Let's take a general census...
How many times have you seen the words "drama free" on stable, lesson or horse show advertisements?
Now, how many times have you been to those stables or shows and experienced overwhelming amounts of drama?
Maybe not right away. Maybe it took a few weeks or months for the "honeymoon" phase to wear off. Maybe, it took less than one visit to "bolt" for the barn door.
Either way, we have all been there, likely more than once, and if you haven't then consider yourself a unicorn!
Often times after a negative experience at a stable we start pointing fingers or making unproven accusations. "It's because there are too many wealthy people there. These "people" have more money than they know what to do with and don't care about anyone. Never ride at a wealthy barn". Or, "It's the teenagers. Teenagers everyone. Don't ever even think about boarding with a stable full of teenagers" and the list goes on.
"Darn western people", "watch out for english people", "don't get into "X" type of riding".
We've all heard this barn gossip; we may have even taken part in it. You would think given how expensive horse ownership can be, why would anyone want to cause or deal with more drama?
Aren't things stressful enough? Monitoring new scientific data, trying to keep bloody horseshoes on in the spring, dealing with flies that are immune to everything under the sun and let's not even start on the "c" word!...(Colic).
So, is drama just something we all need to accept in the horse world? Is it time to give in and just let stable life turn into a mini "Kardashian" shows?
OR, if drama isn't necessary, than who is to blame for all the unfortunate stressful events that occur in every equestrians life at one time or another?
This is a very subjective subject that will be disputed until the end of time. Like most "big" problems, there can be a main root cause with many distracting "symptoms" or, just a perfect storm all together.
Let's take a look into other industries. Workplace environments for example. Some workplaces are a nightmare. Even in some non-sales environments, everything is everyone's "business". Mild or even severe bullying occurs on the regular. In worst cases, even the managers fear some "bully" employees causing a major disruption in productivity and retention.
On the other hand, some workplaces can have solid foundations focused on empowering employees. These types of cultures often are high performing workplaces, with little to no employee tension. Do these employees still work hard, absolutely! But oddly enough, all the employees get along even when frustrations or work stressors are high.
I have experienced both of these examples. What I have found is this...90% of the time, the leaders of the company were the primary root cause to either a toxic or empowering environment.
Is this a definite answer, "leaders are the problem?", I don't necessarily believe that. What I do believe, is leaders have the primary power to influence an environment.
Lets use a real life workplace "nightmare" example (from my personal experience). "Betty" is the office "quarterback". She is loud, she throws a fit anytime management asks suggests a change and is always the first one to complain about everything. Betty rallies the office when management wants to make a change; she gets everyone fired up and aggravated even on simple topics. She also, enjoys knowing everyones business and carefully "picks" on her co-workers. Not abusively but just enough self talk to make sure others feel downgraded but can't file a complaint. Betty's manager avoids Betty. He doesn't want to hear the complaints or deal with the "he said she said" so he leaves her alone. Even when other employees complain, he turns a cheek and gives her what she wants. Ultimately he thinks he's protecting his people this way. Betty keeps receiving raises because she has been there the longest and eventually, drives other employees to quit. They can't say exactly "why" they quit, it wasn't like Betty did something obviously unethical, but it was a constant wear down.
What happened here? Well, Betty's boss played ostrich. Betty worked with him so long, he didn't want to fire her. After all, he plays golf with her husband and knows her kids names. She isn't "that bad", he just thinks others should ignore her....He can easily ignore Betty while going into his office and being so busy, but what he forgets is the team can not. Betty's boss failed the company as a leader.
Now vice versa you have manager Sally, who has a seemingly wonderful employee. Employee Brittany comes to work everyday on time, works hard and has an impressive background. But on two different occasions Sally compliemneted Brittany during a meeting and noticed several employee eyes go to the floor. Sally senses something just does not seem right and decides to question one of the employees. The employee does not really want to talk but mentions to Brittany can be extremely harsh and rude to her coworkers. Sally brings another coworker into her office privately and is told the same thing.
Now before we go further, what do you think Sally did? Did she fire Brittany right away because obviously something is wrong? Or, did she ignore the problem thinking it's just a coincidence? The answer: neither.
Sally kept calm and quiet however became more involved in the office environment. Sally was not "looking" for trouble but wanted to ensure her people were protected. If nothing was found, the others would have a discussion about why exactly they said what they did. However one Monday morning, Sally came in the back office door and overheard Brittany cruelly criticizing another employee.
Now, think about the stable environment where you were hit with drama. What happened?...
Was the manager too immersed in the business or training to pay attention? Were they the ones causing the drama or acting identical to the main drama "offenders"? Or were they burying their heads in the sand and not paying attention?
Again, we've probably experienced it all. What I have not experienced is a stable with serious amounts of drama when a good and focused leader was present. If there was drama here, it was squashed quickly. The great leaders, squash it before you even need to mention something. They care about their people and recognize when their schedules may be too busy. So they on occasion take a step back to give the stable the attention it deserves.
So, how do we as "customers" make better decisions when choosing a riding or boarding facility?
Here's our top 6 "drama armor" tips...
1. Speak To The Leaders
Before moving to a new barn, speak to the leaders. Note: We did not say "owners". The owners can be Mother Theresa, but if they are not present, chances are someone else is the elected leader or worse, the "emerged" leader. If you can speak with the owner and leader, that is ideal, and hopefully a leader is a barn manager.
Do not be afraid to ask the tough questions. "How to do ensure people follow the barn rules?", What do you do to resolve boarder conflict?", "How do you handle your communication?". These are all perfectly acceptable questions. If the leader is disinterested or has no idea what to say, you likely have your answer. If you're leader starts to gossip about the "problem" people in the barn or someone they had to kick out (RUN!).
