Keeping the Peace

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Stress. It builds up from work, at home with the family, at the gas pump and via grim news on television. Horse people, like everyone else, need a break, so they come to your barn to have fun. But if your barn is rife with strife, it won’t satisfy that need to escape. So how can you keep the peace with so many different personalities in one place?

Take a deep breath and relax; help is on the way.

Is Everybody Happy?

Even though you hate to face it, sometimes the bad apples have to go. Your fellow trainers aren’t shy about culling the barn bushel, and you shouldn’t be, either.

When clients aren’t happy, neither is Ann Guptill of Fox Ledge Farm in East Haddam, Conn. (www.foxledgefarm.net), whose top-class resume includes the Pan American Games, Olympic Dressage Selection Trials and more. “I have had to ask clients to leave,” she admits. “People come to our stable to get help in training their horses, improve their riding skills and, most of all, enjoy their horses. We have a board agreement that includes stable rules and etiquette that is read and signed before moving a horse in. We reserve the right to terminate a stay at any time.

“If the boarder breaches the stable rules, I quietly take the person aside, explaining how the rules affect the running of the stable for everyone’s safety and enjoyment. I established this protocol in the early stages and it has paid off. If there is trouble in the tackroom, everyone becomes unhappy. I do my best to nip a problem in the bud so it does not become a larger problem.”

Another busy and accomplished dressage trainer, Diane Rodich of both Ringoes, N. J., and Wellington, Fla., has been training for 10 years, and recently experienced a scenario that may have a familiar ring to it. The short version is that a foreign trainer pursued a barn client romantically “to get his foot in the door.” Then the calculating newcomer zeroed in on Rodich’s working student of the same nationality as him.

“He saw early on that by getting close to her he could either use her as his working student, or use her to manipulate myself and others so he could grow his business. She quit confiding in me and stopped being loyal to me. He criticized my horses and my way of training and convinced one of my very good clients to move to him,” Rodich says. Chaos reigned until the offender was asked to leave.

Rodich, obviously hurt and frustrated, told her working student, “When you’re my student, I expect a certain amount of loyalty, respect and commitment.” The student ultimately left, too, and happy days returned.

Her philosophy: “I’m very even-keeled and don’t get upset about the little things. While there are things in the barn I wish I could change, I pick and choose what I point out to the barn owner as major concerns.” Even in trainer-to-trainer situations where she might be able to snag another student, Rodich won’t say,“ Oh! Come train with me!” Instead, she says, “I still try to support that person’s trainer, and it ultimately comes back to me tenfold. Have faith that the right clients will find you, and they will.”

Courtesy Rules

He’s been in the horse business all his life, says Jim Culleton, MFH, of McKenney, Va. Currently, Culleton owns and operates a boarding/training facility as well as a recognized hunt.

Yes, he’s had to deal with unpleasant boarder issues, too. “Come right out and say what has to be said,” he advises. “Don’t beat around the bush. Confront the people creating problems and let them know that your facility is there for enjoyment. Don’t get caught up in petty bickering. Let them know the rules. They should be civil to one another; they don’t have to be friends but they should be polite and shouldn’t gossip.”

Like Rodich and Guptill, Culleton knows that “if they want to be at your facility, they will go along with this and everyone should be okay. I have asked several people to leave.” His last bit of advice: “Don’t let your employees get involved or take sides and remember, honesty is the best way to solve problems.”

At the Norris-Penrose Event Center in Colorado Springs, used mostly by ladies who ride English, barn manager Erin Baker notes that “the ones that have less to do have more complaints.” It’s an observation that would likely be seconded by many trainers. With 80 horses in her barn, Baker remembers starting her job after the former barn manager had been gone two weeks, leaving no one on the premises. “There was a lot of drama, i.e., people asking ‘Are the horses going to get fed?’ A few stirred up trouble because they had nothing else to do, and although one was genuinely concerned, four people were asked to leave.”

Resolving to Resolve Conflict

Some people thrive on conflict and just love it, but most don’t, likely including you. In the world outside horses, conflict resolution is big business, most frequently handled by a professional mediator or trainer—a skilled third-party facilitator—such as Sharon Pickett of MediationMatters.com in Bethesda, Md. So we asked, what’s the best way to resolve conflict?

To reform a messy boarder, Pickett advises to turn your complaint into a request. Say, “ ‘I really need you to help me do this [keep the barn clean].’ Or, ‘Will you do the hay tonight? I’m really tired.’ This approach is preferable as opposed to a command or put-down,” she says.

Other tactics:?Acknowledge the issue before moving on to problem-solving; rephrase what the boarder is saying so she feels like she was heard, says Pickett. Identify the emotions underneath the words.

You can probably relate to the following example, here using Pickett’s methodology: “‘I hear that you’re really angry that someone got a better stall than you. I sense you’re disappointed that you didn’t get the one you wanted, and am wondering if you’re afraid that so-and-so is getting preferential treatment.’ Try to understand emotions that are driving the complaint; repeat it so the person feels like you’ve ‘got it,’ that they don’t have to keep convincing you.”

As a stable manager or trainer, you’ve surely had a client who’s firing everyone up about something. Pickett suggests you first ask if the offender is willing to talk to you. “Set up a specific time, telling them that you want to talk about something that’s important. Get a buy-in rather than talking to them around other people. Sit down, then say, ‘I’d like to share with you a concern that I have in terms of the impact your behavior is having.’ ”

Remember to take it slowly, stay calm, and don’t use any kind of “labeling or name-calling or interpretation.” Pickett suggests you initially identify the behavior in question: “I’ve noticed sometimes that you are talking with other people about someone else, that a third-party discussion is happening, things are conveyed and sometimes, in my opinion, there’s another side to the story. When you get in middle, it tends to escalate conflict in the barn in a way that isn’t helpful.’ ”

Finally, words that apply to any relationship: “Don’t interpret their motives, because you can’t really attribute those motives. You don’t know what they’re trying to do.”

Wow. Now—shades of the 60s—raise those two fingers in a V, and say, “Peace.” It can be realized for you—and your clients.