If you board your horse, you’ve most likely been around some form of barn drama. Whether caused by the “know-it-all” adult amateur, the blabbermouth lessee, the entitled child, or someone else who frequents your facility, the experience is the same: a feeling of discomfort that can range from apprehension to agony.
by Sarah E. Coleman, Ohio Equestrian Directory 2021 Issue, pg. 92-93
Unfortunately, boarding or riding at a barn with some sort of drama is the norm, whether that means the boarders get snarky with one another, the owner’s daughter is overly emotional, or the trainer “eggs on” unfriendly competition between her clients.
Horsewomen are notoriously strong, both of personality and physical stature. To work with horses at all, you have to be brave, driven, and independent—all positive qualities, but ones that may need to be tempered in a space as socially complicated as a boarding barn.
Stripping away everything else, the reason each of us rides is simple: Horses offer us respite from a very crazy (and sometimes scary) world. If the barn is a place to recharge our batteries, it seems counterintuitive that it may also be fraught with other feelings, but being surrounded by something you love deeply elevates all other emotions.
Drama, at its most basic level, causes chaos and confusion, whether it is spoken, written, or in actions taken. People who cause drama, intentional or not, are insecure. They’re hungry for the attention that causing drama brings them. This attention makes them feel powerful. The reverse of this is what the subject of the drama feels: powerless. As the target of the rumor mill, the feeling of helplessness is one of the hardest to deal with; it can trigger stress, anxiety, and depression.
Drama at the barn can ruin what should be a pleasurable experience, causing a reprieve from the world to become just one more “thing” on the to-do list. Gossip isn’t harmless. It’s hurtful and damaging, and at its most virulent can cause you to second guess everything—how you ride, how you groom, how you care for and treat your horse(s).
Though it can be difficult to see, and nearly impossible to understand, the real issue that the instigator has... is not with you.
How to Handle a Barn Bully
What can you do to combat the criticism, gossip, and rumors being spread at your barn? Many non-equestrians would tell you “it’s simple, ignore it.” While a great idea in theory, this isn’t the best long-term strategy to deal with bullies in the barn. Avoiding them is also not always feasible: work schedules and other obligations may not allow us to adjust our riding or lesson times.
One of the most disheartening feelings is being at a place in your training where you’re struggling and know other riders at the barn are passing judgement and gossiping about it. It can feel like the lowest of blows - to have others reinforce what you’re already fearful of: that you’re not good enough.
Though telling the boarding barn owner about your angst can feel a bit like tattling, it’s worthwhile to keep them in the loop, especially if you’re not the only one the Drama Queen has in her sights. A fair and honest barn owner will work with you to determine how best to stop the drama at its source.
If you want to try to handle the instigator yourself, there are a few things to keep in mind. But, first and foremost: Have heart! Just like learning how to post the trot, jump, gallop in an open field, or doing virtually anything that involves a 1,000-plus-pound horse, addressing a barn bully takes COURAGE. You can do it!
Once you resolve to address the issue, there are a few things you can do to make it as painless as possible:
Don’t address it when you’re emotional. The key to a productive conversation is to not address the issue when you’re in a vulnerable place and already worked up—this will lead to nothing but additional fodder for the rumor mill.
Focus on the issue and the action, NOT the person. They’re on a power trip, remember? They feed off emotion, so when you remain calm, it throws them for a loop.
Don’t stoop to their level. This one is tough, especially if they break out the low blows. Instead of returning the favor and criticizing their riding/relationships/home life/work ethic, focus on the issue at hand: What they are doing or saying that is uncalled for and, most likely, isn’t true.
I am not telling you to not cry—by all means, get in your car and cry your eyes out. Just try your best not to do it in front of the bully.
Though it can be tough to see when in the throes of barn drama, all rumors fade with time, and those that are the least true fade fastest. The best way to help them on their way is to repeatedly show yourself as a kind, moral person who loves her horse. Your actions will speak louder than any words ever will.
Let it Go
So, what do you do if you’re not the target of the Drama Queen, but you’re privy to her wily ways? Don’t feed into it. This one is tough. We all want to feel liked and included, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of boarder bashing while you’re cleaning tack, or having a post-ride beer with pals. Simply put: Don’t. Don’t try to analyze why people act the way they do and don’t try to help people with their issues with other boarders—leave it alone. Eventually, the issue, whatever it may be, will end.
If the other boarders have an issue with something at the facility - whether it’s footing, feeding, turnout, or handling - first, ask if they have spoken to the barn owner about it. If they have, and nothing has changed, brainstorm ways to help. Often “complaints” are simply insults disguised by the speaker as opinions, so the “complainer” isn’t actually seeking a solution.
Maybe It’s You …
If you feel like drama simply follows you around, it’s time to take a good, hard look at how you operate in the barn setting. Are you dragging all your personal and professional woes with you to the farm? When people ask you how you are, do you immediately delve into all that’s wrong in your world?
Don’t be a Debbie Downer. While it’s sometimes hard not to focus on how much is going wrong in the world (and your life), try to be positive and uplifting when you go to the barn. And if you don’t actually feel that way? “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Complaining incessantly accomplishes nothing other than allowing you to wallow in your own unhappiness. Horses feed off of their owner’s energy, so if Trigger walks the other way when you go to catch him, it’s time to take a hard look at what’s really going on.
Do you make passing comments to others on how someone rides and trains? Stop. What harm comes from someone using a different bit, brush, pad, or boots than you think they should? There is no “right” way to ride or train a horse--as long as both horse and rider are safe, little else matters in the grand scheme of things.
Changing how you speak about others can be difficult: You’re truly training yourself into a new mindset. When you find yourself wanting to pass judgement on another rider or horse, try simply not saying anything at all. In general, drama dissipates when people try not to be negative.
What To Do When it Just Won’t Quit
It’s important to remember that everyone has bad days where they may say hurtful things. But, if the drama seems never-ending and you find yourself dreading going to the barn, know that changing farms is always an option.
Nothing, truly nothing, is worth sacrificing the solace that horses bring to you. The stress of a drama-filled farm isn’t good for you and it’s not good for your horse, and it’s certainly not good for your partnership and training. Kind people, both barn owners and boarders, are worth their weight in gold - and worth much more than a barn that is close or cheap, or one that has fancy amenities. Promise.
Based in Lexington, Kentucky, Sarah Coleman has a soft spot for chestnuts with chrome, including her off-the-track Thoroughbred, Chisholm, whom she adopted from New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program.