Finding a barn to call home doesn’t happen all at once. Some barns are love at first sight: perfect and pristine, worthy of a thousand reblogs on Tumblr and likes on Instagram. But they aren’t a place where you feel at home. To be honest, barns like that make me anxious as hell because I don’t want to make a mess and worry about making more work for the stablehands. Even with their cozy, climate controlled tack rooms and viewing rooms — complete with couches and issues of the latest horse magazines — it feels like a hotel more than a home.

As a homebody with an uncomfortably high level of social anxiety, feeling at home outside of my house isn’t something that comes easy. I don’t let my guard down. I don’t like feeling comfortable because then I feel vulnerable. When I’m at the barn, I know I’m there to work and focus and be mentally tuned in for my ride. Well, I used to, anyway.

Over the last few months, I’ve felt my attitude towards the barns I ride at change. I started spending more and more time there, not just to groom and ride and groom again, but to just be. To watch other riders in their lessons or other boarders work their horses. To hang out with my trainer and catch up on life. Or to just sit and watch the horses in their pastures, to see how they communicate with each other, and to learn more about them.

When I pull into the driveway and see one of our boarders with our resident barn dog in her lap mowing the lawn, or dragging the arena, I smile. When I walk through the gate and the white Arabian I used to ride comes up to check to see if I brought him breakfast, I start to relax. There is no judgment here, no expectation that I should be acting like someone I’m not. No judgment if I need help with something that I’ve done 1000 times before. It’s the way I feel when I’m at home, that same level of security in knowing I can’t make a fool out of myself.

Like when I moved in with my now-husband, I took things slow. I felt out the situation, the mood, the atmosphere. I kept my guard up until I finally realized I had no reason to. Now, I make plans to be at the barn even on days I’m not riding. I just want to be there, in this place that is peaceful, that’s a sanctuary, that has some magical power to lift me out of my darkest moments. And to be honest, not even my actual home can do that.

Sometimes our choices are limited in what barns we find ourselves at, and we have to manage with the hand we’re dealt. But me? I got lucky. I have not one, but two barns that feel like home, and like family. That was my goal beyond even being show-ring ready, to find the house and the fam — I mean the barn and the riding friends. At this point, there’s really no difference. And I couldn’t be happier.