If you’ve been lucky enough to spend time in a horse barn you know what I’m talking about. It’s a strange combination of old barn board and fresh wood chips. The sweet smell of leather and of cold iron and rust. It’s an earthy smell of dust and dirt and of grain and hay and feed. The subtle scent of bird nests in the rafters and mice scurrying unseen, and of spider webs in the corners. Of water and mud and clay. It is the smell of the horses. Those beautiful creatures who allow us the privilege to come close enough that we might know the musky smell of their strong bodies and their warm breath. And yes, the smell of animals who don’t use toilets!
For years, my daughter rode a gray pony with the most beautiful long black eyelashes named Goose. Goose lived in co-op barn down the road. The shared responsibilities of the co-op required me to go to the barn many mornings and evenings. I did this quite willingly except for those those hot and humid Virginia summer evenings that registered 95+ degrees on the old barn thermometer. Those days you came out after chores with so much dirt attached to your sweaty skin that you looked like you’d just surfaced from a Pennsylvania coal mine. Going to the barn was something my husband Tom had resisted for years. The decision to lease a horse was certainly a family decision, but the responsibility, beyond paying for it, was shared by my daughter and I. Frequently though, the barn duties took place while she was in school, so I often went alone. Even though I really never minded going alone, I would occasionally ask Tom to come along, but he always declined.
My husband grew up around horses. His dad bred Quarter Horses and was well known in the Quarter Horse circuit. He served as the President of the Illinois Quarter Horse Association and frequently judged cutting competitions. Cutting is a move requiring great agility that working horses do when herding animals. Quarter horses are the best cutting horses in the world. So while Tom actually likes horses, his childhood experiences with them mainly consisted of his dad dragging him out to the barn to muck stalls. Which, by the way, was a large part of my responsibility at the barn as well. Tom’s dad has been gone for over 25 years. His horses as well. What’s left are shelves of trophies, belt buckles and cowboy boots divided and shared among his children.
So one morning when I asked Tom if he wanted to go to the barn with me and he casually said “OK” I was shocked. There’s really nothing like being the first person at the barn in the morning. Before you even unlock the barn door the cat, every barn has one, is impatiently demanding food. A barn cat is not the type to rub up against you like a house cat. They’re independent survivors who serve a very important purpose, but they recognize the source of a free meal. So it’s best to accommodate them first or trip over them until you do. Horses just like the rest of us have unique personalities too. Some of them hesitate to openly acknowledging your arrival by just peeking around the stall, ears twitching. Others stretch their necks out as far as possible attempting nips to get your attention. And some just stomp and kick the walls anxious for breakfast. For me, walking down the center aisle of the barn, saying hello to each one individually, was a thrill every single time I did it. On this morning, with my husband by my side, I stopped to notice him standing quietly in the doorway. In a quiet voice he said “It smells like my dad.”
We’ve all experienced it. You smell something and it immediately takes you to a place in time. For him the barn represented so many memories of his father. It was an emotional reunion. An acknowledgment of a complex relationship triggered by stepping through the doorway of a barn.
Our daughter is now 20 and gave up her pretty little pony years ago. High school, then college and her commitment to dance didn’t leave enough hours in the day for Goose the pony. I’ve been thinking about the barn a lot lately and how much I miss it. I can’t really say if it’s the barn I miss and the peaceful feeling I had being there at the beginning and ending of each day, or the memories of my little girl doting on her pony. Seeing her lying on the back of Goose, arms wrapped around her pony’s neck and face in her mane. I don’t know, but I bet an early morning walk down the center isle of an old barn would feel really good, because I miss that.