Bringing Back the Barn Rats

Barn rats painting jumps. Photo courtesy of Sarah K. Susa.

BY Sarah K. Susa

I’m certainly not the first to note the decline of the barn rat. There’s been so much chatter recently about the absence of tweens and teens around the stable, and the problems that lack of time and subsequent learning may cause for the future of the industry.

Today’s horse world is so different from the one that many of us grew up in. Starting in fifth grade, I was dropped off at the barn and picked up hours later, with no adult supervision. My friend Annie and I, on leased ponies, galloped through the nearby county park, jumping the balance beams on the exercise trail and chasing turkeys through the woods. We’d run our stirrups up like jockeys and race each other around the dirt track next to the barn where the local police kept their mounts. After our rides, we’d bathe our ponies with buckets of water we’d haul up from the stream in the pasture, or lay on their backs (facing backwards, of course, our cheeks resting on warm hindquarters) while they grazed in the sun.

The owner of our ponies lived several hours away and came home on weekends to give us lessons, but for the most part, Annie and I were on our own at the barn. If we weren’t, we were with the older, teenage riders and their horses, watching them ride, asking them questions, and mirroring their every moves.

Later, when that first little barn was sold to a developer and my leased-pony’s owner moved him hours away, I continued lessons at a nearby boarding stable. The owner welcomed us to help around the barn, even if we weren’t lucky enough to have horses of our own. I watched other riders’ lessons and studied the barn owner as she rode the horses in training. I hopped on stubborn lesson ponies for tune-up rides if they took advantage of their tiny riders in earlier lessons. I mucked stalls and babysat the barn-owner’s daughter for the chance to have a half-hour free-ride on a school horse when I was done. I helped scoop grain and toss hay and clean tack and pack and unpack the horse trailer, weekend after weekend, before and after shows. I lived at the barn, even before I was lucky enough to have a horse there myself.

There are many reasons that today’s youth don’t spend as much time at the barn, but I blame two main culprits for the decline of the barn rat. First, today’s litigious culture scares off many barn owners from allowing minors to just “hang out,” and when you carry multi-million dollar insurance policies, it’s easy to understand the fears. Secondly, our society outrageously overschedules our children and teens. When I was growing up, an elementary-level sports team might practice once a week and have one game a weekend, and it wasn’t a big deal to miss a practice or game for a vacation or family gathering. Now, I have a seven-year-old riding student who plays on a recreational basketball team and every week, attends four three-hour-long practices plus two or three games. She’s regularly rushing from her riding lesson to basketball – sometimes leaving early – changing from breeches to shorts and sneakers in the back of the family’s minivan. Family trips are scheduled around sports schedules, and not vice versa, from very young ages.

Lazy days at the barn for our young riders feels like an impossible luxury; a nostalgia unlikely to return for most equestrian youth.

But for those of us who teach these young riders, I wonder if we can try to recreate some of the experiences so many of us had as children: the freedom to enjoy the horses and the time to pick up so many horsemanship skills just from being around the barn, the horses, and more experienced equestrians.

At our small stable just north of Pittsburgh, Pa, we offer riding lessons as well as summer camp and other educational programs. We don’t board or lease horses, so our lesson students don’t have the opportunities to just hang out at the barn with their horses. They are only here for their lessons, some coming a little early and staying a little late to tack and untack and care for their mounts when they have earned the approval of their instructor. But they’re not spending the hours at the barn like I did as a child. And they’re missing out.

We’ve created a program to attempt to make up some of this missing stable time: we call it our “Barn Rat” program. I’ll tell you what we do and how it works for us, and if you’re interested, it’s very adaptable to and for the students and program at your own stable.

Watching farrier Loren Altman shoe a lesson horse. Photo courtesy of Sarah K. Susa.

Who gets to be a “Barn Rat?”
At our barn, “Barn Rats” have to meet two main criteria: First, they must be enrolled in weekly lessons. Second, they have to be at least twelve-years-old. Our barn offers a number of educational programs that have a cutoff age of twelve, so it makes logical sense that when our students outgrow these opportunities, they can move up into our Barn Rat program. Based on your students and their interests, skills, and experience, your Barn Rats might be older or younger, the key is that they shouldn’t need constant supervision. We even have adult Barn Rats, and we love watching our teens and retirees chatting together about horses while cleaning tack or hand- grazing our lesson horses. You can make the program by invitation only based on age or skill or how long students have been riding – whatever works for you. Our Barn Rat program is free, and participants can be involved as much or as little as they choose. Some riders show up at just about every activity; others come and go less frequently, but all take something away from the program when they are able to be involved.

