I can remember the woman striding towards me down the cement aisle way, the heels of her paddock boots clinking with each step. Her bright blue eyes squinting into the dark of the interior of a barn, and her black hair swinging along with her hips. She pounded the pavement to my location, hovering in my horses stall.
“What are you doing? Why do you have a wheelbarrow out?”
I hesitated, perplexed at how I was already being reprimanded at this new barn afet having only been here for 12 hours. I chose my words carefully, and decided that less was more, “Um. I’m just cleaning Levi’s stall? Is that OK?”
She raked a hand through her hair and in a louder voice replied, “Mucking his stall is something that you’re paying us to do. Thats my job, not yours.”
I was stumped. I had arrived at Kerryman Stables in the summer of my 15 year old year. My parents had told me weeks earlier that we were going to spend two weeks at our lakehouse on Chautauqua Lake, New York. Devastated over the thought of taking that long of a break from riding, and desperate to keep my competitive edge for the events and shows that were coming up, I asked if Levi could possibly vacation with us.
I promised to get my riding done before family activities begun, and negotiated with them that this wouldn’t interfere with their own time. I found a barn that accepted seasonal boarders with abbreviated stays, and calculated the distance to our house. Kerryman was only 5 miles away. I told my parents that I would bring my bike and get myself to and from.
So on August 2nd, 2002 Levi was loaded into a friends trailer and hauled an hour away from my hometown and the barn that I had boarded at since the ripe young age of 5. The consummate pony clubber, I had my tack and trunk packed meticulously, and my stall card printed. His feed was portioned out into labeled zip lock baggies, and his bandages wrapped tight. We were on our first truly solo adventure.
I arrived at the new location in the evening, as the sun was setting over the lake and the horses were being turned out into their paddocks. I was only briefly introduced to the owners and operators of the farm, Marian and Jeff Colburn, before thrusting Levi’s stall card and list of supplements in their face. I would learn years later that the two had exchanged looks, grimaced, and acknowledged that they had a terror on their hands.
So it came as no surprise that I was already annoying Marian within hours of arriving. I had never kept my horse at a full care facility, and was uncertain as to how to relinquish his care to others. I was perplexed by their eye rolls when they saw his hyper-organized feed and supplements. And I was confused by their evening trail rides which left the safe confines of the arena and adventured out into the wild unknown.
My fifteen year old self only knew one way with which to react – I held firm to my course.
I arrived every morning at 7 am and carefully groomed and tacked Levi, hacking to the outdoor arena and putting in 45 minutes of flatwork. I hosed him off, meticulously picked the knots out of his tail, and left him drying in his perfectly cleaned stall for the day, one that I chose to clean instead of allowing the owners to do their jobs. I would ride my bike back to my family’s home and partake in wakeboarding and tubing, bocce ball and fly fishing, and then navigate back to the beautiful red barn at night for a final check.
When I arrived, I would find Marian in the barn blowing any lingering sawdust while Jeff belted show tunes as he mended a fence or fixed a waterer. A mini fridge was located in the maintenance room, and an open beer would be sitting on the bench in the aisle. Happily in charge of their own farm, this had been a lifelong goal of theirs, and the intrusion of a bossy fifteen year old was not high on their list.
But we began to talk. They heckled me for my pony clubbing ways, and shook their heads as I reached for the pitchfork time and time again. They mocked my matching saddle pads and polo’s, and harassed me each time I mentioned my ribbon’s and trophies.
And yet I persevered. Day in and day out, I showed up and felt my horses legs. Tacked him up and swung on. I got braver as the days rolled by, first leaving the ring to hack around the farm, and then further exploring into the miles of trails that surrounded the farm. And as the days passed, the glances that they shared became less. The head shakes were fewer. And I began to be greeted with a smile and a headlock.
At the end of the week, Marian sat me down and asked if I wanted a job. They were looking for a new “barn girl” for the following summer, and since I seemed to have such a connection with my pitchfork, would I want the title? I had never worked at a farm before, having only ever being a paid boarder, and I jumped at the chance.
The following summer, I worked morning chores six days a week. The summer after that, Marian became pregnant with her first child and asked if I would take over the entire farm, hiring me as her Farm Manager. I was seventeen years old, and it was a dream position.
My time at Kerryman was idyllic. I not only went from obnoxious boarder to paid employee, but I also became family.
The summer after I graduated college, I moved back to my families lakehouse to take care of my brother, and earn some money before moving to Lexington, Kentucky. By this time, Kerryman Stables had been sold and Marian and Jeff owned their own smaller farm outside of town. I saw Marian and Jeff rarely, as I kept Levi at a friends private farm, and worked as a waitress and bartender to support myself.
Only a few weeks before Labor Day, with the soft deadline for the termination of my waitressing job approaching, I received a phone call from my mother, telling me to give my notice and come to Pittsburgh. My father was not responding to his treatment, and the doctors thought it would be a matter of days before he was gone. I hung up the phone and climbed into my car. I didn’t know where to go, but felt myself steering towards Marian and Jeff’s home.
I let myself into their back door and just pulled on Marian’s sleeve, leading her out to the barn. I told her what was happening, and she simply sat there and listened. She held me as I wept and then continued on with her evening barn chores as I raged. And as I stared at her in confusion, I watched as she handed me back my pitchfork and nodded. We picked the stalls and fed the horses, swept the aisleway and topped off buckets. And by the end, my eyes had dried, and my life felt intact.
I am still close to those two people who guided me into this world. Who took on an obnoxious teenager and gave her a job. Who took a chance on a young woman who had never held a real job and entrusted her with their livelihood. Who supported a college student as she tried to pave her way into the world. And who now, can crack open a beer with an adult me and share stories into the night.
I hope that you found a Marian and Jeff. A role model. A boss. A friend. And at the end of the day, a barn family.