My childhood was far from ideal or peaceful, but it was punctuated (and, likely, saved) by the years spent growing up at the barn. More importantly, my childhood was defined by the core group of girls — the original #barnsquad — with whom I shared my teenage years.
The majority of equestrians can relate. A motley crew of kids, ranging in age from pre-teen to high school, roaming the barn aisles. Grabbing ponies out of their stalls for impromptu bareback rides, scheduling massive group lessons with our ever-so-patient trainer, ordering pizza and staying at the barn way past closing time, gathering for sleepovers at a rotating roster of houses — a few memories of growing up with my squad. I should probably send a thank you card to all of our parents for putting up with us for so long.
Many of us weren’t serious competitors. A handful of the girls showed in the children and junior hunters. Most of us just loved to ride. We weren’t a show team. We didn’t travel to medal finals or A-rated shows together. We just existed in this peaceful bubble where we could be weird horse girls without judgement. It was the perfect place to grow up.
The notion of friendships in the horse world is a curious one. Today, I see a Facebook post from Gina Miles, one of my original horsey idols. I hit the “like” button — a tiny frisson of connection to the Olympian who gave me the eventing bug. I pull up a text conversation with a close friend whom I’ve never actually met in person, but who I know very well simply through an originating connection over horses. It’s fascinating how many different forms friendship takes, particularly in our little world.
So I decided to reach out to a few of the old squad members. A few of us still ride or are involved in horses. Most of us aren’t. Life happens. I messaged a handful of the girls on Facebook and they quickly agreed to catch up with me. I wanted to have a phone conversation with each — the jury is still out on how sad I am that a phone conversation is virtually unheard of now.
It’s a bit surreal, catching up with someone with whom you haven’t had a proper conversation in a decade or more. Thanks to social media, it’s now much easier to keep up with friends even if you don’t speak to them frequently. But there isn’t any substitute for conversation.
It’s funny how friendships work. Like most groups of friends who meet when younger, we’ve all grown up and apart. But as soon as we picked up the phone, it was as if no time had passed. We covered every topic, from what we were doing now, to what we’d missed in each other’s lives for the last decade, to discussing the concept of friendship itself.
My conclusion is this: friendship is fluid, and it’s formative. The barn was the first place where I got to find a sense of identity. And that is something quickly echoed by the friends I spoke with.
“Being in that 12 to 18 age range is tough for girls,” Emily Cahill Farrell said. She’d called me while walking home from her job at a hedge fund in New York City. Her life, much like many of ours, looks much different now. “We put so much pressure and criticism on ourselves. The barn was a complete haven for us to grow up away from that.”
The barn was the first place where I got to find a sense of identity.
It’s true. Most of you reading this will feel a connection to the idea of the “barn bubble.” A safe place for us to grow up, to learn and grow our social skills without fear of failure. Or perhaps a bravery in the face of failure, because we knew we had each other.
“Those were the most important relationships growing up,” Emily said. “I could be truly myself, more so than at school or with other friends outside of the barn.”
Where Emily was known as the funny one, the outgoing and daring one, she actually labels herself an introvert. The barn was simply somewhere where she felt free of limits that she felt elsewhere.
We left that barn, that safe bubble, with trepidation, knowing the comfort and protection it provided would cease to exist. We entered into the “real world,” into “adulting” — whatever that means — and, more often than not, were left wistfully reminiscing about the good ol’ days.
This growing up phase is one I think we all fought. Carolyn Raymond, another member of the original squad, recalled the year she had to move away with her parents. Carolyn was one of the youngest of the group, and she credits our little group with providing her with the big sisters and mentors she didn’t otherwise have.
“One thing I remember after moving is that all I was trying to do was find my replacement friend for [my best friend at the barn] Jamie,” Carolyn said. “I was really fixated on those friendships for a long time and wanted to replicate them. Honestly, I almost glorified those days to the point where it was difficult for me to find other friends.”
We all look back on our “golden days” with rose-colored glasses. We were lucky. We didn’t have social media. We all came from relatively comfortable backgrounds. We didn’t worry about our #ROOTD. Nothing bad happened back then. Perhaps that’s why we look back so fondly, why we love to swap stories about the reckless bareback rides and sleepovers.
But if there is anything horses have taught me, it’s that the bond over a commonality, a common shared passion, is something that’s irreplaceable.
I recently watched the documentary “Behind the Curve,” which explores the group of people who firmly believe that Earth is flat. In it, psychologist Dr. Per Espen Stoknes says something along the lines of, “people like to connect with others around something that makes them unique.” And while I don’t subscribe to the flat Earth notion, I certainly do agree with this statement. Horses bring people together. This love transcends age, economic class, race, and gender.
"I almost glorified those days to the point where it was difficult for me to find other friends.”
We all have a bit of trouble leaving the past in the past. But those foundational friendships with these women have contributed to the person I am today. I can have a conversation, I can make friends, I can be stupid and silly, all because they taught me it was okay to be unapologetically myself.
About 15 years ago, when I first signed up as an early adopter of the then-brand new Facebook, my profile asked if I wanted to add anyone to my list of family members. I was a freshman in college, my barn days reluctantly left behind. Through the years, Carolyn had become like a little sister to me. We joked that we must have been real sisters in a previous life. So I typed her name in, on a whim, and clicked “add” to label her as my sister.
She’s still there on my Facebook family tree, after all this time.
This article is dedicated to the original crew at Town & Country, who grew up making huts out of grass and getting dumped in the water trough. To Emily, Carolyn, Jamie, Britt, Julie, Sara, Amy, Amy L., Michelle, Jenny, Kim, Christine, Jennifer, Andrew, and anyone I missed: I hope our friendships have stayed with you as they have me. And to our long suffering coaches and mentors, Alix, Natalie, Marsha, and Heidi: we owe you barn chores for life.
Written by Sally Spickard
Sally Spickard caught the horse bug at a young age and can still remember her first trip to the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which subsequently afflicted her with the eventing bug. Sally spends her days in San Diego, California and thoroughly enjoys her career telling the stories of our sport and assisting clients with their digital marketing needs.