I see a lot of misunderstanding and mistrust in our industry. Clients are upset with trainers; trainers are frustrated with riders; and non-rider parents often feel out of the loop when it comes to the horses.
In addition, our industry is ripe with gossip. Clients are afraid to talk to trainers, trainers tip-toe around clients and clients gripe amongst themselves. How do we reduce tensions, clear up misunderstandings and smooth out relationships? Better communication is a must, along with a backdrop of compassion and respect for each other and the unique roles we occupy. It’s important to underscore that of course horses and horse shows are our passion, which means our emotions run high—especially when things are going sideways. Even though it may be hard to wait, try to have your conversations when you are calm—not when tempers are flaring—and avoid ‘back gate’ (i.e., impulsive) decisions.
Here are some guidelines to get you moving toward more effective communication and, hopefully, greater satisfaction with your overall equestrian experience.
Talk to your trainer. He or she has your best interests at heart and wants to see you succeed. Have a real, in-person meeting, not over text or email. Tell him or her about your goals and expectations. Ask for feedback and support. There is no way someone, your trainer included, can read your mind and meet your expectations if they aren’t clearly stated. This may seem rudimentary, but often what I see are clients talking amongst themselves instead of with their trainers.
Listen to what your trainer says to you in response. Are your expectations in line with your current ability, your horse’s ability, and your time and budget constraints? Work together until you have a plan that is mutually understood and acceptable. Writing down the plan and pinning it inside your tack trunk is one way to stay clear and remind yourself about what you’re going for.
Don’t gripe to barn mates about your complaints. It’s not productive, and worse, it creates a cycle of negativity. If you are unhappy, give your trainer the chance to make it right. Trainers are very busy and may not be tuned in to your issue. Be respectful and compassionate. If it’s hard to get their attention, send them a little text requesting 10 minutes of private time.
Sit down (in a chair, not on a horse!) and talk with your clients. Do this with everyone at least a couple of times year, but quarterly is better. A few minutes of private, quality time with each client—clarifying their expectations and yours—will improve your relationship and make misunderstandings less likely.
Be clear with your clients. When you have bad news, deliver it in a straightforward way with compassion. Better to be crystal clear than to endure months of upset and disappointment. If you have expectations of your client that she isn’t meeting, let her know the ground rules and how you need to her to change. Dancing around sticky topics creates more confusion and leads to frustration on both sides. Remember, being clear with compassionis the most respectful way to interact.
All clients can be frustrating at times. If you find yourself upset with someone, take a breather and step back. Consult with a colleague. Don’t let your frustration contaminate your teaching of that client or others. Most of all, don’t talk to one client about another. Same with clients griping among themselves, gossip between trainer and client creates emotional unsafety at the barn and fuels a cycle of negativity.
For Non-Equestrian Parents of Riders
Parenting a rider when one is not an equestrian can be very challenging. Ours is a complicated, expensive sport that loops in the whole family. In addition to the tips listed above for riders (Talk, Listen, Don’t Gossip), be sure you speak with your trainer too and ask all your questions and understand all the answers. Don’t be shy or embarrassed! If you are puzzled, ask again! Your trainer should be able to explain things in ways you can understand.
A common scenario in our industry is that very smart, successful people with no horse experience are suddenly afraid to ask the hard questions when it comes to their child’s horses or training. They imbue their trainers with too much power and then get upset when things go sideways. Remember--if you were buying a house or hiring a contractor to renovate your house, you would ask the tough questions! If you didn’t understand the answer, you would educate yourself until you did understand. Treat horse transactions and interactions with trainers in the same way. In my view, an educated community is a happy, healthy, and vibrant community.
A central goal of my Leg Up practice is to educate, elevate and empower our community so that we are more successful industry consumers and providers. Practicing effective communication, founded upon respect and compassion, will make the equestrian world, and the world at large, a better place to be.
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D A R B Y B O N O M I Ph D
Sport and Performance Psychology and Family Consultation for Equestrians
For over 25 years, Darby Furth Bonomi, PhD has facilitated positive transformations in clients of all ages. As a practicing psychologist and consultant, Darby has worked with many people to achieve lasting change and establish the foundations for mental wellness.
Now in her primary role as a sport and performance coach and family consultant, Darby merges her life-long experience in the equestrian world—as a rider, parent of riders and owner—with her vast toolbox of psychological and coaching interventions to help riders of all levels and their families reclaim the joy in their sport, leading the way to improved performance and better health. She loves helping clients untangle the complicated situations that tend to arise when horses are added to families.
In addition to writing the wellness column for Street to Stable, Darby is a contributor to California Riding Magazine, along with publishing her own blog. She serves as an advisor to Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center and is on the Advisory Committee for the United States Equestrian Team Foundation.
A dynamic speaker and change maker, clients have sought out Darby to help improve their lives, both in and out of the saddle. She is devoted to making the equestrian world—and the world at large—a kinder, gentler and more respectful place.
Darby currently shows in the amateur owner hunters and equitation with her horses Little Wing and DaVinci, alongside her teenage daughters. She is married and has a college age son who steers clear of the barn. She lives in San Francisco.