Vive les Barn Rats

Barn (left), Rat (center)

If you spend any time at all on equestrian social media, news, or lifestyle sites, you may notice a trend — “kids these days can’t clean a bridle!” “They won’t put in the time or the work!” “We didn’t grow up like this!” “Does she even know how to tack up?”

Eh … bullshit.

You’d think kids never do much around horses but show up, have the reins handed to them, ride in a very structured lesson, and hand the reins back to a groom so they can go get a latte or a manicure or whatever. From my perspective, from what I see at multiple hunter/jumper barns in my area, this simply is not true. It’s not true for kids from a variety of income levels.

Although nobody is allowed to ride in tennis shoes, at least not if they are going to put their feet in the irons.

What I do see? Young women as very professional working students, soaking up every ounce of information they can get from their mentors. Even younger women waiting for the day they are old enough to be working students. I see kids showing up early, and staying all day on the weekends to help with all kinds of things, like feeding lunch, clipping, turnouts, and tack cleaning. I see kids caring for their own horses and the lesson horses with equal amounts of love and consideration. I see girls helping each other, riding bareback, asking their trainers questions, following their trainers’ instructions diligently. Even better, I talk to parents who want their children to be sure to get those horsemanship lessons along with those riding lessons. Yes, it may not be everybody. But at the barns that I am familiar with, it is the dominant culture — knowledgeable trainers teaching their students everything they know, and students wanting to learn all they can, from how to ride a rollback to how to poultice and wrap a hoof.

I remember many of the names of the lesson horses at the first barn where I rode. This is Romper. Or Rompy-Stompy. She went in a kimberwicke. But no, I have no idea what I did last week.

Perhaps part of my experience is due to selectiveness: I wouldn’t want to ride at a barn that wasn’t like the barns I know. I was a barn rat and working student, too. Even into my twenties, I spent hours at the barn, probably helping a little too much to be honest, trying to ride everything I could get my hands on and expending considerable amounts of energy on my own horses (and still made it to class most days). And every time I see a kid like that it makes me happy. I see lots of kids like that.

There is no shortage of work at any barn, but just the same there is no shortage of barn rats who want to learn.

27 thoughts on “Vive les Barn Rats

  1. The barn I went to growing up was like that too, we all showed up and stayed until our parents had to drag us home. I helped out way to much, feeding, mucking, sweeping etc. and the only thing I got in return was to be around all the horses at the barn. I can also remember most of the lesson horses at my first barn! There were a select few though that would show up (tack up because no way would anyone do that for you) but then leave right after, no chipping in, only riding because daddy had enough money and therefore they didn’t feel obligated to get down and dirty. But it was embarrassing if you could not clean a bridle, it was just as embarrassing if you could not take the bridle apart, clean it and put it back together correctly.

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  2. the barn rat is certainly alive and well at my barn too – and at my other recent barns. i think sometimes they get a bad rap bc of the ubiquitous, ever present cell phone. that sometimes you can find kids just hangin out on their phones whereas maybe twenty years ago that kid would have been looking for something else to do around the barn to fill the time. or that sometimes it can be harder to get kids to do the more boring, mundane tasks like running sawdust or cleaning buckets. i think that’s always been the case tho, that it’s always taken a special attitude, focus and dedication that isn’t always present in young kids. luckily, like you say, i see no shortage in the pipeline of young kids stepping up to fill those ranks!

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  3. We have less barn rat, and more kids extremely overscheduled but still wanting to help out and happy when asked to do something with a lesson horse, or to help another rider’s horse. I just don’t think kids have the time we did growing up? I also see kids not working in the summers like I used to. You couldn’t get me out of the barn and some barns took advantage of that by having me work sun up to sun down… I see less of that now. But I do agree that there are kids out there wanting to work and help. And I also remember lesson horse names without the ability to remember last week….

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    1. Soooooo true about the overscheduled children. I do run into that, and I am thinking … this is a sport that WILL take up a lot of time and if the kid wants to do seven different activities they probably wouldn’t stick to riding much anyway. I see some of the older kids working summer camp, but not all of them. They have just as many overscheduling problems, it seems.

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  4. OH MY GOD YES.
    Every time I hear someone say “kids these days” or “back in my day” my usually calm and happy soul spirals a little more into fury. There were always crappy kids. There were always good kids. There are still crappy kids. There are still good kids. Kids don’t have the freedom to choose most of the time, and 99% of the time I blame the parents.
    The crappy kids just get more social media attention, so people thing it’s a new phenomenon.
    UGH.

