable sense of the word.)

I have a few kids who are generally agreeable and easy going. They want to please me and they pick up on social cues of how to behave in specific situations. When it's time to come home from the park, they understand, and follow me to the car. You put a metaphorical bridle in their mouths and they follow you around the training ring, nuzzling your neck once in a while. 

And then I have a couple of wild stallions. They take one look at a bridle or saddle, in any form, and they're bucking around the ring like crazed lunatics. When they have to leave the park there is yelling and screaming and gnashing of teeth. Or they just completely ignore me. It often ends with me hauling them to the car like a sack of potatoes. A sack of screaming, flailing potatoes.

I stumbled upon this horse analogy while reading the book "Seabiscuit" last year. I don't know much about horses, but I love this book. Laura Hillenbrand's writing is just delicious. When I got to the part where trainer Tom Smith started working with Seabiscuit, I realized: This is not just a book about a horse. This is one of the best parenting books I've ever read!

Reading about how the brilliant Tom Smith helped shape Seabiscuit from a wild and clumsy troublemaker to one of the most successful racehorses in history inspires me to help my own little Seabiscuits reach their potential. Here are 10 specific parenting lessons I learned from "Seabiscuit: An American Legend."

1. Recognize Potential

When his eventual trainer, Tom Smith, first noticed him, Seabiscuit was a mess. "Asked to run, he would drop low over the track and fall into a comical version of what horsemen call an eggbeater gait, making a spastic sideways flailing motion with his left foreleg as he swung it forward, as if he were swatting at flies. He gallop was so disorganized that he had a maddening tendency to whack himself in the front ankle with his own hind hoof. One observer compared his action to a duck waddle."

But Smith saw something in this train wreck of a horse. He didn't walk past him, letting him become someone else's problem. He recognized a spark of spirit and greatness in the horse. He saw real grit. He introduced his employer, racehorse owner Charles Howard, to the horse and said, "Get me that horse. He has real stuff in him. I can improve him."

Howard was quick to catch that vision, as soon as Seabiscuit came right up to him and head-bumped him. Hillenbrand writes, "The bump from Seabiscuit's head took care of Howard's sentimental side. 'I fell in love with him,' he said later, 'right then and there....I can't describe the feeling he gave me...but somehow I knew he had what it takes. Tom and I realized that we had our worries and troubles ahead. We had to rebuild him, both mentally and physically, but you don't have to rebuild the heart when it's already there, big as all outdoors." 

We all know what this feels like, falling hard for our babies. Whenever it happens for you—the first time you lay eyes on them, the first finger grab or smile—you're a goner. You know these babies will do great things. You look into their little faces and see endless possibilities and potential. 

But babies, like Seabiscuit, are also kind of a train wreck. They scream and make messes and keep us up all hours of the night (some more than others). Then they get older, and they resist and disobey. They still keep you up at night, worried about how to help them through one challenge or another. 

Smith and Howard reminded me that even though we have our "worries and troubles ahead" if we keep sight of our child's potential and identify their strengths, we can help them do great things and overcome their challenges. They've all got a bit of Seabiscuit in them—the difficult bits and the remarkable bits. 

2. Defuse the Horse

Seabiscuit's demeanor did not improve when he moved to his new home. "Every time [the grooms] passed Seabiscuit's stall, the horse lunged at them, mouth wide open, ears flat back, eyes in a sinister pinch, and he meant business...Everyone was wondering what Smith could have been thinking." 

Smith obviously couldn't let this kind of behavior continue. No one could brush the horse, let alone ride him. "The first thing he had to try to do, the trainer decided, was defuse the horse. Ignoring the snapping jaws and pinned ears, he showered him with affection and carrots."

This is hard for me to do. When one of my kids is refusing to do what I ask, throwing a tantrum, or even calling me names, the last thing I want to do is throw them a carrot. (Maybe throw one at them...) For me reacting with love rather than anger requires a lot of deep breathing and self-talk. ("Don't get angry, you love this kid.") Often I have to remove myself from the situation for a few minutes. 

