I will tell the story we call “The Summer of Surprise Haircut.” I’ve changed the names to protect the savages but – they know who they are.
I’m making generalizations here but humor me. Barns are full of girls/women and we are of a type. Ball caps, sunburns and pony tails, dirty fingernails, loud laughs and clothes stained with sweat, horse medicines, axle grease not to mention, cat and dog hair and the ever present horse slobber.
The Summer of the Surprise Haircut was typical in that our employees, volunteers, working students and interns reflected the description above.
Kendra was sitting on a tack box between stalls trying to eat lunch while fending off nibbles from horses on both sides. Eventually, she gave up and ran her hands down her red rope braid of hair and inspected the ends that looked like they’d been gnawed by small animals. She commented on the state of her hair and I and several others realized we were all in the same boat. Wind, sun, sweat, and a lack of interest in products contributed to this condition.
Suddenly, without warning, Delphine rushed over, grabbed Kendra’s braid and hacked off three inches of her hair with a pair of shears we used for horse tails and baling twine.
“SUPRISE HAIRCUT!” She screamed.
Kendra’s mouth dropped and everyone rolled with belly laughs at the audacious act.
Delphine held the cut hair high like a trophy and jumped up and down while we all laughed ourselves silly.
Of course Kendra’s hair looked hacked, of course she’d need to visit an experienced beautician to “fix” it – but still, it was funny. Savagely funny.
That summer, without warning, there were many surprise haircuts. Unspoken rules developed; she who had been the recipient of a surprise haircut was on the prowl to deliver the next one and so it went all summer.
I found girls hiding in the tack room crying over an attack and each time, I left them alone to come to the realization that our hair does not define us and despite feeling attacked and violated, it was, in actuality, just hilarious fun.
Toward the end of summer, I was reaching into a tack box to retrieve a favorite half pad when I heard several sets of boots running at me yelling “SUPRISE HAIRCUT.” The deed was done so swiftly and savagely I didn’t have time to defend myself. Despite being 30 years older than the girls, I too lost a good three inches of sun streaked hair. As a group, we fell to the ground laughing – each of us had lost something, and each of us needed to come to the conclusion that we we’d lost was simply an unhelpful attachment to something we assumed defined us, but in fact, this was a fallacy.
Perhaps the best part of the joke is “Get over yourself.”
Whenever I tell this story, even to barn girls, people squirm and one or two invariably let me know “That’s not even remotely funny Joell.” And of course, they are basically correct. But to talk to any of those teens about “the summer of Surprise Haircut” and they all fall into peals of deep laughter.
Was this just a particularly rough bunch of teens that year?
Perhaps, but I think not.
By now you know that our horses are primarily Off Track Thoroughbreds and almost exclusively geldings. When we turn them out in pasture for their social time, you can’t help but marvel at the shenanigans that happen with healthy horses of all ages get to roll and run and wrestle.
Most of the time it’s all good fun but sometimes there are bruises and bleeding. Roles are developed and re-organized, personalities and preferences bubble up and we watch the horses explore limits, push boundaries, try out new behaviors and discover, over and over again – the joy of mischief.
So what is mischief and why is it charming? Is it character building? Is it healthy?
I think the important part about mischief is that it’s an illustration that somebody feels safe enough to push boundaries in a joyful way. Do lines get crossed? They do and most often the boundary crosser is rebuked for their efforts. But if that boundary is pushed just enough – we laugh and laugh and bonds are created and strengthened, community and friendships are developed and life is simply…. Better.
It’s the same with teen girls and adolescent Thoroughbreds.
Humor is multi-layered and complicated. Mischief takes this one step further and illustrates complex ideas such as rules and how to point out how ineffective they might be, social context of understanding, absurdity and more. If you want to get all “neuroscience-ish” about it, you might see how Theory of Mind is developing, the rich dance of boundaries and relationships, advocacy, agency are developed and re-shaped.
For the record, this is turning out to be “The Summer of the Well-Placed Plastic Snake.”