Controlling Conflict

Wherever you find groups of people, you are bound to find conflict, and barns are no exception. Here are some ways to keep the peace.

If you are lucky, you have a wonderful group of clients who all coexist peacefully. But at least a few of us know that peaceful coexistence is not always what we get. Sometimes it’s a dispute between boarders who don’t agree on training technique, or teenagers who are creating cliques. But no matter who it is, when it’s brought out in the open for the whole barn to see, it can get ugly.

This author has had the chance, as barn manager and trainer in multiple large hunter/jumper show barns, to witness and help control the chaos. Here’s what I’ve learned, as well as some sage advice from a couple of other trainers and farm owners who’ve had similar experiences.

When is comes to drama, no-one does it better than a group of teenaged girls. It may come in the form of one domineering girl, who can create a tense undercurrent or outright shouting matches in the barn.

The question with kids is whether or not to get the parents involved. Jennifer Shannon, owner and head trainer of Cornerstone Farm in Longmont, Colo., likes to “let the parents know what I’m seeing and experiencing, so the parents can handle it.” Sometimes she may also bring a parent in “just to impose on the kid the seriousness of a situation.” This can be necessary when something has been going on for a long time and not been brought to the management’s attention because, as Shannon says, “a fair amount may not happen in front of me and I won’t get filled in until later. Teens can be sneaky.”

No matter how you feel about these clients, you have to remember to “let go of being everyone’s friend. You need to step up and be the lead mare,” as Shannon puts it.

Jill Pelzel, owner and head trainer of Fall River Farm in Ft. Lupton, Colo., has a different take on dealing with her younger clients, if or when they cause trouble. She is not one to go to the parents right away; in her experience the parents can make it worse. “Barn drama usually stems from one family, through one kid,” says Pelzel. These drama-inducing kids tend to have drama-enhancing parents who “don’t understand that their child isn’t the only person to ride at the barn.”

Pelzel has a “zero tolerance policy for barn drama,” and she will call it out when she sees it in front of everyone. That seems to put a stop to it right away, she says. Her opinion is that “It’s my home, and my livelihood, and these other kids are here with my children, so you have to play nice or go home.”

She also feels that talking to the kids directly is wise because they have to learn what is and what is not acceptable for their own good.

Whichever method seems necessary at the time, the important thing is to deal with the drama as soon as possible, to keep things running smoothly. I primarily teach much younger children than teens. If one child is creating a problem in my group, talking to the parent and asking her for advice on how to deal with her child gives the parent some power—and gives me insight into handling that child, which can make it easier to head off future issues. This method has worked well for me over the years. The parents are usually embarrassed by their children’s behavior and are very grateful that I ask their advice. This can also help open the door, so that other clients will come directly to you with a problem before it festers.

Something else to watch out for with the younger crowd is everyone’s new best friend: Facebook and other forms of social networks, which can spread a rumor instantly. While the Internet is usually a very useful tool, it can also cause the drama to escalate faster than you can fathom. Social networks online allow not only those at your barn, but friends of friends at other barns to pile on. So, even if the issue only involves people from your barn, it can “spread to people who have no business in the matter,” Shannon points out. It can also affect the reputation of your barn, sending a message to possible potential clients that they don’t want to be there. Social networks can create negative buzz about your business in your area.

We would love to say that adults are a totally different matter, but we all know they can create just as much trouble in the barn. To limit that potential, Deb Weiler, owner of Willow Creek Stables, has “a code of conduct that is signed, and it is explained to each individual up front that drama is not permitted.” She also says that she uses e-mail as a safe and direct way to communicate. “I’ve had good experiences with mass e-mails. If you have a problem and you know that others are aware of it, sending out a mass e-mail to all of your clients can nip it in the bud fast. This way, everyone is aware that what’s happening is wrong, and no one is getting different treatment than anyone else. Only once while using this type of communication to combat a problem was the offender too arrogant to figure it out and needed to be talked to privately. At least in that situation, I could point back to the e-mail and say, ‘didn’t you get my message? This is what it was talking about and it’s not allowed.’ Having all your clients’ e-mails is important for just these types of situations.”

Most of us are out at the barn because we love horses, and that gives us all a common ground. But those few individuals who won’t fit into your group, whether a high-maintenance adult boarder or trouble-making teen, will usually “realize they don’t fit in, and they will do one of two things—adapt to our environment or leave,” says Weiler. Both Shannon and Pelzel have had similar experiences. Both have found that the rest of their clients felt better, and the barn went back to being peaceful, once the drama queen had departed. Your peaceful clients will thank you.

When managing a large group of people, clear and consistent communication is the key to head off conflict before it starts. Everyone needs to know what the rules are and that you are going to enforce them. Having a message board in the barn can be a visual reminder that everyone can see. The same goes for mass e-mail, especially if you routinely send out barn updates once a week or month. If you’re not into e-mail, you can hold regular barn meetings where everyone is invited and you can talk to the whole group at once.

What you say matters, too: make sure clients know to come to you first if there is a problem, so you can take care of it. And then do just that.






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