Lately, I’ve heard a lot of talk about how young riders have changed since when I grew up. What happened to the good ol’ days where barn rats ran amuck for hours on end? Surely they’re still out there and it’s the greatest life you could wish for your teenager, but why are barn rats so hard to find?
When we were kids, it seemed like barn rats were a dime a dozen. Any barn on any given day was guaranteed to have at least a couple scurrying around. For those of you perhaps unfamiliar with the term “barn rat,” I am not referring to the scary rodent variety. You know, the child/teenager who would rather spend all day every day at the barn rather than with other people. They are tough as nails, not afraid to get dirty, fearless and, now it seems, a dwindling breed. Dare I say, on the verge of extinction.
My fondest childhood memories are not of winning trips, but of days spent with fellow barn rats. We often got into trouble, but always learned. We were asked to clean stalls, prep feed, or set jumps, bathe horses, or wrap legs. There was no end to the chores that needed doing, and we were free labor with the only renumeration received being the knowledge we gained.
Getting to watch other lessons was the best perk that we could hope for. The highlight of my barn rat days was the day I got to meet Rox Dene just because I was in the right place when the opportunity arose. That meeting is still one of the highlights of my junior years, but moments like that were not why we hung around the barn. We were there because we loved the horses, loved learning, and it was the one place where we could truly be ourselves.
One of the best barn rat roles was testing out the new ponies. There was a field we affectionately called “if you can catch it, you can ride it.” We would go out there with as many halters as we could carry, and see what we could catch. Some of them had been well-started, and some not so much. One I am pretty sure had me on the ground at the same time my feet hit the stirrups, while another I took to shows a couple times, We had to figure each of them out. We screwed up a lot, but learned even more.
Through all of this, my trainer served as a second mom/sister/friend and let me tag along to go try horses, pick up her kid from school, breeze horses at the track, and anything and everything in between. There was no question I could ask that was too dumb, and we remain close to this day. I honestly still have no clue if my parents knew where I was or what I was doing, but they knew I was with my trainer, and that was good enough. I was more likely to be found at her house on the weekends than I was at my own (it was closer to the barn), and while she probably made me work harder than my parents ever did, it was work I enjoyed and relished the time spent doing it.
Kids today seem so much “busier” than we were at the same age. They barely have time to show up at the barn, ride, and leave—never mind find extra hours to hang around. Those that do have the time seem to want something in return for their efforts (something more than the learning). While I would love to blame this generation of kids for being spoiled, lazy, or entitled, I’m not sure they are entirely to blame.
Yesterday was a beautiful day, especially for February, upper 60’s light breeze and it would have been a lovely day to spend at the barn. But I had roughly 85 loads of laundry to do, groceries to buy, and desperately needed to make the house look less like a barn. PonyKid was bummed, and I was too. But even as an adult barn rat, some days even I can’t manage to get out there. I can only imagine how hard it would be as a non-horse parent to motivate myself to drive 40 minutes to take her to the barn if I didn’t want to be there myself.
I may be aging myself with talk of the “good ol’ days,” but things have changed from when we were kids. The household dynamic has changed. More and more homes have two working parents which limits the available time to cart kids all over the place. Kids now have more opportunities presented to them. When I was a kid, I got one activity. Some kids are juggling multiple sports, hobbies, and school events. Heaven help you if you have more than one child’s schedule to cater to.
As a society, we are not as naive as we used to be. What if there’s an accident? Who is liable if a kid gets hurt barn-ratting the day away? In a culture of helicopter parenting, it’s hard to give up the control and have no clue what exactly your kid is doing. Sleepovers at the trainer’s house are a thing of the past, as are road trips to go try ponies without an extra adult present.
And all of this is to be expected. The times, they are a changing, and we can only expect the barn to change along with it. But how do we preserve the culture of barn rats in our new normal?
Well for one, we let go of the helicopter tendencies just a little. We let them screw up sometimes, and we don’t rush to fix it (ponies are pretty good at having high expectations without our help, anyway). Let them ride unsupervised from time to time. Let them fall off and get back on without help.
Us grown up barn rats need to mirror the way we want them to be at the barn: show them how we watch lessons, and then talk about what we learned. Volunteer to set jumps and ask them to help. Ask their opinions and genuinely listen to their thoughts. Watch the farrier and the vet together ask questions, and then listen to the answers. Ask the trainer and the barn workers “what can I do to help you?”
The kids who show up to ride and leave have always been there and always will. But those kids never were, and never will be, barn rats. This new generation of barn rats might not have it quite as good as we did when we were kids, but they are the future of our sport and we owe it to them to help them be the best they can be.
Find a promising barn rat and take them under your wing. Tell them about the good ole days and inspire them to create their own memories to look back on fondly. It’s time for the barn rats of years past to pay it forward—it’s the only way we can ensure the survival of the barn rats for future generations.
About the Author: Ponymomammy juggles her roles of mother (two human, two ponies, and three doggos), wife, perpetual amateur, and accidental co-owner of Black River Show Stables 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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