Written by Don Jessop
If you enjoy audio instead, please comment below and I will continue to record the audio version in the future.
I must tell you upfront that this story is most certainly inspired by my students. Many of my colleagues and students board their horses and some of them experience more drama than others. The reason for this is simple. Some boarding barns are socially complicated places, and no matter who you are, horses bring out and elevate all our emotions.
So here is what helps if you notice a lot of drama at your barn.
Number 1: Ask yourself... are there things about your horse that you could change so he/she fits into the barn staff routines better? If your answer is yes but your upset that the blame shouldn't go on your horse and your training, then you are actually part of the drama. You have to be willing to play by the rules of the barn or else find a barn that plays by your rules. It's the primary reason most people get their own land. They want the ability to make up their own rules.
One of the biggest complaints barn staff have is related to the handle-ability of the horses on a daily routine. If a horse tends to be hard to catch or leads poorly by crowding or lagging behind, it irritates the barn staff. Do what you can to ensure your horse isn't that horse. Take time daily to ensure his catching and leading skills are better than any other horse at the barn and notice how ninety percent of all the barn drama fades away.
You don't send your kids to school and expect them to learn manners. It's not the school janitors job to teach your kids manners, it's your job. It's the same with horses at a boarding barn. You prioritize teaching manners so the barn staff doesn't have to. Make that more important than anything and notice how everything gets better.
I used to think barn drama was always a people problem, not a horse problem. That was until I got my own facilities and invited boarders to my home ranch. I discovered that the extra chores of looking after their horse amplified when the horse demonstrated poor manners. I'm a trainer and I still found myself getting frustrated by the extra ten to fifteen minutes that horse required each day just to get daily chores done. I'm kind and patient, but daily irritants stack up. It's smart to make sure your horse isn't on that stack.
There are lots of little things that make a horse nice to be around and those little things need to be set in place. Practice making your horse the easiest horse to catch. Practice catching him with inappropriate timing and tools so it just doesn't matter who's catching him. Then practice each day making sure he/she is the most compliant horse to lead and stand waiting for your lead. Don't let him barge, don't ever let him steal treats. Don't let him lag behind at the end of the rope. Changing all those things takes effort on your part but the benefit is two-fold.
One great thing that will happen is the complaints about you and your horse will disappear, and better yet, turn into compliments. The other great thing is that your horse will be more pleasant, even for you. He'll become a better riding horse because he's focused and ready, and waiting for your lead.
Also, don't be one of those people that requires a thousand special supplements for your horse. When a horse is sick, they need extra attention and most people are happy to give it, but when a horse is generally healthy and the owner of that horse demands special treatment from the staff with extra supplements each day, it makes the day longer for everybody.
If you must give extra treatment to your horse, be sure to do it yourself or pay handsomely to any support staff. Pay above and beyond what you already pay. Believe me, the extra wear and tear on you at the end of the day is too much. No matter how much you love horses, if it's your job to give special treatment to one or two horses after spending ten hours cleaning poop, feeding, and harrowing fields, you simply begin to resent the extra work. That is unless you're paid extra for it. People are simple. Make anything extra, worth their time.
Number 2: Check your own attitude. Do you bring an uplifting spirit wherever you go? Or are there times where you need the world around you to disappear so it's just you and your horse? Most of us have a little of both going on. Some days we're uplifting and other days we need space and don't like when others are intruding. But the problem is, it's not your farm. If you get there early enough or late enough, or find a time in the day when you can expect no one to be there then you don't have to worry about bumping shoulders with other people. But if you can't find those times, you're stuck rubbing up against other personalities. Can you handle that?
What do you bring to the table? Do you bring your own drama, or a deep seated need to be alone, or do you bring an uplifting attitude that people gravitate to and respect?
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Maya Angelou, famous civil rights activist 1928-2014
Following the principle of making sure people look up to you or at least respect you because your attitude is constant and uplifting, you will always find that the barn has less drama because you never add to it. On the other hand, if you're quick to find fault in others, or their processes, you'll be remembered as someone you don't aspire to be. People read people all the time. Whether you're verbally complaining or internal about it, people around you feel you, so it's always worth checking your attitude before you show up.
Number 3: If the drama at the barn isn't about you, and most of the time it isn't about you... just smile and give people the space they need. Be helpful when you see a window to communicate your desire to be helpful, but generally just give a little space and keep your smile on. Within a day or two, you'll notice people tend to work out their problems and life can go back to normal.
Even if you see someone act out against their horse, hold your tongue for a day or two. See if it's a pattern or they just had a bad day, just like you sometimes have a bad day. If it's obviously a pattern of abuse, say something in an effort to help the horse, but be careful. Plan your words wisely, most people don't respond well to criticism. That goes for the barn owner too. If something is out of place, a fence is broken or anything unsafe, you should address it right away, just choose your words wisely. Try to be helpful instead of upset about it. Even offer to help fix it. This kind of wordplay can diminish barn drama and make things better for everyone.
Occasionally, the drama doesn't cease, no matter what you do. Sometimes you find out that where you board is somewhere you shouldn't board. It's possible for some people to be so negative on such a regular basis that it seems they've been poisoned by a snake. If it doesn't change, you should leave. Don't worry about upsetting people. They are already upset. Just pack your things, notify your intent and get out of there because it's detrimental to your health and your horses health to be there any longer. Sometimes it just isn't a good place to be, for anyone.
I have students who have bravely made this choice to leave and I've supported them in this choice. You have to believe there is a better place for you and then go find it. Maybe it's not as convenient or maybe it costs more, or maybe the facilities aren't as nice, but the people factors out way all of that. Life is short, be happy!
A note about tools, techniques, and style:
Wouldn't it be great if everyone believed all the same things you believed about how horses should be treated, what tools to use and avoid, what style of training is the "best" style? Sadly, no two people have identical beliefs about these things. So I recommend letting it go unless there is some blatantly dangerous aspect to what you see.
In other words... if the staff at your barn use the wrong type of halter, take a deep breath and remember it's not going to ruin anything. If they ride English instead of Western, or bareback instead of saddled... relax. People make rules and never bend from those rules. Don't be one of those people. Be open to anything unless it's obviously dangerous or abusive.
Even lesser tools can still get the job done. For instance, I like rope halters, but if someone puts a leather halter on my horse I don't worry. My horse knows how to lead with any halter because I've taken the time to make sure he's easy to catch and easy to lead. I don't trust many people to do my training, but I can certainly trust them to manage my horse if I've trained my horse to be manageable.
Let the little things go. Be open. Be curious about other people's experience and style and choice of tools. Notice how your amazing open attitude is uplifting and notice how nearly all the drama at the barn fades to nothing.
One last thing: If you own a boarding barn and you're reading this. Make sure you remember what boarding other people's horses is all about. It's about service. Make sure you're kind, thoughtful, go the extra mile. Make people who pay you money each month feel like you truly care about their experience. Don't become part of the drama. Be clear, but be nice. You're serving passionate, dedicated people. If you treat them as such you will find a sense of piece in it... or you might find you're not cut out for boarding at all. If you don't like it. Stop doing it. Life is too short to be frustrated, burned out and wired all the time. Let the little things go. If you can't, then let the big things go.
If you read my articles, I appreciate you, I'm inspired by you and your questions and thoughts. Please comment below and share this with a friend who may need it. Look for more resources at www.masteryhorsemanship.com