I was raised in a house with my two brothers, my father and my long-suffering mother. There are disadvantages to being raised in such a testosterone filled environment. To say that my understanding of the interpersonal relationships between women is “limited” would be a gross understatement. Krista would describe me as socially under-evolved. As a result, when I watch women interacting with each other at the barn, at horse shows, or at the many equine-related social functions which I’m obliged to attend, I treat it like an anthropologic investigation.
I used to try to follow the endless conversations about bits, bridles and boots, or who had a horse that was sick, or lame or out of condition, but I eventually realized that I really didn’t have much interest in what they were talking about. What I found utterly fascinating though, was how they speak to each other. And the most interesting social experiment of all is when one of the barn girls shows up with a boyfriend.
There is an extremely delicate equilibrium in any lesson barn. There is a balance of power that crosses generational, socio-economic and experiential lines. There is an ever-changing pecking order, based on seniority, horse ownership status and riding skill. And nothing blows all of this to pieces faster than a 17-year-old boy walking into the barn with his new girlfriend. Let me begin by saying that he is completely oblivious to all of this. He thinks he’s just going to see her favorite pony – the same way one of his buddies might take him out to the driveway to see the new sub-woofer in his car. What he doesn’t realize, is that it’s not the horse that’s on display – it’s him.
In contrast to the blissful ignorance on the part of the boyfriend, the barn girl is 100 per cent aware of what she’s doing. She will have rated his appearance, his car, his clothes, his ability to speak to adults, his proficiency around animals, his overall level of charm – and how these things are likely to affect her status within the herd. She will have spent hours calculating the various scenarios which might play out during and after his visit. She’ll have test marketed him to some of her friends already, to see how he graded out. For her, bringing him to the barn is an extremely cautiously calculated risk. He, on the other hand, is thinking about boobs.
If the inaugural showing is well-received by the critics, and the girlfriend’s position within the barn has suitably improved, there will be a second command performance. If things continue to go well, he will be “taken on the road” – i.e. invited to a horse show. Now this is where she can really make hay. If he’s willing to stand beside the ring and appear interested in what’s going on, that’s a gold star. If he’s willing to hold her horse, while she wanders off aimlessly and for no good reason – two gold stars. If he can look good enough doing it that there’s a “who’s he with?” buzz around the show – three gold stars. But if he will do all that, fetch water, hold her helmet while she eats and back up the trailer – home run. She will have succeeded in making her barnmates jealous, which was really the only reason she brought him around in the first place.
I’ve tried to warn some young men about this. I’ve passed along the advice that my father gave to me: set the bar low early on. Unless you want to go to every horse show from now until she grows tired of you (or you do something to injure her social status), then don’t go to all the shows she invites you to. Unless you’re prepared to always hold the horse, don’t hold the horse at all – pretend to be afraid of it, if necessary. In short, don’t do anything at the beginning that you aren’t willing to do for the duration. We’ve all made this mistake, learn from your elders. Don’t be proud, deliberately screw it up – this is how I’ve avoided doing laundry for over 20 years.
My own daughter is dating/displaying one of the local dairy farmers’ sons. He was at a show last weekend, holding the horse and fetching water at the same time, while she sat in the shade with her friends eating watermelon. At some level, I feel like I should help the kid out, but at the same time, I want him to be semi-terrified of me. So, as a result, he’s on his own. It’s the classic anthropologist conundrum: how to be objective when you have a stake in the outcome? It’s also interesting to watch the interplay between my wife and the horse and the friends and the boyfriend. It’s actually made me willing to go to horse shows myself, just to watch it all unfold – but naturally, not all of them.