“Mommy doesn’t like ponies,” my husband said, laughing. “That’s not true,” I quickly said. My 2- and 4-year-old sons looked at me accusingly. “What Daddy means is that I don’t like them, I love them.”
My husband laughed out loud as we ushered our sons towards the corral.
We were at a 2-year-old’s birthday party at an animal farm and petting zoo. The kids had already hand-fed the alpacas, bottle-fed the baby goats. They’d visited the zebras, giggled as the camels spit. The birthday girl led the charge in petting the bunnies. Now it was time for the highlight of the birthday party, the thing all of the children looked forward to: the pony rides.
These parties are always a huge challenge for me. It’s not because of the smell and it’s not because of the cleanliness of the pens (or the lack thereof). The reason why—and the thing I don’t want my kids to know—is that I’m afraid of animals.
I was spending the summer in Nice, France on a study abroad program sponsored by my law school. As we racked up credits in international law, the students were also allotted long weekends to explore Europe. I should never have agreed to split up from my friend. We were told to travel in pairs, cautioned that running around Europe as a young single American woman was unsafe, bad things could happen. We could get robbed, we could get abducted, never to be heard from again. Our passports could get stolen. But we were only in Florence for two days, and my friend Reesa had already been to the Ufizzi and I was dying to go. The plan was simple—we’d part ways for an hour, and then meet back up at a little outdoor café in the Piazza della Signoria for cappuccinos.
In hindsight, I think I was being targeted by pickpockets, notorious in that touristy part of the city. They saw me split up from Reesa and figured I’d be halfway through the Botticellis and the da Vincis before I even realized my wallet and passport were gone.
It was a big push. I didn’t see who did it, but I felt a huge force smash into my shoulder from the left. I lost my footing, lurching towards the right. A horse drawn carriage was next to me, waiting for tourists. When the horse saw me barreling towards him, he opened his mouth wide and drew his teeth down on my arm. That’s the part I recall most about the incident—the part I can still see in my nightmares—this massive creature, head thrown back, lips parted wide, showing a seemingly endless array of gigantic teeth, coming towards me in attack.
It was just a love tap, I think. I’m certain that the horse could have taken off my arm if he wanted to. But it was a gentle warning. He was telling me that he was scared, and that I should get out of his space. You often hear people say good-naturedly: the animal is probably more scared of you than you are of him! But that was not the case. I was very much more afraid of him than he was of me.
I am not what you would call an animal person. I’ve always been terrified of them. Ever since my brother ran away from a neighbor’s dog, only to have the dog chase him down the street and then leave him with an enormous scratch down his back—a nasty wound that took weeks to heal—the message has been clear to me: don’t get too close. Don’t get them angry. Animals, even a beloved family pet, can hurt you.
After the horse bit my arm, I fell to the ground. My backpack flew off my shoulder. A crowd formed. A few people came to my aid, in languages I couldn’t understand, and a kind person returned my backpack. The owner of the horse yelled at me in Italian. I was utterly alone in a city where I didn’t know anyone, in a country whose language I couldn’t speak. I didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t have anyone I could call, anyway. The only thing I could do was to wait for Reesa to return.
I made my way to the little outdoor café, ordered cappucino, and counted the minutes until she got back, silent tears escaping from my eyes as I tried to hold them back. By the time Reesa found me, I’d regained my composure, but seeing her and then having to re-live the story made me cry hysterical tears. She examined my arm, the horse bite hadn’t really broken the skin, but an angry bruise was taking shape. I never made it to the Uffizzi. With my fear of animals finally justified, rationalized, I vowed to never get near another one again.
But years later, I had children. Holding these tiny humans in your arms makes you realize something: you want them to be different from you in all the best ways. You don’t want them to have the same fears that you do, you want them to live a better life, a happier life than you do. I was adamant that my kids would not be afraid of animals the way I was. They would love puppies and kittens and bunnies just the same as any other normal kid. They would not be scared. And they certainly could never know that I had been bitten by a horse.
So, on the day that we found ourselves at an animal farm and petting zoo, I had a choice to make. I could let my own fears take over. I could tell my sons that I was afraid of the horses, I could tell them about the bite, and we could go home. But I didn’t. Instead, I had them stand in line with all of their friends and get ready for their first pony rides. My husband helped get them up into the saddles and instructed me to take pictures from afar. Very far. I got great shots of each of my children as they proudly took the reins and smiled for pictures. I stood behind the fence as the kids began their rides, and when the ponies made their way towards me, rounding the edge of the track, I backed the hell away.
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