Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Barn Sick

My dad’s mother was an avid camper and Girl Scout. When she was a kid, she loved going away to Girl Scout summer camp. Whenever anyone asked her if she got homesick at camp, she always said that she didn’t get homesick, but when she went home, she did get “camp-sick”.

I have a similar problem. I’m not homesick, exactly, although I do miss our little house and the space and privacy it provided. But I don’t wish I were at home. I don’t pine over Wheaton or Chicago or America in general. I am, for lack of a better word, barn-sick.

For nearly three years, I volunteered at a horse barn near my house called Danada Equestrian Center. Danada is an unusual place. It’s owned by the county and is part of the DuPage County Forest Preserves. The place has about four full-time staff members, and a handful of part-time seasonal staff. The bulk of the labour force is made up of volunteers, crazy people who commit to coming in for four hours a week to shovel horseshit and carry buckets of water.

What would possess someone to spend their spare time carting around 80-pound bales of hay? Why would you want to muck out stalls? Who in their right mind would sign up for a frigid winter of hacking away at frozen poop and a sweltering summer of slapping away flies?

Nearly every volunteer is drawn to Danada by a love of horses. Through the training program and then during the course of volunteering, you learn so much about horses. Grooming, tacking, feeding, taking care of health issues – volunteers are involved with all aspects of horse care. I’ve seen an equine dentist float a horse’s teeth. I watched an equine chiropractor give a horse an adjustment and show us how to fit a saddle. The best day, by far, was watching the vet castrate a colt, but for some strange reason, Peter doesn’t like me to talk about that too explicitly.

In addition to free education, volunteers also get some riding perks. After putting in 32 hours of volunteer time, a volunteer is eligible to get one free session of lessons. The rest of the lessons are half-priced. Volunteers can also take 3 free trail rides a month. In the winter, volunteers get to participate in the Adopt-a-Horse program, which is like having your own horse but without the bills. Adopters look after their horses two times a week, working on grooming, riding or ground manners. It’s a program designed to keep volunteers addicted to Danada and to keep the horses from becoming too fat and lazy in their off-season.

The horses are definitely the hook that gets the majority of volunteers in the door. I was all about the horses when I first started. But, in the end, horses are only half of the equation. The people – the other volunteers and the staff members – play an equal role in the attraction of Danada.

I made great friends at Danada. The horses may get you in the door, but it’s the people that make you want to go back week after week. It’s a character-building bonding experience to struggle up a hill, carrying a bale of hay with a fellow volunteer, trailed by hungry horses, struggling to get your footing in mud the consistency of cake batter. I met people I never would have met otherwise. I enjoyed working with them, even when we were working in the rain or scraping paint off fences in the middle of winter or de-cob-webbing the hayloft or pushing overloaded wheelbarrows to the manure spreader.

Wednesday and Sunday mornings are hard for me now, because that’s when I would have been at Danada. I miss the horses. I miss my friends. I miss the work, even the back-breaking disgusting chores. I don’t think I will ever be able to replace Danada because it truly is a unique place.

5 Comments:

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