Recently, I’ve been interacting with a horsey friend of mine who doesn’t own a horse, but takes lessons pretty regularly. I’ve offered to let her ride several of mine (she’s a nice rider), but the ensuing drama surrounding Riding In General has really turned me off. I’ve tried to talk to her about some things that, IMHO, are really wrong with her barn and with her instructor. My friend defends the situation, even as she admits that there are problems. It’s like an abusive relationship – she won’t get out, but she won’t stand up for herself or what she knows to be right.
So I'm going to rant, because I am frustrated with the situation. I’m going to try writing this as a letter so I don't go too far off the deep end. You see, my friend reads this blog sometimes, so if she stumbles across this, I want her to know that I’m writing this because I care about her, because I know what it’s like to be poor but want to ride SO BAD that you can taste it, because I know what it’s like to see things happening around you that you don’t agree with but feel powerless to change. Maybe she’ll read this and think differently, maybe she'll never speak to me again, I don’t know. Maybe we've all been here?
So here goes.
First off: You are a very nice rider, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Sure, we all have things that we need to work on – I have been riding for an embarrassingly long time, and there’s a TON of bad habits I have that need to be fixed (check out my sexy “chicken elbows”). Even so, that doesn’t mean that anyone gets to tell me that “I suck” or “I need a lot of help” in a condescending, insulting way. Instructors do not get to yell or scream at me, unless it’s because I’m across the arena and won’t hear otherwise. I am a paying customer; I am taking lessons by my own free will. I expect to be treated with respect, and I expect constructive criticism about areas that I need to improve. It is not worth any amount of money, under any circumstances, to be insulted and demeaned. You shouldn’t let it happen to you either. It’s undermining your self-confidence, and that’s just not OK.
Secondly: There is no reason EVER to ride a lame horse, unless you are explicitly instructed to do so by a vet (e.g. working out a stiffness, rehab, etc). If the horse you are riding, who is normally a well-trained, reliable equine citizen, is stopping at fences, spooking, bolting, and spinning for “no reason,” your antennae should go up. EVEN MORE SO if you and your trainer KNOW the horse has had a history of undiagnosed lameness. Granted, the horse is not yours. I also realize that you may not know much about lameness or how to diagnose and treat it. But now is the time to educate yourself. Has the horse been x-rayed? Ultrasounded? Your trainer tells you that it’s been “seen by the vet and farrier and they can’t find anything wrong,” whatever that means. Well guess what, just because there’s no diagnosis doesn’t mean that there’s nothing wrong. A horse can’t speak for itself and tell you it hurts, it can only show you in ways it knows how, to avoid the pain. That’s why you’re seeing those behaviors.
If the horse is lame, DON’T RIDE IT. If your trainer tells you to ride it anyway, tell her you won’t, and insist on another mount. I realize that you feel like you have to ride whatever she gives you and you don’t have a choice, but you ALWAYS have a choice. It’s your money – don’t throw it away on rides on lame horses. You can choose not to ride, even if you really REALLY want to (and believe me, I get that). The horse’s welfare should always come first, and I frankly can’t believe that any reputable trainer would have someone riding a horse that’s not sound. That’s just not right. You should question why your trainer is allowing lame horses to be ridden. By continuing to ride the horse, you are condoning your trainer’s decision to allow a lame horse to be ridden. Just stop already, mmkay? There are other horses out there that are sound and happy in their jobs. You don’t have to be a party to making this one more uncomfortable than he already is.
Finally: In life, communication is key. If someone is not communicating with you, instead of getting mad, be the adult, pick up the phone, and give them a call. Straighten out the situation BEFORE it has a chance to blow itself out of proportion. I realize that even with the best of communication, messages get crossed and not everybody’s understanding is the same, but if the drama is avoidable, DO something about it. Watching it unfold is not cool, and doing nothing – or even encouraging it - is worse. Why create drama for the sake of the drama when a short conversation will get everyone on the same page.
And speaking of communication, honesty really is the best policy. Tell your trainer that you’re taking occasional dressage lessons. Tell her you might take someone else’s horse to a show. If you feel like you can’t tell her that, ask yourself why. IMHO, you should be able to take lessons with whomever you want, in whatever discipline you want. If you wanna go take lessons on a cutting horse, why would your regular trainer object? Time in the saddle is time in the saddle. Besides, you should be able to tell her what you learned while you were riding elsewhere. Maybe another instructor told you something that really clicked and helped improve something. That’s a good thing to be shared. If you have to keep it secret… again, ask yourself why, and if that’s really a situation you want to continue with long-term.
As your friend, I really want to be supportive of your riding. I’ve offered to let you ride my horses, hauled horses to lessons for you, and even offered to let you show. But I’m having a hard time when you say you want to do one thing with my horses, then, when your trainer crooks her finger, change plans on me at the last minute. I’m also having a really hard time with the secrets, and with the way your trainer treats both you and her horses. Normally, I’d say it’s not my business how you interact with your trainer, but when you tell me about how badly things are going, I worry about you. It also becomes my business because when you ride or show my horses, I get caught in the middle of a situation I don’t want to be in. I don’t enjoy the drama even a tiny little bit. So while I want to support you, I need a little commitment from you, a little communication, a little reassurance that I (and my horses) won’t be tossed over at the last moment. And that means that you need to stand up for what is right for you and the horses you ride, and you need to follow through with your commitments.
Let me know when you’re ready to do that, and I’ll still be here for you. Because I really do want to see you be successful – and most importantly, happy – with your riding.
PS. If you're wondering why I haven't sent my friend this letter, I have actually had all the conversations with her already, over IM or in person. This is just sort of the "wrapping up" of my thoughts.
Have you ever been in a situation like this? What did you do? How did it end?