Gossip Among Horse Trainers: What It Is & How to Avoid It
"My name is Brittany Labadie and I am this week's guest blogger for GoHorse.com. I specialize in natural, no force training and compete bridleless on my mare. I'm all about alternative solutions that help the horse instead of force the horse."
"Did You Hear What They Said?"
If that title got your attention then this is the blog for you. Personally, I know that words like that pique my interest. I get excited and curious and I want to know all the juicy news. Or maybe I have a client or a friend who gets me riled up and ready to fight for their honor because somebody did them so wrong. Before I know it I feel as though I have made the wrong decision and like I have said things about people who do not deserve to have those things said about them. I'm then left questioning my own integrity. It makes me wonder if they know I said those things. It makes me afraid to go have a friendly conversation with them because what if they confront me? What if they accuse me of being two-faced? These “what if”’s begin to plague my mind and cloud my thinking.
This madness that I'm sure many of you have felt in your own lives is called gossip.
"The best definition I have ever heard for gossip is that it is bringing a problem to somebody who cannot solve it for you."
This explanation is brilliant in its simplicity. If I am mad at Susie because of some misunderstanding, I should not go complain about it to Carol. I should tell Susie how I feel. And if Susie is reasonable and is my friend she will validate my feelings and we will solve the problem together. This is how functional adults should behave. If you are an adult and you are not problem-solving in this fashion, perhaps you should call into question your functionality. These words may sound harsh to those who are in the thick of it right now. You may feel attacked or defensive. I know I sometimes feel that way. Please don't stop reading. I have been where you are and I know it can get better.
The Horse Industry Gossip Trap
Gossip is a huge problem in the horse industry. Unhappy clients run to the next barn and tell their new trainer all about how awful the barn they just came from was, and we feel compelled to promise them it's going to be better here. The internet adds so much fuel to this fire. There are pages dedicated to gossip and tearing down the reputation of others in the horse world. Most of us have heard of Horrible Horsemanship, for example. What started out as a seemingly innocent enough way of educating others on what not to do featuring woeful tales of warning is now a toxic hole of hate with nearly 50,000 followers on Facebook and almost 15,000 followers on Instagram. Let those numbers sink in. Especially the Instagram numbers; Instagram is geared toward a younger crowd. The young people of the industry are learning about the industry through those who seem to hate it most. This is insanity.
"The problem is twofold: some clients are taught that gossip is strong and normal in this world by our behavior. After all, we are the leaders of the industry. Then there are some clients who gossip all on their own."
It doesn't matter how the fire starts, however. What matters is that it's put out. Our competitive nature lends itself to wanting to get and keep as many clients as possible. We wind up poaching clients from each other not because we have something to offer that the other trainer does not, but because we are desperate to get more business. We believe that it will all work out and it will all be okay and that this is for our survival. After all, everybody does it, we tell ourselves. That's the industry, we say. But doing this is like setting fire to your neighbor's farm and believing that it will not spread to yours.
The Legality of Your Words
I don't know how many of you have had the pleasure of speaking with a lawyer about their job candidly, but if you ever have the opportunity, take it. An equine attorney friend of mine said that roughly 30% of cases are injury related. Another 30% is a breach of contract and another 30% is malpractice. Only around 10% of her cases appear to strictly be libel. However, I bet if we dig into the malpractice and contract cases individually, we would see a massive lack of communication which contributed greatly to these other cases. That thought really changes these percentages for me. In a world where we could trust each other and communicate directly with each other, how many of these cases would never even happen? Another equine attorney told me 95% of her equine cases were libel. Now, maybe she just has a talent for this particular type of case, I don't know. However, considering horseback riding is in the top 10 most dangerous sports in the world, you would think most of the lawsuits would be injury related. Yet in neither instance is injury a top contender. Think about that.
How to Move Toward a “No Gossip” Business
So what do we do? How do we stop this? I know in my own life it had to start with me. I had to make sure I didn’t speak out of anger or before I had calmed down and thought about things objectively. I had to make sure I didn’t make my professional or personal problems somebody else's. I had to make sure I was approachable, and that my clients felt I was on their side, no matter what. Even now, the clients I feel can’t respect me, my time, or my rules are put out quickly. This revelation did not come overnight. It was a hard-won way of running my business and my life.
