The Barn: A Safe Space for Girls
By: Ansley Hayes
Last summer I got up at an ungodly hour on a Saturday, dug through my hamper in the dark, and put on the t-shirt I bought at my UGA student orientation. It has a horse on it, not a dawg. I grabbed coffee and a banana and drove an hour north to attend a horse show at the farm where I grew up. I walked down to the arena and passed a gaggle of serious-faced, pigtailed girls holding reins attached to bushy-maned ponies with deviant eyes. One of the girls hollered at me “Hey are you on the equestrian team?” I laughed and said “Hah, nope, they recruit those girls from the whole country, some of them will be Olympians!” The girl stared at me for a second and said “Well I’m going to ride for them!” and turned back to her pony. I watched her ride a few hours later and wondered if she knew how big of a task she’d assigned herself.
On April 19 the UGA Equestrian Team won their sixth national championship since 2003 after facing point for point challenges from USC. The women of UGA’s NCAA equestrian team regularly experience great success with little campus recognition. I follow their season and cheer at their events. Watching them inspires both school spirit and nostalgia.
Growing up caring for and riding horses gave me daily access to a women-centered space and spurred the development of my own feminism. Though, like many women, I did not embrace the term “feminism” until I went to college, growing up in a barn nestled among the hills of Northeast Georgia taught me to recognize the value of women and girls working together. For all the benefits of rural life and the connection to nature that it provides, living out in the middle of nowhere leaves few options for community spaces that cater to the innate strengths of girlhood. I was lucky to find a space where girls flourished under the guidance of horses and women. In my equestrian community, women ran everything. Women of all ages, occupations, family structures, sizes, backgrounds, talents, beliefs and accents. They were my teachers, my mentors, my biggest supporters and most tireless educators. This intimate, daily immersion into a space where women were united by a common passion was a lesson in the vagaries of real life, the value of diversity and a guidebook through the possibilities open to me if I was brave enough to craft a life I wanted.
From age seven until I left home at 19, I spent most of my free time with a rotating roster of self-identified “barn girls” hidden away in an oasis of Bermuda grass pasture, arena sand and scrubbed pine stall doors. I spent six days a week doing outdoor farm labor traditionally considered to be “men’s work”. I got dirty. I got hurt. I sweated enough during the summer to fill the buckets I spent hours scrubbing. I learned a respect and reverence for animals that seems like its own kind of magic. I viewed my fellow barn girls as teammates and our instructors and barn managers as sources of wisdom. During summer camp sessions and riding team competitions, I stepped in and out of leadership and supporting roles. I can pinpoint the first day I stopped fearing being large and loud in my body while trying to convince an ex-racehorse twice my nine-year-old height that listening to me was a better choice than making decisions on his own. Working with horses as a child and teenager proved to me the connection between passion, goals, work, and achievement. Sharing the company of large companion animals fostered an emotional awareness that serves me still.
The life cycle of barn girls is a universal story among horse people. We come bright eyed, heads full of pony tales and horse stories and dreams about the greatness we will find once we learn how to sit tall with lowered heels and new confidence and find empathy with an animal evolved to run away from fear. We remain sequestered in our pastured playground as long as childhood and circumstance will keep us, happy to dote on our mounts and each other. United by passion and empowered by guidance and instruction from wise women and horses alike, we become twice as strong because we grow together. Yet though the barn is our sanctuary, even the tallest fences and sturdiest stall doors can not shield barn girls from the tragedies of growing up. Hardship, broken promises, sudden changes, and the looming unknowability of the future touch all of us in turn. Our horses remain, comforting us with a combination of stoicism and unpredictable energy that makes them such magnetic animals. Our friendships remain, reminding us that we are not alone. But barn girls grow up. Barn girls leave the barn.
When Athens and college and all the new freedom of adulthood called, at first I did not want to answer. I was scared to leave and the transition to UGA was not a smooth as some of the fences I cleared with my mare in our last year of competition. I was afraid that without the support of my equestrian community I would flounder and fail as an adult. I was wrong. Community is mobile. Strength of character and confidence in yourself are not fruits that ripen and rot on the vine. Horses gave me a framework for problem solving and for examining situations without my own interest at the forefront. I found more barn girls as I moved through school. Despite differing collegiate social circles and academic interests, we clustered together around mutual experience and again, shared passions. For some of them horses were a part of college, again acting as a grounding rod for the uncertainties of young adulthood. Some of them paid rent by working in new barns that no doubt housed a group of barn girls of their own.
For the past year I haven’t been able to ride as often as I’d like, the opportunities to hop on a horse come and go. But the lessons gifted to me by horses, by a barn full of women who cared, by the strength I found in a community designed for me, those have never left. Growing up in a woman-centered space where girls’ achievements and dreams were celebrated, I did not have to apologize for being a girl. I had the freedom and resources to build confidence, to make mistakes, to learn from and support other women and girls while we all worked toward our individual dreams. We need more spaces like this. The desire already exists for a women’s center on campus, but without a physical space it cannot grow. The women of UGA deserve a space built to serve their needs as they navigate through the university community and work toward their best selves. We need more places where women do not have to waste the energy that could fuel their dreams on arguing about their right to be heard, to not be considered an exception, to exist without apology.