By Pony Glam Guest Blogger Madison Brown. BIO below.
Flashback about 18 years to a beautiful farm in Illinois, a big black Thoroughbred mare named Ebony, and a toddler playpen. That’s what comes to mind when people ask me how I first got involved with horses. My mom would bring me along when she went to ride, and place me in the playpen while she and Ebony went ‘round and ‘round in the arena. Of course, I was far too young to know what was going on, but I had an instinctual love for horses that was evident when I would take Eb’s big soft muzzle between my tiny hands and plant a kiss right there between her nostrils.
A few years, two moves, and the sale of Ebony passed between then and my first real horseback ride. My mom took me for a guided trail ride for my birthday and I was hooked. We leased horses, we bought horses, I took lessons and got into horse showing, and the rest is ancient history.
As I got a little older, probably about eight or nine, I earned the title of “barn rat”. This prestigious term of endearment and moderate annoyance is reserved for children who find themselves much more at home at the stables than they do in their own bedrooms. A barn rat can usually be found in some area of the barn (hint: check the hay loft), with hair that may or may not smell like ShowSheen and pockets full of peppermint wrappers. When a barn rat is finally wrangled into the car and home for dinner, they usually have to be asked more than a handful of times to wash their hands and will probably come to the table with dirt rings around their nostrils.
In the height of my barn rat days, my trainer picked me up from school at 3pm and I was there until around 8pm when my mom came to get me (she would call at 6 when she got off work but I would always tell her I wasn’t ready yet). I carried half chaps in my backpack and did my homework in the tack room. During the summer months, I spent all day at the barn from sun up to sun down, doing everything from riding to swimming to endless barn chores. There were a handful of times that my friends and I spent the night at the barn, too. We would feed the horses and clean the stalls, then ride bareback in the indoor arena until we were so tired we struggled to keep our eyes open, at which point we would put all the horses away, grab some fleece dress sheets, and go sleep in the horse trailer dressing room. Looking back on it, my friends and I were the horse craziest kids I’ve ever known.
The truth about barn rats is that they love every single second of being in the barn, whether they’re riding or not. Horses are a burning passion that can’t be put out, and it doesn’t matter to a true barn rat whether the time spent with them is in the saddle or the crossties or the middle of a field.
It seems these days that finding kids like that is like finding a needle in a haystack. There are more kids interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous, that dream of showing up at the mounting block right before their class in $300 breeches and $1200 boots, than there are willing to spend countless hours mucking stalls for the chance to show a lesson pony. Nobody wants to put in the time anymore. The barn rat is now an endangered species. (I am lucky enough to have a couple horse crazy kids in my lesson program, so they are not yet extinct, thank goodness!)
I think a key player in this disappearance of the horse crazy kid is the emergence of instantaneous social media, namely instagram. Children are now able to follow anyone from anywhere, without necessarily knowing anything about them beyond what that person posts on their page. Kids are now following top “A” circuit riders who have a horse for every division and a groom for every horse. All they’re seeing on social media is this hyper-glamorized version of what they think horseback riding is supposed to look like: six-figure warmbloods, stall drapes painted in blue satin ribbons, champion coolers from WEF, and a venti chai latte from Starbucks in a Roeckl-gloved hand. But let me slap y’all with some knowledge: nobody posts the tough stuff on instagram. Everyone wants to be the winner, everyone wants to be glam, nobody wants to show off the empty tubes of PerfectPrep in the trash can or the dollar amount on the check they just wrote to the show office. You’re not seeing that they rode 16 horses yesterday, or that they’re missing out on Senior Prom to show a sale horse to a buyer, or that their daily alarm is set for 5am. You’re only seeing the good things that people want you to see!
There seems to be a stigma of “you’re not good enough” that is breeding. If you’re not at WEF, you’re not good enough. If you don’t have grooms, you’re not good enough. If you muck stalls or ride lesson ponies or don’t have a custom saddle from France, you’re not good enough. But I am here to tell you all that the exact opposite is true. Every trainer’s favorite kid is the one who works their tail off day in and day out, the one who does it all and expects nothing in return, the one who loves every single waking moment spent in the presence of these majestic animals we center our lives around. As trainers, we don’t want hunter princesses. We want barn rats.
There’s so much more to horses than just riding and showing, my friends. I can’t stress that enough. Horseback riding is a team sport, between you and your pony. What makes it even harder is that you guys don’t even speak the same language! Think about your foreign language classes in school. You probably spend forever trying to get Spanish down pat. Imagine riding your pony is the same way; the more time you spend practicing speaking their language, the better you’ll be.
And let me tell you, the best way to practice speaking your pony’s language is to be around them as much as you can. You don’t always have to be riding. You don’t always have to be showing. You don’t always have to be taking a lesson. The better your partnership with your pony on the ground, in the stall, in the field, the better your partnership will be in the saddle. You want your pony to love you and trust you, right?! That relationship has to be built from the ground up, quite literally.
I think a lot of kids struggle to know what to do to build their relationship with their ponies, and a lot of kids might be on a time crunch with their parents working or just generally being busy. For some kids, their only time at the barn is for their lessons. I really want to see the return of the barn rat, and so I am here to help. I considered some of the things I did when I was younger, and then I took to a very popular source of young riders, Junior Rider News, to see what horse kids from all over the world had to say. Here is a list of ideas of things you can do with your ponies, your friends, and your barn:
If you have a hard time getting to the barn as often as you’d like because your parents are not able to take you all the time, try riding with a friend! Work out a carpool system, which is good for your parents and good for having friends to ride with!
If your trainer will allow it, consider spending a whole day at the barn! This was my favorite thing to do as a young barn rat (and still is). You can help with barn chores, play with the horses, and maybe get a couple rides in.
Cleaning tack. I know it sounds like the worst but it’s actually really relaxing and you can feel very accomplished afterwards!
Help your trainer set a new jump course! This one is always fun.
Organize your tack trunk, trailer, tack room, the whole barn. You never know what you’ll find!
Three words: Pony. Spa. Day. This one got the most mentions on JRN and is my personal favorite. Start with some really deep grooming, then go for a deep bath, maybe even do some cute braids. Top it all off with the crown jewel: PONY GLAM.
Work on ground work with your horse or pony, building relationships and respect is important!
Help feed the horses. It’s great to learn about nutrition and what your horse or pony eats and why.
Just hang out with your horse in his stall or paddock. Bring a book and enjoy each other’s company.
Go for a walk with your horse, or just take them out for a graze.
Organize a barn sleepover!
Attend a horse show you aren’t riding at as a groom or helper for your barnmates or friends.
Anyone who works with horses will tell you, there’s always something to be done. There’s so much more to horseback riding than riding. In the words of the great George Morris, “If riding were only blue ribbons and bright lights, I would have quit a long time ago.” Winning all the time and the glitz and glamour of the show ring are only half of the story, and you get what you give. So do your barn chores, get to know your horses and your barnmates, get dirty and have a blast. Bring back the barn rat!
Madison “Maddy” Brown is a 20-year-old professional rider and trainer. She grew up in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and is currently a third year Journalism major at the University of South Carolina. As a junior, she showed in the hunters and equitation from the local circuits to the “A” rated shows, trained under a hunter pony breeder, and catch-rode for some of the top pony hunter trainers in the country. As an amateur, she rode on the Gamecocks NCAA Varsity Equestrian Team and competed in the adult jumpers and adult medals before going professional. She now trains horses and students out of Eastover, South Carolina under her own Maritime Equestrian and competes in the jumpers with a very spoiled Trakehner gelding named Arli.