Bad Behavior

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Excuses, excuses…like: “The judge didn’t…“ or “That other rider did…” or “The show secretary said…” If you’ve managed a horse show at your facility or attended one elsewhere, chances are you’ve seen it all—unruly, or just plain bad behavior from riders, their parents or trainers. When actions go awry, you need some politically astute tricks up your mediator sleeve to restore your standard of sportsmanlike conduct. We present some of the best management techniques here.

Courtesy Begins at Home

“Horse show etiquette starts at the barn,” says manager Ronnie Clohecy of Sandy Point Stables in Middletown, R. I. Sandy Point boards 28 horses—14 usually go to shows, all hunter and equitation. “Riders must be respectful, and it starts with how they address their parents. We don’t allow disrespect at the barn; if it occurs at home—which is unacceptable, too—I’ll say, ‘This isn’t home, and it’s not the way we do things here.’ ”

A successful Saddlebred trainer, Kathy Caylor of Chattanooga, Tenn., teaches 35 lessons weekly, hosts summer camp and takes 10 riders to shows. She firmly tells her charges, “Always put principles ahead of goals, meaning respect your horse, parents and other competitors, even when your goal is to win.”

She, too, has seen volatile riders express anger at their horses or blame the judges. “If it happens again, they can move their horse somewhere else. If one person gets away with it, others think they can too, and that’s not acceptable,” Caylor says.

At Fair Hill Stables and Fair Winds Farm in Maryland, JoAnn Dawson oversees 10 shows annually, adding that she’s “seen my share of unsportsmanlike behavior.” One of her facilities does English lessons (no boarding) while the other stable does trail rides, paper chases, carriage and pony rides.

“Our major emphasis is always safety,” says Dawson, “and taking care of your horse at a show.” This is especially relevant since up to three students may ride one horse. “We stress that the first rider make sure it’s ready for the next rider, that you’re helping each other,” she adds.

To keep good behavior top of mind, Dawson presents a sportsmanship award twice yearly. An ancillary benefit is that “it really helps to keep the barn clean,” she notes. When riders offend, she takes action: “One girl beat her horse with a crop, spinning him around. So we excused her for the rest of the day, saying, ‘Not in my ring.’ ” The issue is so relevant to Dawson that she’s written books about it (see “Behavior by the Book, page 31.)

Rules Don’t Bend

“The rules are very clear,” says Maria Partlow, United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) senior vice president of marketing and communication. “It’s the code of conduct: When you become a member, you sign a form agreeing to comply.” Join this club, then break rules at a show, and it will be duly noted by a licensed official, resulting in a verbal or possibly a written warning. If things get really serious, expect a hearing process. Unsportsmanlike behavior doesn’t go unnoticed by those whose job it is to pay attention on behalf of all riders.

Without naming names, Partlow shares a for-instance: “One person was coaching a rider, encouraging her to hit the horse a lot. This person hadn’t paid any trainer’s fees, wasn’t current, even after being on suspension, but went to the show anyway.” The USEF banned the trainer, and a federal judge upheld the USEF’s jurisdiction. As the national governing body, “the federal courts recognize our authority,” Partlow says.

The American Quarter Horse Association’s Charlie Hemphill is senior director of its show department in Amarillo, Texas. The organization has its rules and rulebook, too. With some 2,700 shows under its jurisdiction, “a relatively small number of problems, maybe five a year,” require high-level intervention. Most are handled by affiliates, but if really serious, members must attend a hearing.

“Most heated arguments get resolved without a hearing,” explains Hemphill. “Members know action can be taken against them. They’re usually very passionate. That’s how we see it; if we were in their shoes, we’d be very concerned, too. We can enforce our rules, and yes, members can interpret, but ultimately, our only concern is for the betterment of the industry and the show.”

Taking show management to a new level, employees of the Horse Shows in the Sun (HITS) are playing offense and winning, taking the sometimes-angry bull by the horns. They’ve attended classes to perfect the art of dealing with customers, “those who aren’t happy or satisfied with whatever answer they’re getting,” says Kristen Vale, a HITS head horse show secretary. “It’s similar to what happens at the dry cleaners or grocery store, and we’ve learned not only to deal with exhibitors, but with each other—we must get along well.” Maintaining decorum can be tough, given long, grueling hours and weekend work.

One of the best things they learned in training, according to Vale, was this: Keep repeating the correct answer to the customer, standing your ground. “We follow published rules. We stay calm and speak slowly, even when people get wild. We take them away from the competition, the ring, into an environment that’s less public, to talk; same goes for the horse show office, where we get them out.”

Vale and her colleagues have changed their outlook to be more positive, instead of cringing when they see repeat offenders. HITS pros are so adept, they’ll often take such a person aside and say, “Okay. So we don’t get along so well, and maybe it’s our fault and maybe it’s yours. Let’s talk and find some sort of middle ground.”

Vale says HITS’ front line, now invested with a customer service approach, is proud of its system. “We want to make it work for everybody,” she says. And that includes trainers, who may have conflicts at rings. “Our in-gate personnel really communicate with each other when a trainer says, ‘Tell me what I have to do: I have five kids now.’ Our employees give them a plan and it works,” she adds.

In the end, you can’t change a difficult personality, but you can change how you deal with them and the situation. They can play by your rules, and you win.