Trust your gut here. You should get a good idea whether your owner has a good handle on managing a relaxing yet safe environment. Even if they are a shy person, they should have plenty to say when it comes to keeping their people safe, happy and comfortable.
2. Check the Communications
Ask to review the stable contract, barn rules, message board etc. See how detailed the contract is. Are the barn rules clear and concise? Does the contract stipulate things like "zero tolerance policy for unethical behavior", "zero discrimination policy", etc.
Does this sound too corporate? Well maybe to some, but to me personally, this means the owner/leader has taken the time to ensure these items are a priority when included in the master service agreement.
If I am paying a large sum of money to board my horse, I expect a positive environment. I'm one of those "weirdos" who thinks horses should be enjoyed regardless of how competitive you are in your riding!
Ask the leader that communication again, "how to you communicate to your people"? "What steps do you take to avoid discrimination or bullying?".
If they send group texts, or just "catch up" with people passing by well...that may not be an ideal way to keep messages organized. If the leader explains they have a message board, email list, monthly meeting etc. established, this gives me confidence this person cares that their people on the same page. They want their stable to be kept up to date, if there is a rule change or grievance, the broader group can be reached.
That's pretty important especially if you're about to be a "customer" yourself.
3. Do Your OWN Homework
In most cases, people only leave reviews for negative experiences. Before you argue, think about your last five reviews...were they all positive? Or, were they primarily when something when wrong? Shipping took ever, product was not as described, arrived damaged etc.
Reviews are definitely beneficial but, don't necessarily paint the entire picture. What if there are 1,000 missing stellar reviews and you only see the 10 negative one offs?
Same goes for opinions. Another personal example, I had four people once warn me about a stable. How "terrible" it was and "ridiculous" the owner acted etc etc. Luckily, my gut told me...the people doing the talking sounded like the drama. If it looks like drama, and smells like drama, it's probably drama. Thankfully, I interviewed the owner and took a look for myself.
The owner was kind hearted women, had a zero drama policy and stood by that policy without a shred of guilt. If a boarder was found to be bullying, or partaking in unethical behavior etc, they were given a 30 day eviction notice. Period. The owner was not kicking people out left and right. If the offense was minor, the owner had a one on one discussion/warning with the offender. But too many minors and you were out.
Again, this may not be ideal for some, but for the people who don't want to deal with drama, they respect an owner taking care of business. This in my opinion is how you earn boarder loyalty. I value a relationship of any kind where two partners ensure the other is happy and cared for. Customer respects the rules & pays the bills, owner provides the services & monitors the experience. Harmony!
4. Speak To The People
Ask the owner if you can have a quick walk around and talk to a boarder or two in pricate. If the owner is confident in their facility management, this should not be an issue.
Try to find the boarders who ideally have been with the stable the longest. If the longest boarder has been there for six months and the facility is 5 years old well... you may want to do some serious digging.
Retention can be a positive or negative indicator.
On the other hand, if the stable has been boarding for 8 years and there are three people who have been boarding for over 6 years, that's a good sign.
Get a feel for the people. Ask them questions about the environment, how the facility is managed, what are their likes and dislikes.
Like any relationship, everyone will have a different set of "deal breakers". You dream up Ms or Mr Charming (18 hand dapple grey Hanoverian) then reasonably settle for a 16 hand bay sport horse cross with a big heart. If you're lucky enough to find the 100% match, hold on for dear life! Most of the time, be thankful for 80-90% vs 100%.
You have to be reasonable too. Lots of people, lots of preferences, but with a caring owner, a lot can be accomplished.
5. Know Thy Self
Know yourself and your needs well. If you know what is truly important to you and your horse, you won't be swayed by all the things that glitter or, discouraged by a little "mud on the tires".
Some places ARE a diamond in the rough. That works for some, it doesn't for others. Some of the prettiest barns have the worst attitudes, some of the smallest barns have the best attitudes but believe me, I've seen the reverse as well!
So try not to judge a book by it's cover. Some creme of the crop stables are well maintained and worth the extra dough. Some small ill kept stables are not worth the savings.
So know your needs, wants, requirements, etc before going in to vet a stable. This way, you can feel confident when a facility does or does not fit your needs.
6. Are Things Consistent?
Is all the messaging consistent with what you're seeing on the inside?
Did you go onto the website expecting a 18 imported dutch warmblood but walked into a grade quarter horse cross?....(Honey dates are the worst!). Beware if you see inflating materials on websites, social media etc. You're always going to generate your own images until you see the place for yourself but, if messaging is super misleading, that's a warning sign.
Honesty is always the best policy. Regardless of the topic, honesty is the small things often translates to the big things too.
7. Hows Your Gut Health?
That weird 6th sense we all somehow have referred to as, "the gut feeling"; Whats it telling you?
Sometimes, our gut can be jaded and can play tricks on us. However in most cases, I have found, I should have just stopped and listened to my gut. It always somehow seems to know what the mind doesn't.
After you've talked to the leaders, done your homework, conversed with the boarders, etc. All in all, if you're gut hasn't flip flopped yet, that's a great sign.
If you're going through the steps but on Step 2. your gut is yanking you to turn right, turn right!...You likely should do your do diligence and finish the steps just in case, but I suspect, It will be a no go. Even if your mind is playing tricks, when the guts says exit...It might be best to exit or, decide to continue vetting further.
The important thing is to think for yourself and vet properly before jumping in. If you make the move and it end up being a no go, I guarantee you'll at least have learned something or, felt confident you did your part.
We know this is all subjective information but, these are our top tips on helping you make better relocation decisions.
Let's say "WHOA" and put a HALT to the horse drama and "toes up" for empowering fellow equestrians!