Creating a Barn Culture of Acceptance and Collaboration

To horse people, the word ‘barn’ means so much more than a building.  Our definition is not in the dictionary. ‘My barn’ encompasses the people and pastures and shelters and surroundings that support the horses and owners and riders.  A horse barn is a space.

A barn is where wondrous creatures from diverse and interesting backgrounds spend their days – animal and human – and where horse owners and caretakers gather and care for each other, share experiences, learn about the creatures, their spirit,  and the art of riding well, so we enjoy them more in such a variety of ways. It is where you can learn to truly connect with your horse; and communicate.

We treat each other and our horses with careful understanding and respect.  

Or not. 

I fiercely guard that culture here and when I see the first sign of pettiness directed toward another rider, owner, or their horse, my antenna go up.  Same with visitors or professionals that treat us or our horses with anything less than tender care and respect. I will and have asked boarders to find another place more suitable for their needs before I let toxic words or action fester. Yet just recently I fell into it myself – it can happen in the blink of an eye.

Sadly, the term ‘horse barn’ too often has a reputation for being catty snarky places where judgmental comments among riders and owners about other horses/riders/owners is common; even permeates. Thankfully only a few – and hats off to those managers who stay tuned in.  

The Snowball of Inconsiderate Remarks

A barn is a microcosm of society and our barn experience can help each of us learn how to thwart a divisive culture and nurture a supportive one.  It requires our full attention and some courage.

Hearing someone put another down as though it were funny, ‘just kidding’, a joke, does not change the unkindness and shallowness of the words.  You know exactly what I am talking about. Something as simple as “I never see her out here” or “does she ever ride?” said with a knowing smile is not funny or cute or anything other than an intended put down with the implied invitation to anyone listening to join in and respond with your own judgmental comment. This is your moment.

Constructive input is great – and for another discussion…

So don’t laugh when someone makes an unkind, suggestive comment in the guise of being humorous.  At the very least remain stoic and leave them hanging, or better, have the courage to simply say “that was unkind” or ‘she’s a terrific horsewoman’ or ‘you don’t have to ride your horse to enjoy it” or  “that’s his/her choice.” Nip it in the bud. One mean spirited comment that receives any positive reinforcement has a snowball effect – it happens so easily, and quickly, and can permeate into becoming that barn’s culture. 

Just to belabor the point, if anyone asks you to tell them about another’s horse, it is always most considerate to say “Oh he/she would love to tell you all about her horse. Ask her next time you see him/her.”  I know that seems innocent enough, but who better than the owner to tell someone about their horse – that’s a very positive thing and can build relationships.   

Breeding Collaboration instead of Competition

Often a barn houses a highly competitive group. A high energy gathering of people who enjoy riding, love their horses, share so much in common with everyone around them, and compete with gusto.  Their barn should be the ideal comfort/support zone. We know that competition can foster envy or worse – and it is a character building experience to be able to truly enjoy another’s success even when you were competing and did not achieve what you wanted and had worked for.  

Learn from failure – stifle your envy, rechannel it into curiosity about why you failed, strive to do better to achieve his/her level and more, and work harder for it.  Cutting the other person down does not elevate you – even if others around you laugh or seem to agree. The reality is that the speaker has diminished him or herself. Mutual respect, understanding, support, etc. must be each barn’s credo.   

Respecting Each Individual’s Autonomy

A sensitivity to each individual’s need for privacy comes into play here too – socializing has such merits, but a barn should also be your one special place of reverie, peacefulness and quiet time with your horse.  A retreat that all of us need and respect.

An outside visitor recently made a judgmental comment to a group of visitors and boarders about one of our boarders – I happened to be nearby and walked over and casually said: “oh no, she’s an amazing owner – we all have different approaches – I love hers!” What is the saying? “Kill them with kindness.” I hope that anyone of our boarders would have spoken up and nipped that in the bud. 

I so deeply believe barn managers should be on top of any tendency to demean another horse or rider; to spot it and stop it before it spreads. Isn’t it surprising that it takes courage to call someone’s hand – but we can all do it, nicely, unapologetically, while making the point that we don’t let negativity slip by.   It is so heartwarming to see boarders start to speak up and to watch the supportive atmosphere build to the sticking point. That’s who we want to be. 

About Guest Author – Anne Taylor: Anne lives on her farm, La Finca, in Johnston County, North Carolina with her cat Roadie, horse Aisha, and peacocks. After retiring from a career in government working to protect the environment and raising her two sons Anne began boarding horses, planting beautiful flowers and hosting guests at her cabin for rent on airbnb.

Photos by Lindsey Farkas of Farkas Photography

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