What do Barn Rats do?
Our Barn Rat program has two components: Experiences and Community Service.

Experiences: Participants have the privilege of coming to the barn to experience the parts of horse care that they aren’t exposed to in lessons. They are welcome to observe things like farrier appointments, vet and chiropractor visits, dental exams, training rides, other lessons, and more. Before inviting the Barn Rats to vet, farrier, etc. visits, I clear their presence with the professionals and have received nothing but positive feedback before, during, and after the visits. My farrier allowed some of the Barn Rats to hold the horses for her during the visit, talked through what she was doing, and welcomed their questions. Our veterinarian spent about 15 minutes at
the end of her spring wellness exams answering questions, after the Barn Rats helped halter and hold the horses for their shots. I got all the feels when one of my quieter teens asked our vet about the path to vet school. Parents have expressed their appreciation for the opportunities we’ve offered so far, and said that their kids couldn’t stop talking about what they saw and learned.

Community Service: A second way we engage our Barn Rats is through community service, which we offer in two ways, logging their service hours for each. One way we offer volunteer opportunities is by inviting Barn Rats to help out around the barn on scheduled days and times with clear tasks. Barn Rats can volunteer to help out at day camps, summer camps, or other educational programs such as Girl Scout troop visits. We’ve also hosted, or are planning to host, barn workdays: think painting jumps, cleaning tack, bathing horses, etc. These volunteer days have clear start and end times (though we allow Barn Rats to come and go as they need to during those times, maximizing the number of participants), and there’s always some down-time built in, usually around a pizza-break, to build a sense of community around the group. (Hint: get enough pizza for your blacksmith or vets, too, and they’ll hang out and talk with your students over a slice or two!)

The second way we invite our Barn Rats to volunteer is before or after their lessons. With the approval of their instructor, and when we are confident in certain skills (think haltering and leading, bathing, turning in and out to pasture, etc.), Barn Rats can come early or late to lessons and help with tasks around the barn. We are compiling a list of Barn Rat tasks that students can choose from and do as they please: grooming, bathing, hand-grazing, tack cleaning, aisle-sweeping, de-cobwebbing, etc.) You could host a semi-annual “training day” to familiarize Barn Rats with the different jobs, and then allow them to come early or stay late to log some hours, or teach them on the fly – whatever works for you and your program.

Tracking Service Hours: We keep a volunteer log in our tack room, and any time that Barn Rats complete volunteer work around the barn, they log the number of hours and the tasks they completed. When they need a letter of recommendation or evidence of service hours, I tally up their hours up and write a letter on their behalf. Parents appreciate this enormously for college and scholarship applications, and it’s amazing how many hours students can collect, especially if they start in late elementary or middle school!

Watching Allegheny Equine veterinarian Dr. Nicolette Santercangelo perform a dental float on a lesson horse. Dr. Nikki answered lots of questions about the path to vet school and daily life of a veterinarian. Photo courtesy of Sarah K. Susa.

Building the Barn Rat Culture
Our Barn Rat program is new as of 2023, and it’s both growing in popularity and becoming a commonly used phrase at the barn: “You coming to Barn Rats on Friday with the vet?” We’ve created a logo and I’ll be ordering some swag to give to participants who attend certain events or hit a certain number of service hours. My preteen and teen riders are exchanging phone numbers and getting together outside of the barn, building crucial relationships as they enter their formative high school years with other horse-crazy kids who understand their passion. They’re taking on more responsibility and ownership around the barn. They’re showing initiative, noticing when something needs done and offering, for example, to de-cobweb their horse’s stall or condition a saddle after a lesson. There is noticeable growth in their self-confidence and leadership skills; they’re more confident, and thus more willing, to help younger and newer students. I’m excited to see my Barn Rats continue to grow and mature as both riders and people. I believe so strongly in the life lessons that come along with riding, and our Barn Rat program seems to be filling some of the gaps that we can’t reach in regular riding lessons.

There’s no way that my lesson students will be saddling up our ponies and galloping around the barn like jockeys or chasing turkeys through the woods (how did I survive my childhood on horseback?!). But I am excited to see how our Barn Rat program continues to build stronger and more well-rounded equestrians who grow to become stronger and more well-rounded humans. As we all know, it’s the horses who are the greatest influences on our young riders; if we as barn owners and instructors can provide more ways to facilitate these types of interactions around our stables, the horse industry – and dare I say the world – will benefit greatly.