Barn Rats Over Mean Girls: Life Lessons from Growing Up in a Barn

Photo courtesy of PonyMomAmmy


I feel like I am constantly trying to justify the expense of the horses to my husband. I get it. It’s not cheap, and it doesn’t ever end. My go-to defense of “bays over boys” is a strong argument as we are approaching high school, but really the more important factor to me is the type of kids we are surrounded by at the barn—the barn rats. These kids are raised differently, have different experiences. They learn a lot about who they are, and what morals they hold close far earlier than the average kid.

My oldest is in the thick of middle school and, as anyone who has made it through those dreadful years can attest, it’s a hard time. Trying to figure out what you believe, where you fit in, and how to get everything done is really difficult. Factor in hormones and a harder work load at school (and hormones) and friend dynamics (and hormones) and it’s a perfect storm for meltdowns. 

Photo courtesy of PonyMomAmmy

She’s handling things well, but as I watch her and her non-horse classmates I realize there is a stark difference between the barn rats and the other kids. The barn rats are more kind, considerate, and inclusive than their classmates. I see very few instances of barn rats ever playing the mean girl role, which got me thinking…what is about growing up in the barn that makes this difference?

Not all kids that ride horses will earn the title of barn rat. Showing up for a lesson once a week does not make a barn rat, although it’s a darn good place to start! The barn rats are the kids who spend more time at the barn than they do in their rooms. You are more likely to find them painting hooves than painting their nails. They are creative thinkers, deep feelers and they are tough as nails.

Photo courtesy of PonyMomAmmy

The barn instills confidence. Walking through the crowded halls at school pales in comparison to putting a 16hh horse in their place. It’s this “I may be smaller than you, but I’m the boss” attitude that you HAVE to have around horses. It gives them the same confidence to say no to a boy or not cave to peer pressure. Most kids would run for the hills if a 1200 lb animal came charging at them, but barn rats stand strong. They wave a lead rope and say, “Run over me – I dare you!” Where else can you cultivate that kind of confidence?

The barn insists on a strong work ethic. There’s a lot to get done every day, and it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Barn rats are expected to get dirty, build muscles, fail and then go try again. There is no margin of “I can’t.” You try, and if you fail—you try again (and again and again if need be). When homework gets hard, the barn has prepared these kids to dig deep and look at things from another perspective. The barn kids know that it’s always ok to ask someone for help, and they learn how to ask people of all ages. It’s much easier to question something in life when you’ve practiced asking adults things since you were hock-high yourself.

Photo courtesy of PonyMomAmmy

Barn rats are pros are “figuring it out.” I was talking with my childhood trainer just this week when she told me about the day she learned to set a course for the first time as a teenager. Her trainer handed her a measuring tape, some kids to help and said “go make a course.” Jumps are heavy… nothing will make you want to figure out the most efficient method more than not wanting to have to do it twice! Kids in the barn have watched us problem solve time and time again, as we rig a fan with a bungee cord or fix a pitch fork with duct tape. They know the value of using whatever you have access to get to the goal. In a world of helicopter parents who don’t allow kids to try and fail, this is a lesson that will be invaluable as they go through life.

Horses teach perseverance. The skill of falling and getting back on is a swift and tough lesson, but it stays with you. There will be horses in the barn rat’s life who will test their patience and make them question their own abilities. Those are the ones who will teach them the most. The barn will teach them to never give up, and hold strong to the things that are important but to also let go of the insignificant parts. Some days will be better than others, but you don’t quit. “Get up, show up, and don’t ever give up” is the barn rat’s mantra.

Photo courtesy of PonyMomAmmy

Perhaps the most important lesson the barn teaches is empathy. We have to have empathy for our partners because they can’t speak for themselves. We learn early on the importance of seeing things from another’s perspective. When we have a challenge with our horse, we have to look at why it’s happening. What are they perceiving that could be causing a problem. That carries over to friends at school – when the new kid is sitting alone at lunch, the barn kid is already well skilled at thinking they must feel lonely, and then confident enough to go sit with him/her. They are raised to be helpers for their horse, but also for their barn mates. When one of the kids at the barn is asked to go do a task, more often than not, before I can tell my child to go help, she’s already on her feet ready to give a hand.

It’s interesting to me to see, in this age of participation trophies and awards, how many kids don’t know how to lose. In life there will be moments when you’re not the best. You will be unsuccessful at times. Kids need to know how to handle it when it happens. Horses teach you to be humble and lose gracefully. Barn kids know what it feels like to try their best and still lose a class. They know it’s still important to clap for the winner, and that not winning does not equal failure. There are lessons in the mistakes. They know you can’t blame the horse for chipping the jump if you didn’t ask him to move up soon enough. But they also know when things go right, they played a role in that too. 

Photo courtesy of PonyMomAmmy

As my child continues to grow up, I will forever be grateful for the barn for helping raise her to be an includer, and not a mean girl.  She knows that there are some things that are so big, they define who you are as a person, and that she should hold onto those with all her might. But she also knows that there are a lot of things that feel big, but really aren’t worth fighting for. 

Raising a barn rat is not for the financially weak of heart -it takes some sacrifices for sure, but the lessons it will teach your child, should be the best justification in the world. Encourage the barn rats. They are a force to be reckoned with in the best way imaginable. 

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About the Author: Ponymomammy juggles her roles of mother (two human, two ponies, and three doggos), wife, and perpetual amateur in Camden, SC. When not shuttling kids, or riding, she can be found feebly attempting to clean or cook, usually in dirty breeches from an earlier hack. Both she and her daughter enjoy showing on both the local, and A rated, show circuits.
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