Despite the occasional alienation that riding in the city inspires, there’s one thing that remains reassuringly familiar at the barn: the young girls that spend almost all their free time there. I suspect they are to be found at every barn in the country. Some of them work there, helping to groom and tack the horses in exchange for lessons; some of them seem to just hang around. I know these barn girls well, having been one for most of my teenage years. They can be clique-ish, or competitive with each other, but are mostly sweet and helpful to those of us that only ride there and aren’t part of the little barn family. They can fall in and out of favor with each other and with the various instructors that teach them, but one aspect of their loyalty remains unwavering: the intense attachments they form to the horses.
If they see you riding up to the barn on one of their favorites, they’ll scamper up to hug your mount and no matter how many times they’ve already seen the horse already that day, exclaim, “My baby!” and breathlessly ask you, “Was he good?” They don’t really want an answer; they want a connection. They love this animal so much and simply want to talk to someone else who loves him too. It’s like a teenager with a crush, having the absolutely insatiable compulsion to speak about the object of their affection, constantly, to know and to discuss every detail about them.
There’s one girl in particular who loves my favorite horse, so I end up talking to her most often. She’s probably fourteen and just slightly more awkward than the rest of her friends at the barn. So in response to her asking me if he was good this Saturday as I dismounted and handed her the reins, I didn’t tell her that in fact he was a cranky nutjob that day. That he, despite being a male horse with no balls, sometimes for no reason tries to kick the other horses like the bitchiest mare. That for no reason whatsoever he has formed some strong convictions about going in the rightward direction around the ring. (We always start off the lesson going left, trot around several times, and then switch direction.) When I turn him to go right, the horse that was enthusiastic and responsive turns into a stubborn little mule who puts his ears flat back on his skull, bucks, backs up, and paws the ground. I didn’t tell her about turning him in tiny circles for ten minutes to prevent him from continuing with this rude behavior and that while I pulled his nose around toward his own tail he actually tried to–I swear I laughed out loud at this move–bite my foot. I didn’t bother to tell her these things because despite all of that–actually, because some of that, frankly the foot biting attempt was incredibly endearing to me–this horse is also my favorite horse at the barn.
He’s fun and he’s comfortable and he responds to the slightest little touch of my fingers on the reins when I want him to shorten his stride and become more collected so we can look pretty together. He doesn’t dance around when I’m trying to mount up and once I’m on, waiting, he stands patiently. He’s calm with loud noises and not that fazed when the more skittish horses in the group get jumpy. He’s small and wonderfully proportioned and has a shiny, liver chestnut coat that stands out among the more common bays and lighter chestnuts. When I lean down to pat him after the lesson is over, after we’ve fought and made up and he’s spent the rest of the time being his normal charming self, I bury my face in his mane and inhale the most reassuring and homey smell I know. I feel closer to this huge animal on this day than any other so far. And as I tell her, “Yes, he’s such a sweetheart!” and smile at the young girl, I feel close to her, too.