But Smith's approach is a great reminder to draw on that deep unconditional love we have for our kids—even when we don't especially like the way they're acting at the moment.

3. Study the Horse

For me, the biggest takeaway from Smith's training program was the way he studied Seabiscuit. Hillenbrand writes, "As he did with every new horse, Smith pored over Seabiscuit when he was with him and mulled him over when he was not."

Smith didn't make assumptions about Seabiscuit's character, nor about his own training abilities. He could have just tried approaches that had been successful with other horses. But instead, he patiently learned all he could about Seabiscuit before customizing a training program for his unique quirks, weaknesses, and talents. 

Reading this has helped me to take a step back and just watch my children to see how they react in certain situations. What motivates them? What aggravates them? What makes them happy? What makes them laugh? 

Studying my kids has also helped me to notice which times of the day or situations are trigger points for certain children. For example, it helped me realize that the reason one of my sons was picking on the other is that he was feeling left out of a game the other kids were playing. Once I notice what's really going on, I can make systematic changes to help smooth out those trouble spots.

This anthropological approach to child-rearing applies to positive things as well as negative. Kids are amazing and fascinating. Standing back and watching them can reveal talents and positive attributes you didn't realize they had. 

4. Experiment With Companions

One of the first things Smith did was to try to forge a connection between Seabiscuit and another animal. His first attempt was a disaster. He put a goat named Whiskers in Seabiscuit's stall. "Shortly after dinnertime, the grooms found Seabiscuit walking in circles, clutching the distraught goat in his teeth and shaking her back and forth. He heaved her over his half door and plopped her down in the barn aisle."

Oops. Then Smith tried Pumpkin, a Montana cow pony. They lived and worked together for the rest of their lives. Soon, Pocatell the dog and JoJo the Spidermonkey joined the duo. "Sleeping with Pumpkin a few feet away, Jo Jo in the crook of his neck, and Pocatell on his belly, Seabiscuit began to relax." 

Some of the attributes that make one of my sons difficult for his older brothers to get along with--his high energy and tendency to take charge--make him an ideal companion for a toddler. He can entertain my youngest for hours. Some kids pair really well with each other for cleaning a room, but not sleeping in it together. Some combinations are great for tutoring or creative play. And babies can have a magical effect on any sibling. 

5. Keep them Healthy

When Smith took charge of his training, Seabiscuit was "200 pounds underweight and chronically tired. He was so thin, said one observer, that his hips could have made a passable hat rack, but he refused to eat. And that left foreleg didn't look good."

Smith quickly turned to taking care of Seabiscuit's physical needs. He put liniment on his legs and covered them in bandages. He fed him high-quality hay, calcium  and special oats. He made him a good clean bed.

Sometimes the best way to help a child perform better is to pay attention to their physical needs. Are they getting enough sleep? Are they eating well, and at the right times? One of my sons is a slave to his stomach. If he doesn't eat immediately upon waking, we all have a hurricane of a morning. 

6. Provide Structure

After a brief honeymoon period of letting Seabiscuit keep his own hours, Smith implemented a strict schedule for the horse. He woke up at 4:30, they groomed him, he took a long gallop with Pumpkin, walked to cool down, then got bathed and bandaged. They fed him at the same time each day, and gave him a bedtime. 

My children all benefit from a schedule. This is never more obvious than the last few weeks of summer, when I've given up on my summer schedule. As much fun as it is to relax and loosen up sometimes, kids thrive when they know what to expect, and especially when they're eating and sleeping at regular times. 

7. Be Patient and Consistent

Seabiscuit hated the starting gate. He threw himself around, trying to get out. Smith tapped him whenever he moved. Morning after morning, Smith taught him to hold still and wait for the gate to open. "You've got to go at a horse slowly teaching him most anything,"Smith explained later. "Easy, firm repetition does it." 

Insert "child" into that quote, and this tip needs no more explanation.

