Written by Sarah Hickner | Photo by Jennifer Gray

I hail from Mississippi — a state with two seasons at best. The summer feels a lot like a steam room. Then there’s the season I call “wintermush,” which is an incredibly long season with wildly varying temperatures and mud. A lot of mud. 

When my husband and I moved to Virginia, my friends in the deep south would get a wide-eyed, reverent look, asking, “What’s it like to have four seasons? I love Mississippi, but I wish we had four real seasons.” My response was always the same: “Winter is really cold.” 

In the beginning, I hated winter. I lived in fear of the frozen wasteland the world became each winter. I dreaded cleaning stalls in below freezing temperatures and the ground being too frozen to ride. Winter felt like death with the barren trees and shorter days. The horses and I all look like blobs in our winter coats, and I longed for spring when my horse would be sleek and handsome again. 

Silas, my Thoroughbred, can predict spring better than the groundhog. In fact, this Groundhog Day, while the different woodchucks across the country were giving opposing opinions on whether spring would arrive early or not, Silas gave me his own prediction. The horse loves mud and hates blankets, which means I have a lot of grooming to do every ride. On Feb. 2, bundled in many layers of clothes, I began to curry Silas’ rich brown winter coat. When I pulled the brush from his body, his prediction was clear: Spring was coming soon, as foretold by the winter hairs that had collected in the bristles.

Spring! That single word makes any Virginia horseman’s heart go pitter-patter. Spring is our hope on the horizon. It promises us that at the end of a barren season, there will be life, joy, and perfect temperatures. 

As a kid, my teachers described spring by saying, “It roars in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” Being from Mississippi, the roaring lion came in the form of thunderstorms and tornadoes that left us cowering in the bathroom or basement. In Virginia, the lion is the winter weather, and he is toying with us like a little mouse. If we wash and put away our snowgear too soon, get too excited, or make too many plans, the lion will hold us by the tail and we dangle upside down, tortured by winter. In other words, we’ll get snow or a freeze in late March or early April. 

But eventually the lion truly does give way, as the days grow longer. We wear short sleeved shirts, and stop spending all our money on hay because there is actual real live green grass. 

We line the fences with winter blankets to clean and put away before the stink bugs descend. With a bit of elbow grease, the horses begin to look more sleek, as their winter coats float across the barn aisle, like Hunt Country tumbleweeds. Sometimes the winter coat tumbleweeds are swept into a pile, and from the corner of your eye, you consistently mistake it for a barn cat. Grooming in the spring is best done with your mouth closed, or else you’ll risk catching some hairs in your throat. Then you’ll be hacking from more than just pollen.

The tack rooms and feed rooms receive a much-needed deep clean, and the leather tack is relieved of its gooey buildup. There was a time I worked at a barn with a heated tack room and hot and cold water. The tack was always clean then. 

The horsemen across Virginia pull out our calendars, marking shows, clinics, and trail rides. We stress over whether or not we can be ready for the Upperville Colt and Horse Show that seems ages away, until it’s not. Personally, I’ve only been ready once, and it was an unforgettable experience. As we hit the trail and gallop off a season of built up angst, the extra sunshine makes us braver. We smile as we pass by the tiny beginnings of buds and witness new growth. Even the smells of fresh grass, manure, dirt, and honeysuckles are richer. 

It was during one particularly joyful spring, I finally appreciated winter. You see, back home in the deep south, there’s not much excitement in spring. With a world covered in evergreens, the new life was never so obvious to my rarely observant eyes. But in this beautiful land of Virginia, it feels like the earth explodes in new life. Just like every great story needs an antagonist, spring needed winter for me to appreciate it as the gift that it is. 

My insulated boots are traded for wellies, unless I want to risk ruining my lovely riding boots or my tennis shoes being sucked off as I traipse out to catch a pony.  Now I check before jamming my foot into boots or haplessly grabbing a saddle pad. One eight-legged surprise is enough to leave an impression for a few years. And just as I start thinking the world couldn’t get any better, a cloud of gnats hovers around my face, a horsefly lands on my horse’s bum, and a bead of sweat trickles down my back. Hello, summer. ML

Bio: Sarah makes her author debut with “Stories from the Barn Aisle.” Always a storyteller and a bit of an adventurer, she finally decided to write her stories for the world to read. As a kid, her favorite books were from the Thoroughbred series, and the books inspired her to leave her home state of Mississippi to gallop racehorses in Kentucky while in college. Sarah is now settled down (which sounds more grown up than she feels) in Virginia with her husband, two kids, a horse, a dog, and a bearded dragon. Look for more stories from Sarah in future issues of Middleburg Life. 

Published in the April 2021 issue of Middleburg Life.