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A Man Walks Into A Barn, by Chad Oldfather


By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.

No doubt you’ve heard numerous times the clichéic joke intro, “A man walks into a bar…” The title of this book foreshadows the humor and “outsider” insight from an “insider’s” perspective of the world of horses and horse people.

This is the book for all the parents of horse crazy girls (and boys) who are primed for horse and pony camp this year – but especially for dads.  

“This is a book with several topics. One of them is parenthood and its challenges, and how it involves a constant journey into the unknown,” he writes. How we measure success is another theme in the book. Is it about ribbons and championships, or is there something more important? In Chapter 16, he summarizes the life’s lessons learned from his fifteen years as a “horse dad.”

You might event think the book author’s name a pseudonym for his real name. But Chad Oldfather really is a Professor of Law at Marquette University Law School. Perhaps his dry sense of humor began in the town where he grew up, as he describes: “the thoroughly Wobegonian but unfortunately named Kiester, Minnesota (population: 501).” Having published numerous articles in a wide array of law journals, it almost goes unsaid that this book is well-written. “I write because I enjoy doing it,” he says. “Somewhere along the line I started reading The Chronicle of the Horse,” and later he made his debut writing a blog for The Chronicle. “When I started blogging for The Chronicle of the Horse, I had a vague notion that I might one day use my posts as the beginnings of a book chronicling my experiences and observations as a horse dad.” And there you have it.

Oldfather’s delve into the realm of horses began when he found himself the parent of a toddler who was obsessed with horses. Then, as his younger daughters become similarly afflicted, he soon became enmeshed in the subculture of barns, riding, and horse shows, learning not just about the animals that drew his girls, but also about the people and personalities of  “horse people.”  

His journey begins at the boarding barn, Appy Orse Acres. For newbie parents in the horse world, his descriptions of the riding disciplines of hunter/jumper, dressage, and eventing will be informative, but “old news” to horse folks. However, even horse folks will identify with the long waits at hunter/jumper shows while nothing happens in the arena, as opposed to dressage when everyone has specific ride times. And you can identify with the horse that doesn’t want to load in the trailer to go home after the day-long 4-H show at the County Fair (with more waiting), and a rider’s first big milestone: falling off and learning to get back on. Eventually the family reaches the second big milestone: a horse of their own.

As his girls develop their riding skills and progress through the ranks, you may recognize the names of some of their riding coaches and clinicians, and the opportunities they are afforded, like riding in an EAP clinic and making it to the “Pony Finals” at the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP). How many of us have taken our children to ride at events at the KHP?
In Chapter 11, he writes his observations about George Morris, “who was the dominant figure in the hunter/jumper world.” Yet, Oldfather is “conflicted” about the former Olympic show jumping coach who later received a lifetime ban from the sport based on allegations of abuse of some of the young men who trained with him in his early days. “So far as I’m aware, there were no problems with abuse in any of the activities in which my daughters took part,” and he goes on to describe some of Morris’ comments and advice to the students in his clinics. I’ll leave the rest for you to read (pp. 209-219).

For trainers, or coaches of any youth sport, there are “things to take to heart,” he advises. Remember that nobody makes mistakes on purpose. Good trainers don’t gossip, especially about their own clients. Have no favorites. Be honest. Good trainers have a plan. Accept feedback. Have respect for your clients’ time and money. Be always learning. The last one is what inspires me: I’m always interesting in learning something new.

A book for parents and equestrians, A Man Walks Into a Barn is a wise, witty look at the world of horses and horse people. Oldfather strives to be the best dad he can, supporting his children's dreams, writing about his parenting choices. He describes this world with humor and honesty, critically examining riding’s high cost and the inaccessibility and inequality that results.

Filled with the joys, heartbreaks, and life lessons that come from training, competition, and time in the company of horses, this is mostly a book about family, and the strong bonds that can form when parent and child join hands and pursue a passion together.

About the author: Chad Oldfather has ridden horses just enough times to appreciate how difficult it is to do well. He has also mucked stalls, cleaned tack, stacked hay, helped fix fences, and logged hundreds of hours ringside as his daughters have taken lessons and ridden in shows. He is a professor at Marquette University Law School where he teaches classes on and writes about judicial behavior, constitutional law, and the jurisprudence of sport, and serves on the Board of Advisors to the National Sports Law Institute. His non-legal writings have appeared in The Chronicle of the Horse, the World Equestrian Center Magazine, and Harvard Magazine.

A Man Walks Into a Barnis published by Trafalgar Square Books (

Image courtesy of the author and the Wall Street Journal.

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