The Real Cost of Gossip & Miscommunication
Out of many examples, one, in particular, pops into my mind because of how devastating it was and how horribly it affected my young student, the horse their parents bought, and my confidence as a trainer at the time. I also think many trainers out there can easily relate to this situation.
This particular client decided to purchase and dump on me without permission a horse I could tell was incredibly lame by looking at a single photograph. I informed them the horse was lame and advised they not buy a horse with a previously bowed tendon who has a tendency to slip and fall completely down. Now, with my particular personality, I tend to oscillate between “I’m the boss here, do as I say,” and “you can’t really tell another person what to do,”. Usually, this lands me in a pretty balanced position, but hindsight being what it is, I really should have put my foot down with a resounding “NO”. However, the part of me that doesn’t want to disappoint my student combined with the horsewoman in me who loves a good project took over. Heartstrings were pulled, and I resigned to the will of the client. This was a terrible mistake.
Even the most experienced horse owners would have found this horse particularly challenging. The horse was severely lame on all 4 limbs and in a lot of pain. The vet did an assessment and spoke to my client about the eventuality of the horse becoming “serviceably sound” with hock injections (which my client never did) and rehabilitation therapies. We used massage therapy and chiropractic care and discovered an improperly healed broken bone that had been concealed by inflammation! This horse was constantly trying to bite and kick us. The horse was downright dangerous. I would not allow my student to handle this horse at first. It was a nightmare situation, to say the least.
To add insult to injury, communication between me and my client was poor. Getting them on the phone was nearly impossible, so text was really my best option at the time combined with the occasional email. I asked multiple times for my client to purchase the horse painkillers. Finally unable to take the emotional toll of seeing an animal suffer anymore, I purchased some with my own money. The horse had begun dropping weight due to a loss of appetite because of the pain. Instead of talking to me about it, this client took pictures of the horse and secretly discussed the horse's condition behind my back with “friends” who were not qualified trainers and only served to instill doubt, fear, and blame in my client. Our relationship began to quickly erode. I noticed my young student, the child of the client, begin to lose interest in horses and riding. One day the child was dropped off in utter shambles, crying. It was then I discovered my client had been discussing these things in front of my student and my student had been defending me to their parent! This was outrageous. Children should never be put in the middle of adult issues. These things should have been discussed with me only.
"Putting my outrage and disgust aside to the best of my abilities, I attempted to continue to communicate with my client. It was to no avail. They had already made up their mind. Because they spoke to other people who were unqualified to make these judgment calls and assessments, they just blamed me for the horse's condition. I was given no chance to explain anything about what was going on with the horse or why she was dropping weight. There was no collaboration, no requests for a change in plan. No purchase of extra food or supplements that I had requested. Yet there was criticism of everything I did at every turn, and I heard about all of it from their child. To say it was heartbreaking is an understatement."
The horse was taken as suddenly as it had appeared. I was relieved in one way to let this client go, but gut wrenched because of what happened to the child and what would happen to the horse. I learned after the horse left that the next trainer couldn’t work with the horse, and eventually it was sold, and I have no idea what happened to it. I can only hope it is in caring hands. The student took me being forced to let my client go personally, as children often do. I have no way to communicate to this child that it never was and never will be their fault. They were caught in the middle of something horrible, and I wish I had the foresight at the time to prevent it all from happening. The last thing I heard was that the student lost interest in horses altogether, and I have no idea where they are now.
Picking up the pieces from that loss was horrible. My confidence was gone, I was exhausted, I felt alone, I missed my student. I learned so much, though. I learned how to put solid boundaries between me and my clients. I learned how to far better manage expectations, and how to enforce a “no”. I learned that I don’t have to work with anyone I don’t want to. I don’t have to ride a horse I don’t want to ride. I am not obligated in any way to live up to someone else’s unrealistic expectations of who I should be and what I should be doing as a trainer. I cut clients off for far less these days. My standards are stringent, and for good reason. I cannot do my job if a client does not do theirs. If they aren’t properly caring for their horse, that makes me look bad. In a world where reputation is everything, I simply cannot attach my name and business to subpar horse keeping.
