Face to Face

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You’ve witnessed the scenario many times. A client approaches her trainer and says, “I attended the most awesome clinic this weekend with (fill in the blank with name of very famous rider.) She said I should be riding my horse like (fill in the blank with new training methodology.) I’d like to talk to you about it.”

Or, a client confronts a barn manager this way: “I wondered why you weren’t using this new bedding product I just read about.”

In either situation, the foundation is laid for possible conflict in that delicate interpersonal relationship that exists between the paying customer and the person chosen to provide the service, either the trainer or barn manager. With several possible options for the way either situation could turn out, we asked several experts, both in riding and in psychology, just how they would handle the two conversations.

Veteran hunter/jumper judge Lindy Esau of Ranch Santa Fe, Calif., admits that the “I know better than you” client can be a thorn in the side of any tightly-run training and boarding operation. Esau recently suggested to a client that she take her business elsewhere. “It’s so much easier to manage your operation if you’re all on the same track. This client always had her own ideas of how it was to be done. She was a control freak of sorts, very strong willed. It was difficult because she didn’t know that what she was doing wasn’t right.

“People come to you as a professional, and say they want your help,” says Esau, “but then have their own ideas. And when you have someone like that around, the other customers can’t help but question. My belief is, come and join the team, but don’t come and say, ‘I want to join the team, but this is how I want to do it.’ ”

Carole Kenney of High Prairie Farms Equestrian Center in Parker, Colo., has had years of experience handling barn management and has formulated her own solid philosophies about how to deal with such situations.

“I don’t think any learning is bad learning,” she says, “so I like to listen to what a client has to say, even if it only remotely makes sense. Because, maybe I do need to learn it.

“As a manager, you tend to do the same things you’ve always done, so I try not to be stuck. There’s so much new information coming out all the time, and that’s good for everybody. Sure, sometimes it can feel like a challenge, but if the information is valuable, I may change and do what they want, or if not, I give them the reasons why it isn’t possible or feasible. It may be economic, say, an issue of new shavings, and then all you have to do is explain that if we use them, board will double!

“As for ‘know-it-alls,’ sometimes it’s just easier to ask them to leave the barn and to admit, ‘Hey, I’m really sorry, but you’re not working with the program.’ ”

Monte Montgomery of Rancho Oso Rio in Pilot Point, Texas, has also entertained discussions about bedding and other subjects with his reining and cowhorse clients. “As a barn manager, I sit down with them and say, ‘This is why I do it this way. Here’s what I’ve found, and here’s the reason I stick to this plan. I’m sorry if you don’t agree, but this is the way I run the barn.

“Nothing is going to change unless it is something I can clearly see a benefit in,” says Montgomery, “and yes, I do take everything into consideration. I will listen, and I will not just say ‘no.’ I’ll investigate, check out the product or system, and really decide if it’s something I want to incorporate.”

Trainer Kathie Robertson of Creekside Farm in Brentwood, Calif., also takes the positive approach when counseling her eventers. “We try and talk to them and educate them about the pros and cons of what they’ve heard, and how it might apply to their horse and situation. If it’s a discussion they’ve shared or an article they’ve read that might work for a specific situation or group of people, it’s important that they understand that it might not be right for them or their horse now. We do remind them to ‘file it’ in the back of their mind, for 10 years from now, it might apply.”

Dr. Bonnie Jacobsen, director of the New York Institute for Psychological Change, is the author of “If Only You Would Listen” (St. Martin’s Press) and “Love Triangles” (Crown). She provides her view from behind the desk of her discipline.

“It’s a tricky thing, but there has to be a way an experienced trainer can allow his rider to give feedback. Just like the horse and rider, they both have to work well together: It’s reciprocal.

“The excellent trainer must be able to receive new information or thoughts from his students,” says Jacobsen. “It behooves a trainer, no matter how the student presents it, to give the student the benefit of the doubt and to assume that whatever the student brings is because of passion, curiosity and motivation. The trainer can take what the student says and translate it into something that both can use well. The trainer has to be sensitive to the evolving status of the student.”

Melanie Tenney, owner and dressage trainer at her Woodcock Hill Farm in Willington, Conn., endeavors to be politically sensitive. “I do want to accommodate the client’s wishes, for that’s what a service business is all about. I need to communicate to the client that what they want may be fine, but there may be costs associated with it. If they have no issue cost-wise, then we may be set.

“In terms of training,” she says, “if there’s some real documentation, say an article, I’ll be receptive and read it and listen, especially if the client has some way of suggesting there’s a better way to something. I am open minded, but someone with a big ego who wants to be the boss and doesn’t have the knowledge to back it up, that doesn’t work so well. I am accommodating, but our services can’t just be given away. If you want something particular, you’ve got to be willing to pay for it.”

George Chatigny, general manager of the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank and with 70 employees under his guidance, believes in a one-on-one exchange when a boarder issue arises.

“They call, and I invite them in to talk. I’ll listen to their side of the situation, and encourage them to provide me some answers to the problem. Mind you, there are true problems that sometimes must be addressed, because sometimes I can’t see the small ones in such a large facility. If you’re doing your overall job, you can’t spend 100 percent of your time looking inside each stall.”

Interpersonal communications expert Bethany Murray of Cardiff, California, shares her insights. “I would recommend that the trainer listen really carefully to what the client is saying, to the new information, and to take anything that they feel is of value. Acknowledge that it’s an interesting idea, so that the client feels that they’re really being heard, not dismissed. If it’s information, say, from another professional in a clinic, it should be respected.

“If it’s different from what the trainer believes, the trainer could describe what their experiences have been, or ‘according to my research,’ or that trainer could cite other authorities. This way, the trainer still maintains their own authority without being arrogant, asserting in a respectful way their own beliefs. And the client still feels heard.”

The next time a client questions you or your decisions, remember there are a variety of effective means of responding that will allow both you, and your client, to maintain dignity and preserve your relationship. There is always that point, however, as our experts have noted, when the relationship may not be one you want to preserve.