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    1. Social media changes the game a bit, but kids are kids whether they grew up with Atari 2600s or iPhones. I see barn kids acting like kids who love horses most of the time. Some of them work a little harder than others, but it’s not like Boomers cornered the market on diligence (kind of the opposite I sometimes think)

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  5. Unfortunately, my experience has shown that this is all too true (I’m hoping these kids are the exception). I had one teenager, who had won a beaded browband at a show jumping 3′, lament that the current browband on her bridle did not come off and she wouldn’t be able to use the new one. I was all “what do you mean it doesn’t come off?”. She gave me the bridle – I looked straight ahead at her and removed the old browband without having to look down at the bridle.
    Or the time that I made up a trivia challenge for an in-barn schooling show. One question- name three parts of an english saddle. Not one teenager could do that.
    Does some of the blame go to their trainer? Maybe. I do think that technology is somewhat to blame, as when I was a kid I constantly read books and magazines that had this information in it. Nowadays one watches Youtube videos, and checks out what’s happening on Facebook and Pinterest. There is so much knowledge available online, but you have to want to find it, and not get distracted along the way.

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    1. Possibly the teenagers should have learned such things earlier, but I figure if they are showing up to show and they have never heard the words “pommel” or “cantle” I am more than happy to tell them. The distractions in a different form today and I think the volume of information can be overwhelming to some of these kids–they will learn the most at the barn from people who have been there longer, even if they could look it up themselves. It’s sad to think some just aren’t interested in learning though, but this has not been the majority of my experiences.

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  6. Glad they are out there. I haven’t seen any real ones for a while. But I know plenty that think they are… For social media.

    I do think overscheduling and trainers do play a part though. And some people are determined not to learn, or think they know it all. But, Im just trying to mind my own business now a days.

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    1. The overscheduling, parents, trainers … they all play a role in just how much a child rider is going to learn. And obviously not every kid that rides is a barn rat, but I think that has always been true. There is also a liability factor that comes into play when trainers decide whether their barns are places kids can hang out at all day or not, and that part I have to respect.

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  7. Unfortunately, that is not the scene in my current barn, and definitely not where I was before (which had WAY more full tack-up service clients). I wish there were juniors around offering to help and wanting to learn, but I just don’t see it in my area.

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    1. Ugh, it’s sad to think that such opportunities are encouraged and no kids take advantage of that. I see nothing wrong with clients who pay for tack up services but just because someone does that doesn’t mean they can’t try to learn stuff and help out, too. But I know it’s not for everybody. It just makes me a little sad that there is no one like that near you!

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  8. The barn rat era was one of the best and most fun of my life. I think it is what made me the horse person I am today. I see too many young people who turn up at the show with their pony already groomed, braided and tacked up. Even Carl Hester talked about this when he came to do a clinic in Ontario.

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    1. As a junior, I tacked up and braided my horse myself at shows, but I wasn’t in hj land then. I still groom and tack up myself, but when a horse I am showing has to be braided, I do pay for that. It would be nice to see kids spending more time at shows with their ponies or horses and watching the friends ride, rather than just showing up for classes and then leaving.

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  9. I find in my area, this depends on the culture of the barn where you ride. With my trainer, we do it all ourselves — we don’t have grooms or working students. Other places are more “full-service” where a groom does everything and riders just show up at the in-gate, and there are LOTS of in-between.

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  10. I’ve ridden at big barns with multiple trainers. I’ve seen both sides – the kids who hang out and the kids who don’t. It was the same when we were at the old barn just ourselves. Some of them (my riding bff and I) were there all day everyday, while other kids showed up – groomed and tacked themselves but went home right away and were only there on days they rode. It takes all kinds for the industry to work.

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  11. PREACH. So many people have nothing kind to say for riders under age 30. But like… The barn rats never stop being barn rats. A big part of the problem is the increasing cost of the sport. Barn rat is not a salary for paying grand prix stuff. Part of me is grateful having grown up without the easy access to horses because I had to learn how to do all these things for myself. I’m so glad to see it’s continuing on in other generations.

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    1. I had the same kind of relatively easy access — the barn where I rode was within walking distance from my house. It has definitely become more expensive to compete, even just to take a lesson. But when gas and taxes and real estate all keep getting more expensive the horse industry can’t help but follow suit.

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