Gossip Harms Our Community
One of the very first trainers I ever took lessons from gossipped nearly nonstop about the other local trainers. This created so much insecurity in me because it caused me to believe that this was the standard and that none of the other trainers she talked badly about could be trusted or were any good. It was only after leaving her that I discovered what she said wasn’t true at all. Working through all those negative feelings taught me that I wasn’t alone. Instead of feeling like an island, I had to realize I am a part of a larger community, a family. I figured out how to play to my family’s strengths. I had to understand that one client might prove difficult for me, but be a great match for someone else. Once I figured out that I could send and receive clients without it feeling like it would cause problems, I felt so free. I learned our community is stronger as we share the client pool instead of alienate each other by attempting to hoard clients or stretch ourselves too thin out of desperation.
Recently, I have noticed a decline in new student enrollment across the board for many farms in my own local community. I have noticed a steady decline in local show participation. I have noticed barns closing shop and local tack stores who have thrived for generations in our tight-knit community are struggling. This shouldn’t be happening. The economy is great and the internet is at everyone’s fingertips. Finding a local barn to ride with should be a breeze for newcomers. I feel it’s in part because we aren't talking honestly to each other anymore. We aren't telling each other what we need in order to succeed and helping each other anymore. Instead, reputations are being set ablaze at the blink of an eye because we cannot believe or trust each other to come and ask prior to forming an opinion. Gossip, hate, and destruction is the norm, and honestly, I can’t blame parents who do not want to expose their children to that kind of toxicity. They are willing to forgo the dream of riding one of the most majestic creatures on the planet because they cannot or will not function in our messed up little world. How many times do I need to say this needs to stop?
I do not want to live in a world where I cannot bring my horse to the local show and see my competitors and cheer them on and laugh with them and smile. I genuinely look forward to showing. I genuinely look forward to seeing my clients. I do not want that to end.
Horsemanship is a Team Sport
The saying it takes a village comes to mind here. We live and work with animals that require a team. I know many of us to feel like we are alone at our barns. We get up in the morning and we bust out the chores and work well into the night and we never have a day off. We begin to resent it and we wonder how some other trainers maintain a smile on their face.
We were not meant to do this alone. Horses don't do anything alone; they travel in herds. They support each other. Sure, they fight sometimes and sometimes they get hurt, but they also heal. We need to be like that. We need to uplift, support and encourage each other. We need to resolve conflicts and solve problems.
Change Requires Learning Some New Skills
But how? I know in my own life I needed to do several things. The first thing I had to do was learn how to better communicate with different types of people. Not everyone is the same and not everyone's going to understand me the first time I say something. But it’s just like when we teach children how to ride. Sometimes we have to repeat ourselves in many different ways until something clicks with that particular child. We need to lend each other that same grace.
It's not easy. I'm not a natural communicator. I actually have a strange hearing issue that impedes my verbal communication with others sometimes. The written format is so much easier for me, but it’s not always realistic. I get frazzled and overwhelmed easily. It's like my brain short circuits when I'm asked to multitask. I forget to get back to people. I forget to look at things for clients and friends. I have safeguards in place to keep me organized, but I'm still human. If a client has to move on because their personality does not mesh well with mine, the next trainer does not need to tell them I do not know what I'm doing. I will learn from my mistakes and grow as a leader in my business. And so will you. I don't mind if a client isn't for me. I will gladly send them to a trainer that matches them well. If we all did this the industry would thrive.
What I am asking is impossible to do perfectly. What I'm asking is difficult. I still find I have to remind myself of the bigger picture.
"But as trainers, riders, competitors, and business owners when have we ever let something that is difficult or imperfect get in the way of our success?"
Want to read more about living a drama free horse life? Here is the real secret to a low drama horse boarding barn!
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