One Barn, Multiple Trainers

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Whether you are a barn owner or a trainer, it can be complicated if there are more than one trainers at one facility. Trainers want a place to establish their "home base" for training, but occasionally trainers will have a few students at multiple barns. Learning how to co-exist with other trainers is critical to a successful stay at that barn. And farm owners, sometimes it is up to you to enforce rules that make it easier for trainers to co-exist.

In this article, some of your colleagues share their tips for peaceful barn co-existence.

Short story: It’s all about communication, as barn co-owners Chris Armstrong, Mary Brust and Andrea Waldo (Triple Combination Farm, www.triplecombinationfarm.com) well know. These three women are a successful combo, with Armsrong as barn manager, and Brust and Waldo as professionals focused on eventing. They oversee multiple horses and teach 25 to 45 lessons a week, including Pony Clubbers, in Ferrisburgh, Vermont.

Horse training can pit one person against another, but these dynamos don’t let that bog them down. “People often remark on how well our partnership works,” Waldo said. “We’re really proud of it, and we’ve put in a lot of time and effort to keep it running smoothly.”

Here is some advice on making it work.

Getting Along

First item: Ring time. At Triple Combination Farm the lesson times are split by days. “Mary and I teach three days each; one day is free for boarders not to have to work around lessons,” Waldo said.

The trainer for the day has first call for the rings—one indoor, one outdoor. On Waldo’s days, her lessons get priority, but if Brust needs to fit in a client, she does so around Waldo’s schedule. It’s teamwork at its best.

Second item: Lesson schedules. Post lesson schedules, suggested kid’s specialist Jen Dallis of Punk Pony Riding School in Chatsworth, California (visit their Facebook). “That way, you don’t feel like you’re stepping on other trainers’ toes. It’s important to be flexible with time,” said Dallis.

Two trainers yelling instructions can confuse clients, Dallis says. “Take just a minute, or a breath, and wait for your colleague to finish the thought. All clients want to feel they’re getting what they pay for.”

Third: Set rules and abide by them. “We all have very similar training philosophies, and the rules are the same across the board,” Waldo said. “The barn owner’s own set of policies and rules should apply to everyone, so no confusion or conflict occurs.”

Fourth: Good communication. This is important, especially on difficult issues. For instance, can trainers (safely) trade students when a rider’s schedule mandates it, or the client’s own preference is to ride with one or the other trainer?

“This gets tricky from time to time, but it all works out in the end with good communication,” said Waldo. “We never let someone switch without talking to their current instructor first, so there’s no feeling of going behind someone’s back. Getting people to do this is hard, but we really enforce it. Because we’re open to these kinds of switches, clients feel really comfortable expressing their needs, and thus end up happier with their experience.”

Theory Versus Practice

How do these principles play out in real life? Sarah Phaklides (SP Training Stables) has been through a few different scenarios. Centered on hunter/equitation/jumpers and a little bit of dressage, Phaklides once worked at a barn with 15 trainers. She’s now based at Webb Ranch in Portola Valley, California.

Her experience has been that each trainer at a multi-trainer facility was required to sign a “do not compete” clause stating they wouldn’t solicit another trainer’s clients, said Phaklides. “If the client wanted to switch, he or she would have to talk to his or her own trainer first.” That doesn’t mean all changes will be handled smoothly, but it improved the odds.

Issues With Multi-Trainer Facilities

Trainer-switching is easily the biggest issue when trainers share a barn. “In the past, I have seen some pretty bad things happen at barns with multiple trainers. If the equestrian community was not so small, I’m sure [the trainers would have] gotten into some legal battles,” said Hilary Moore (www.MooreDressage.com). Moore is an FEI competitor and USDF Associate Instructor in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and she trains at Potomac Riverside Stables in Dickerson, owned and managed by Kent and Anna Slaysman. Moore also trains at several other local private facilities.

Moore says the barn owner’s respect for trainers is what makes her situation work.

From experience, she’s hesitant to work out of a barn where the owners encourage clients to take lessons with multiple trainers. “In most cases, a boarder will place less value on a trainer’s unique skills when barn owners suggest that instructors are interchangeable,” she said.

Moore recalls that her former fellow trainers began accusing colleagues of soliciting their clients because it was the norm to swap trainers. Soon trainers were understandably paranoid.

Moore also stressed the importance of having enough elbow room. “A barn of 20 horses and boarders is not a smart place to bring in six full-time trainers,” Moore pointed out. The constrictions of one indoor ring in winter or too few horses for lessons will only lead to tensions among trainers and the entire barn community.

At Moore’s current facility “there’s enough space, even for bad weather.” It includes one huge indoor and three lighted outdoor arenas, with one for flat work, for five trainers, including others who teach dressage. Scheduling of clinics or other events is done judiciously, since boarders who don’t participate may become disgruntled and leave due to interference.

Sharing and Professional

Although it’s important to deal with issues when they come up, having formal review time set aside is a great idea, said Christina Tabacco-Weber. Tabacco-Weber has 16 years of refining hunter/jumper and dressage curriculums at Stanhope Stables (www.stanhopestables.net) in Huntington, New York. Once a year, the 17 trainers attend a meeting on barn and ring rules to air grievances while collaborating on creative barn promotion.

“In our group, everyone is polite to one another,” said Tabacco-Weber. With 100 horses, “stealing clients is a major no-no.” Thankfully, the system works. “We all try to get along because we are professionals. It is a small island, and word gets around.”

Typically, rainy days or days when outside rings are unusable can make things “crazy.” Trainers are encouraged to schedule lessons during less-congested times, but that is not always possible.

“If a client needs to ride during peak times, like weekends, they know it may not be the most productive lesson and just accept it,” said Tabacco-Weber. “All riders learn about sharing the ring. No one ‘owns’ a circle or a jump. We all know how to steer in traffic very well.”

As for different philosophies, all trainers think the way they teach is correct, she said. “But at Stanhope, ‘Vive la différence!’ As long as there is no abuse--and none is tolerated--the deal is, we agree to disagree.”

In fact, Tabacco-Weber feels that competition between professionals is a good thing, and motivates each to work a little harder to be a better trainer, ultimately benefiting horse and student.

No, it’s not all happy-go-lucky all the time. Cliques and gossip are a part of human nature, and of barn sociology. Tabacco-Weber’s barn owner, Nancy Henderson, sets a great example by being supportive of her trainers, and discouraging arguments in front of clients. She addresses the drama post-lesson, away from clients.

“I have found that a smile and asking nicely goes a long way to smooth these things over,” said Tabacco-Weber. “I know my clients can ask for help from another trainer if they really need it and my clients won’t be solicited. Other trainers know they can ask the same of me.”

All for one and one for all: Working together really can make shared space work.