To people outside the horse world, the idea of handling unpredictable animals that weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds seems nothing short of death-defying. But, for many of us, the challenge of working with horses is not nearly as daunting as contending with the other volatile creatures we sometimes encounter at the barn. You know what I’m talking about: barn drama and the people who create it.
If you don’t frequent a boarding stable or large riding facility, you may not have firsthand experience with the simmering tensions---and worse---that sometimes darken the atmosphere where horsepeople gather. But barn drama is fairly common (some would say inevitable) where individuals who have invested time and money on equestrian pursuits share amenities and interact regularly. Trouble may start with something minor, perhaps a borrowed currycomb or a disagreement about training philosophies, but things can get ugly with surprising speed. And when they do, disputes may lead to shouting matches, whisper campaigns and outright criminality involving vandalism, theft or even assault.
Indeed, local papers and riding newsletters occasionally chronicle the fallout from this phenomenon. The next time you see a headline about an act of vandalism at a barn---for example, the unauthorized shearing of a horse’s tail ---suspect a barn dispute gone bad. The topic has even been covered by the Wall Street Journal, which in 2014 published a story called “What the Hay? ‘Barn Drama’ Puts Riders on Their High Horses.” The article describes the problem this way: “Take a group of passionate, opinionated individualists. (Riding, a solo activity, doesn’t attract “team players.”) Give them a consuming hobby centered on a delicate, expensive living creature. Put them in close quarters … and let the backbiting begin.”
Barn drama takes a toll on individuals and is a drain on the horse industry. It can shatter relationships, tarnish joyful events and even threaten the livelihoods of horse-industry professionals. It’s a common reason why people change boarding facilities, switch trainers, leave riding clubs and stop participating in shows or other events. In short, barn drama has the potential to destroy the dreams people have spent a lifetime pursuing.
Yet many people who have weathered the worst effects of barn drama assume that their experience was an exception, or that the problem was of their own making. Worse, many barn owners, trainers and other professionals responsible for equine community infrastructure don’t appreciate just how devastating equestrian grudge matches can be. But with clear policies and commonsense methods for resolving issues, it’s possible to head off many barn disputes entirely and to keep those that do occur from escalating to the point that lawyers and courts become involved.
For starters, the law---or at least the elements that underpin legal agreements---can be used to encourage clear and positive communication among individuals, which in itself can defuse tensions and offer a path toward resolution. A framework that includes written contracts that spell out mutual expectations, including rights and responsibilities, for all who board horses, use services or participate in other activities will help to insulate a community against the most common causes of barn drama. But if problems still arise, take another page from the legal profession and apply conflict resolution tools to de-escalate the situation, protect important relationships and preserve the quality of life for all involved.
CASE IN POINT HEAD GAMES
Barbara ran a boarding barn serving riders of all disciplines, although most boarders rode an English discipline of some kind. She decided when she opened her barn to establish a rule requiring all riders, no matter the discipline, to wear helmets. This requirement was written into the barn rules that every boarder signed along with the boarding contract.
Marie was interested in boarding her horse at Barbara’s barn. As they walked around the facility together, Marie commented to Barbara that she was surprised everyone was wearing a helmet, even the Western riders. Barbara explained that this was required. She asked Marie if that would be a problem, but Marie said it wasn’t a big deal.
Marie began boarding at the barn and right away problems arose. She would ride bareheaded and when other boarders made comments, she would simply say that she left her helmet at home or needed to get a new one. Some boarders began to resent being required to wear a helmet, when Marie didn’t. They began to talk behind Marie’s back and then would loudly comment on her not wearing a helmet, making sure she could hear them.
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