In search of ponies: Barn smells become comforting

Sharna Johnson

It was a wafting, almost ambient kind of odor.

Sniff sniff sniff…

“Urine… stale urine,” I identified, looking around and dismissing it, figuring there was a dirty baby diaper somewhere in the restaurant.

The next time we ate at that restaurant weeks later, we were seated in the same booth.

It was faint but omnipresent, nagging like a sore tooth the longer we were there and it seemed to come from under the table.

“Do you guys smell that?” I asked, unable to ignore it this time.

“No, what smell?” my kids responded.

I explained to them it was the second time I had noticed the odor of urine in the booth.

Though they eventually said they thought they smelled it — probably just to appease me — it was all I could smell throughout our meal.

After inspecting and concluding the booth was clean, we engaged in a lively debate of theories as to the origin of the smell.

We eventually agreed that since it was a 24-hour establishment, the booth must be the regular seat of a bum or drunk looking for a warm place to relax in the wee hours.

Weeks later, a friend invited me to dinner and as I slid into the booth to join her, I started to notice the now-familiar odor.

Oh boy.

Since this was a different booth in a different restaurant and it was the third time with only one common denominator — me — I knew we had a problem, or better yet, I had a problem.

But I was perplexed.

Desperate, I ran a mental checklist, starting with the basics.

Shower… check.

Clean shirt… check, freshly laundered too.

Clean pants… check, also freshly laundered.

Good smelly spray-stuff… check.

As I worked my way down, my mind’s eye was drawn to the last thing I did before I ran out of the house and a visual snippet surfaced of me sitting on the end of my bed, tying my shoes.

… My favorite, most comfortable, tattered, flopping-sole, frayed-lace leather shoes.

The ones I wore for everything: Cleaning, yard work, relaxing, projects — you name it — including working around … the barn.

My barn shoes.

The only thing I was wearing that wasn’t clean, situated under the table in the precise location of the origin of the smell at all three restaurants.

It was such an epiphany to my Yankee brain that I couldn’t resist spilling my thoughts to my friend as she sat across from me picking at her appetizer with what I’m sure was a poker face.

“Um, I’m so sorry, but I don’t know if you can smell that smell…” I started, walking her through my deductions from the first restaurant to the present.

In retrospect I couldn’t believe I never thought of it before, that it had never occurred to me.

It was most definitely a “Duh” moment.

As a place of retreat and peace, I had been spending hours upon hours around the barn.

And in a barn you start to become immune to the earth beneath your feet, or for that matter the distinction between what is actual earth and what’s not.

Looking at it logically, if your furry pals’ food is so gargantuan that it has to be trucked in, it stands to reason the product of all that eating is going to be pretty expansive.

And with those huge barrels and tanks of water? Well those gallons and gallons gotta go somewhere.

So while you certainly don’t aim for the piles and puddles, at some point, you stop trying so hard to miss them, trudging through instead of around.

Funny thing about horse barns is most people who spend a lot of time in them start to find comfort in the smells and sounds.

I think we can all agree, there is no comfort in the smell of a litter box or stepping in a dog pile, and I’m not sure why, but horses are just different.

If you’ve ever had a love of horses, then you understand when I say there’s nothing like the olfactory blend of horse sweat, damp leather, hay and grain and yes, even the stuff on the ground.

But it’s sacred to the barn, kind of a total package thing.

There’s an old saying, that “if you hang out in a barber shop long enough you’re bound to get a haircut.”

In the case of my shoes, they became the barn, soaking up the ambiance, or at least part of it.

And, well, as I said before, it’s a total package deal and the smell needs to stay in the barn.

That in mind, I invested in some rubber boots, retiring my old-faithfuls.

But in the time since, with my newfound awareness, I have encountered other people who tickle your senses if you stand next to them long enough, sending the message that they too have a barn.

And I know even though they may not wear their hearts on their sleeves, it can more than likely be found in their boots.

Sharna Johnson is a staff writer for Freedom New Mexico. She can be reached at