A woman in a winter jacket walks toward a blanketed horse in a barn aisle

The Smelly Roommate

Sophie Margola ’21

I’ve always been deemed the smelliest roommate—not because I don’t shower or because I fall behind on laundry—but because when I’m not in my room or grabbing dinner at the Pub in the Sullivan Student Center, I’m at the barn with St. Lawrence’s 20-plus horses. 

During my initial visit to St. Lawrence in the summer before my senior year of high school, I insisted that I visit the barn before I even stepped on campus. The warm Canton air welcomed me with open arms as I walked up to the stables perched at the edge of the University’s property line. Part of the barn was under construction at the time, so the smell of freshly sawed wood wafted toward us. The horses hung their heads out of their stall windows, just as happy as I was in that moment. I knew instantly that this would be my new home.

I never found the phrase, “did you grow up in a barn?” to be an insult, but rather the greatest compliment one can offer. Having been raised around the horse industry my whole life, my fondest moments are the ones in which I smell the worst—hauling hundreds of bales of hay into a humid loft, slopping bran mash into feeding tubs, and picking manure out of horse hooves. These smells seemed to follow me to college as I joined the Saints riding team my freshman year. Through the highest highs, and lowest lows of my four years at St. Lawrence, the barn has been my place of solace—my rock in the chaos of classes, friends, and a deadly virus— and I’m not even talking about COVID-19.

On my typical barn day, I open the front doors and I’m welcomed by the smell of hay, fresh shavings, and arena footing. I know better than to wear my “nice clothes” to the barn anymore—they’ll soak up the smell like an unforgiving sponge. The first place I visit after greeting the dogs, Annie and Cooper, is the locker room—the metal of the locker pangs the inside of my nose, and I often get small whiffs of the freshly applied Pledge Lemon—the evidence of a well-known Saints riding team chore.

On horse show days—my favorite days of the year—the barn is filled with unfamiliar faces, unfamiliar smells, and the familiar feeling of excitement and nerves. The typical horse show aroma consists of freshly oiled leather, trays of oozing mac and cheese made by supportive Saints riding parents, hot coffee in the musty boiler room, freshly bathed horses, and an exorbitant amount of tail detangler. There are many people who get to come into this special place, and I wonder if they love the smells as much as I do. 

There has been a time, though, that I’ve felt indifferent about the smells of my sacred space. In the spring of 2019, our team dealt with the outbreak of EHV-1, a serious and potentially deadly horse virus, which is still making its way across the United States. Our outbreak involved more Clorox wipes and thermometers than I can fathom, anti-viral baths to clean our feet before walking into new stalls, the pungent smell of fresh latex gloves, and the sweet smell of molasses used in medicine balls. Those days were some of the longest I’ve spent at the barn, running IVs into the early morning hours on my own horse and caring for those St. Lawrence horses who also meant so much to me. Every horse made it to the other side alive—easily my biggest accomplishment as a member of the Saints riding team. 

Two years later, I’m greeted again by the haunting smells of bleach and sanitizer and the campus asking us to rally together during the COVID-19 pandemic. The flashbacks are uncanny—but one thing remains the same. Even in these disheartening times, the St. Lawrence barn remains my place of comfort. The invasive smells cannot take away from those that make me feel at home—sticky peppermint horse treats, mists of citronella fly-spray, and whiffs of boot polish cloud together to mask the uneasy world outside. In this rather unfamiliar year, the barn provides me with a familiar escape. Life at the Elsa Gunnison Appleton Riding Hall my senior year remained unchanged—the smells and sounds happily greeted me, every single day. To the dismay of those around me, I hope they cling to me after I graduate—I’m not quite done being the smelly roommate just yet.