by Laura Crum
My last post, “Helping Beginners” sparked some interesting comments. One in particular referenced a beginner who was essentially duped into accepting an abusive person as an “expert” and spent a couple of years “enabling” this person to abuse and neglect horses—all because the beginner did not know enough to recognize abuse and neglect when she saw it. Thankfully this person eventually woke up to what was going on (partly because others kept telling her it was abusive) and sought better advisors.
So, at this point the question moves on from whether experienced horsemen should offer unsolicited advice to beginners, to the perhaps trickier one of when do we speak up and say, “Your trainer is abusive.” “Your horses are too thin; you’re neglecting them.” “Beating and jerking on this horse as you are doing is abuse.” “This sort of bitting up or rolkur (substitute your own choice) is cruel and abusive.” “Your advisor/mentor/expert is not giving you good advice.” Like many things, this sounds simple—of course we should stand up against abuse—but it really isn’t.
Let me give an example. Not too far from where I live there is a well known trainer. I took a few lessons from him many years ago and rapidly discovered he was hard on his horses and screamed at his students. I never went back. Some years later I met a woman who had worked for him as an assistant trainer. She had since taken up team roping and we met at the roping arenas. She often told me horror stories about the well known trainer, whom she had worked for for two years. Stories about how cruel he was to horses and people, including his clients and help. She referred to him as a “sadistic bastard”. But I noticed that to others, in general conversation, she was more inclined to dwell on her reflected glory as assistant to the “Big Deal Trainer”. She only told the horror stories when we were one on one.
Now the horror stories about this trainer were confirmed by a few other folks I knew who were his clients at one time. He was dishonest as well as cruel to horses and people. And based on my experiences with him, I had no trouble believing this. I also knew (because she told me) that former assistant trainer had quit on very bad terms with Big Deal Trainer and did not speak to him for a couple of years. However, at some point former assistant trainer must have decided that being on good terms with Big Deal Trainer was in her best interests and she mended the breach. And none of this meant much to me.
But not too long ago I was at a gathering where former assistant trainer waxed lyrical to some beginners who were looking for a trainer about Big Deal Trainer. How she used to ride for him, how talented he was. She advised the beginners to maybe attend a clinic or two and then put their horses in training with Big Deal Trainer. I listened to this and kept my mouth shut. No one asked me for my opinion and I did not give it.
But now I wonder. When do we speak up? Should I have said that Big Deal Trainer was known for being hard on horses and people and that former assistant trainer knew this very well. Should I have asked former assistant trainer to explain WHY she was now praising Big Deal Trainer after all the negative things she had told me about him in private—things that I was pretty clear were true, based on my own experiences and what others had told me. Should I have warned the beginners off of Big Name Trainer, despite the fact that they did not know me nor were they asking my advice, but were interested in former assistant trainer, whose opinion they obviously valued.
To me, this is a very gray area. Is it really right for me to run down this trainer to others? Is it any of my business? Under these circumstances, would it do any good, or would I simply appear as a nasty, bad mouthing person—essentially doing harm? Is it appropriate for me to call former assistant trainer on her rather two-faced approach? And/or is it wrong of me to sit silent while the beginners are led down the primrose path toward a trainer that I believe will do them and their horses harm?
This is just one example of the many gray areas we face when we talk about speaking up in the face of abuse. I chose it as an example because it is a particularly confusing area in my eyes. Some things seem pretty plain and maybe we can see that we need to speak. But some things are more complicated, like the above case. What would you do? And do you have other examples of times when it is not clear whether one should speak up or not?