8. Embrace the Wild Side

The very things that make my most spirited children so difficult to parent are what makes them so much fun to parent. I want my kids to be passionate, gritty, opinionated, emotional people—it's just really hard when they're all like that, all at once. 

During an early race, Smith detected attributes that hinted at his future glory. "'He showed me two great qualifications that day,' Smith remembered later. 'He showed me speed, and he showed me courage. He was in trouble, and the way he pricked his ears, I knew if I could get the true speed out of him, I would have a champion.'" The very spirit and passion that made him so unruly were the same character traits that eventually made him a legend.

So much of our job as parents is to figure out our children's gifts and help them to channel them. In her book, "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee," Wendy Mogel talks about the Jewish concept of Yetzer Hara, "the evil impulse that is also the source of all passion and creativity." She encourages parents to identify their childrens' most difficult and unruly traits, their yetzer hara, and then perceiving those traits as the seeds of greatness. For example, think of "your stubborn or whining child as persistent, your complaining child as discerning, your argumentative child as forthright and outspoken, your loud child as exuberant, and your shy child as cautious and modest."

9. Work with your Jockey

Pollard and Smith met and talked about Seabiscuit often. Each had a different perspective and relationship with the horse, and together they were able to fine-tune his training. 

Likewise, every mom needs someone with whom she can discuss her children and their needs. If you're married, you and your spouse have different relationships with your child. You each learn different things about them and can offer a different perspective. If you aren't, you could team up with a teacher or another close family member or friend to gain insight and brainstorm ideas. 

10. Know When to Back Off

Once Smith got Seabiscuit out on the racetrack, he started rampaging again. Hillenbrand writes, "Instead of directing his efforts against his opponents, he was directing them against the handlers who tried to force him to run. He habitually met every command with resistance. He was feeding off the fight, gaining satisfaction from the distress and rage of the man on his back.”

Sound familiar? It’s sounds like an average night at the dinner table to me. But here’s Hillenbrand again. “Smith knew how to stop it. He had to take coercion out of the equation and let the horse discover the pleasure of speed. He called out to the rider: 'Let him go.'"

This is a beautiful principle for parenting. This is where you stop trying to coax your daughter in the cute jumper you just bought her and let her wear her tutu and sweatpants to the park. It’s so tempting to micromanage kids and to want to mold them to meet your expectations. We want them to do their chores our way, on our timetable. We sign them up for the sports or activities we like, or that we want them to like. But if we’re going to find out who these children of ours really are, sometimes we have to let them go, and see what activities they gravitate to.

After a wild ride, "Smith met him with a carrot. Neither Smith nor his exercise rider had raised a hand to him, but the colt had learned the lesson that would transform him from a rogue to a pliant, happy horse: He would never again be forced to do what he didn't want to do. He never again fought a rider." 

This may be where the analogy ends. We obviously can't just let our kids decide they're just going to sit at home and play video games, school be darned. But I do think there's value in backing off. It's good to let kids have freedom and be in charge of their own schedule once in a while, to see what they choose to do when no one is telling them what to do.

Backing off is one of the hardest things to do as a parent, especially when we can see an easy solution. Sometimes the child has to figure out how to solve a problem on his own. And ultimately, the only way they'll learn personal responsibility is if we stop micromanaging. 

The Payoff

Of course Seabiscuit ultimately proved all his critics wrong. Once he won his first race, after his 50th start, and started to live up to his potential, "Seabiscuit stood square under his head-to-toe blanket, posed in the stance of the conqueror, head high, ears pricked, eyes roaming the horizon, nostrils flexing with each breath, jaw rolling the bit around with cool confidence. He was a new horse. " 

"The colt was transformed. In the barn he became a disarmingly affectionate glutton, 'as gentlemanly a horse, marveled Smith, 'as I ever handled."  On the track, once the forum for rebellion, he displayed blistering speed and bulldog tenacity."

This is the potential for all of our little Seabiscuits, and it's part of what makes parenting so exciting and rewarding—helping our children to discover their talents and passions, and then letting them run. 

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