Unlike their furry grey namesakes, these barn rats come in various shapes, ages and sizes, the most common being girls between the ages of about ten or eleven to somewhere in the mid to late teens. They are reasonably easy to identify in their native habitat, which is any variant of horse barn.
Barn rats are the horse crazy kids who don`t want to be anywhere else. Not the mall, not the fast food joint, not even(sometimes) the Junior Prom, if there`s a horse show the next day.
Some barn rats get paid, but many trade work for the chance just to be in the general vicinity of horses. The parents of barn rats can`t be the obsessive kind who drag their kids from piano lessons to French lessons to figure skating lessons to soccer practice, because implicit in the definition of “barn rat” is is that they spend most free moments after school, on weekends, and on vacations, at the barn.
Barn rats are not the kids who arrive at the stable, take their lessons or ride their horses, get back in the car and disappear. A kid doesn`t have to be “from the poor side of town” to be a card carrying barn rat, because it`s state of mind more than socio economic status that differentiates the real deal from the pretender. True barn rats would hang around the barn and do manual labor even if they won the lottery, because that`s what taking care of horses really means.
What barn rats get in return, although they may not put a name to the concept, is that they learn by osmosis. By spending so much time with horses, and not just on their horses backs, they gradually learn what makes horses tick. They learn what horses eat. They learn what constitutes a clean stall. They learn about turn out, blanketing, and how to do it without getting kicked, about grooming, braiding, hoof care, supplements, medicines, tack care, types of bits, helping the farrier, the vet, the myriad small and large details that make up “horsemanship.”
Some, not all, get the chance to ride. The avid riders, especially those who show some natural skill, may get to ride lots of horses that the less obsessive customers don`t want to do for themselves. Some of the top USET riders in all the disciplines got their basic skills by the barn rat route.
In 2012 there are many pressures against barn rat-ism, a big one being the fear of the barn owner against litigation if the child should get injured. Parents may not think that it`s a good avenue toward college acceptance, letting their kids hang out all hours at the barn. But still, for all the pressures against, being a barn rat is probably the surest way to gain the necessary skills that those we admire as “real horsemen and real horsewomen” all possess.