Rachel Parrish confidently moves a grooming brush across the horse’s mane, releasing tangles and bits of hay.
“His name is Fat Boy,” she says with a smile.
Despite her casual manner, Rachel’s responsibilities are pressing. She is a worker here at WVU’s Equine Education and Resource Center, a full-time veterinary assistant, a part-time WVU student, president of the WVU Collegiate Horseman’s Association (CHA), and the secretary of the national CHA organization.
At 23 years old, she has already dedicated more than a decade to working with animals. It started with a single horse.
Falling in Love
Rachel was born near Richmond, Virginia’s busy highways, train trestles and cobblestone streets. Fifteen miles south, the landscape opens up into fields, forests and streams. It was here, in the town of Chester that Rachel first got in a saddle. She was 12 years old.
“It was a white mustang,” Rachel said with a glint in her eye. “I loved it.” The ride had been given to her as a gift from a family member. “If I had to thank somebody for starting it all, it would be my uncle, because he’s the one who paid for that first horseback riding lesson, and it just took off from there.”
Her uncle, Russ Baker, was simply giving a gift that he had enjoyed at her age many years previous. And trying to keep her out of trouble. “I thought maybe a horseback ride would give her something to concentrate on besides boys,” Baker said with a laugh. “And it worked! She fell in love.”
Rachel concedes that a periodic fascination with horses is almost stereotypical for girls. “A lot of people think it’s a phase and they’ll grow out of it,” she said. “I didn’t.”
The night after her first lesson, Rachel told her parents that she wanted to go back.
A Passion Expanding
Unfortunately for Rachel, horseback riding lessons were (and are) expensive. But rather than allow the newfound passion to fade into a cliché of youth, she approached Elaine Wilson, the barn manager who owned the mustang, with a proposition: she would work in the barn in exchange for lessons. Wilson agreed, and Rachel showed promise instantly.
“She’s just got such a nice way about her that the animals really responded to her,” Wilson said.
Rachel’s early work was not glamorous. She began learning the basics by mucking stalls and feeding the horses. But this early in Rachel’s working life, Wilson could already see the concerted work ethic that would stay with her into her time at WVU.
“We’ve had other kids who don’t really want to work, but I never had a problem with Rachel,” Wilson said. As if to emphasize the point, she repeated, “Never.”
When Rachel learned that one of her riding instructors was the leader of the barn's 4H club, she began working with that organization as well. This involved a wider variety of projects, from community service to fundraising campaigns for horse show competitions.
By 2015, Rachel had graduated from a junior college. Though horses were still a passion, by then she had realized that her interests extended to the entire animal kingdom and was working part-time with a local veterinary clinic. She didn’t necessarily want to be a vet, but she knew that she wanted to complete a bachelor’s degree in a field that involved working with animals. One evening, she found herself on the phone with a friend who was already attending WVU, discussing her options.
“While I was on the phone with her, we were looking at WVU majors and I saw that they had an equine studies minor,” Rachel said.
She applied that very night.
In August of 2015, Rachel started working at Morgantown’s Hillcrest Veterinary Clinic, where she is still employed. Hillcrest offers her opportunities that she couldn’t have at home. Virginia’s veterinary services are heavily regulated, requiring technician certifications to perform important tasks like drawing blood, running bloodwork, and giving injections. In West Virginia, certification is not required, allowing her to to get more hands-on experience with treating animals.
Spending this much time around pets gives Rachel a surprising glimpse into human nature as well. Some of it is encouraging. “Around Christmas time, I can’t tell you how many clients will bring homebaked goods and candy and cookies just to thank us for all the hard work that we do year round,” Rachel said.
On the other hand, it can also be disheartening. “I try not to judge, but when you see someone come in with their pet and it’s been sick for a week, and they come up with a million excuses about why they couldn’t bring their pet in sooner, that kind of changes my view on people.”
The suffering of animals seems to be an animating force for Rachel. She thinks of her work as ambassadorship for the pets she’s treating.
“This may sound kind of ridiculous to say, but the point of being in the veterinary field is that we’re advocating for them,” Rachel said. “People can speak for themselves. We’re speaking for the ones who can’t speak.”
Not long after she began working at Hillcrest, Rachel began working toward her Animal Nutrition Sciences major at WVU. She was unsure what the university had to offer, but was soon introduced to the WVU Collegiate Horseman’s Association (CHA) in one of her equine studies classes. She started attending the club right away.
By her second year, she was the secretary, and by the following semester she was serving as president of the WVU chapter and secretary of the national CHA organization.
Heavy Load, Even Keel
Fifteen miles east of WVU’s crowded downtown campus, Rachel walks Fat Boy down the stable corridor to turn him out into a field. She makes the 25-minute drive to The Hazel Ruby McQuain Equine Education and Resource Center (which she just calls “the farm”) often.
“I typically don’t have weekends,” she says. "There may be one weekend every 2 or 3 months that I don’t have to work at either the farm or the clinic.”
Nothing about Rachel suggests that she is bitter about this. On the contrary, all of the work seems to continually drive her toward her eventual goal: leading a team of people as a farm manager.
As she removes Fat Boy’s lead and lets him wander into a field with the other horses, the air feels cool, the sun warm, the day leisurely and serene. A fifteen-mile drive home awaits.