Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Speaking Up

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?


wilsonc said...

Hmmm...lots of murky areas here Laura as you pointed out. I'm not sure what I would do in such a situation. Perhaps throw a few other trainers names into the hat too, just to give the beginners a few choices. Probably give assistant trainer one of my raised eyebrow looks while I'm at it. Maybe even ask her why she sent the beginners that direction knowing what she has told you in the past. As for the beginners...I won't let them off the hook to easily. If your going to buy a horse then put some time and effort into educating yourself. You may be limited in how many horse people you know but there is no limit of information out there through books, magazines, the internet t.v progams, clinics etc. When in doubt about something to do with the horses health ask your vet. If something feels wrong in the way your trainer is treating your horse it probably is wrong. Find another trainer. Under no circumstances would I ever board or send my horse to a training barn where I was not welcome to drop in at any time. Have I been given bad advice before? Yes, but ultimately I am responsible for my horse and it's my job to educate and think for myself.

Funder said...

I like understatements. A well timed "Yeah, but he's real hard on 'em" might help. The newbies will still go check out the BNT but they'll hopefully have their eyes open for his cruelty. If they're wary, they'll see his bad behavior. I think with a lot of people you can only lead them to water, so to speak.

Alison said...

In all situations I find the abuse of the HORSES worse than being a bad trainer for a beginning rider. People have a choice. The horses do not. I would be very forthright in saying that he uses harsh and, in my opinion, abusive training methods that I feel hurts/puts fear in a horse rather than trains it to be a partner for a rider. That way you are saying it is your opinion and you are putting it in terms of the horse, not the human. It's easier to speak up when it's about animals!

Mrs. Mom said...

Well, when I am asked point blank what my thoughts are about Trainer X, Y, Or Z, I keep it simple. I'll either say Yes, I'd put a horse in their care, or No, I wouldn't put a horse in their care. Most folks who know me know that is enough.

As to dealing with complete novice folks.... Thats tough. People need to learn from their own mistakes. People also need to learn to pay attention, shop around, and find things out for themselves, instead of letting others lead them by the nose everywhere.

In a situation like you were in, me being a loud mouth wench (HA~) I probably would have said, "You can also check out Barn A, B, C, and D, and Trainers X, Y, and Z, so you can get a really good idea of what you want for your horse and your own lesson program."

I try not to talk bad about someone. And I also try not to say things about people that I would not say to their face. I figure if I don't have the guts to back it up right there with the person in question, I don't want something getting out behind my back either. (And there is not much I don't have the guts to back

Anonymous said...

If I can, I try to redirect the conversation towards better alternatives - but sometimes people just have to figure out things on their own or be ready to accept advice - it's a hard call.

Laura Crum said...

Mrs Mom--I'm like you--I don't like to talk bad behind people's backs. I tend to be very straight forward. The truth is that I've been out of the training barn loop for so long that I don't know many trainers to recommend. The one I've used most recently (and like) lives three hours from here. So I didn't really know anyone local that I could honestly recommend. All I would have had to say was that I DIDN'T recommend Big Deal Trainer, despite what former assistant trainer was telling them. And I couldn't quite find a way to say it. I dunno--am I just a chicken? Is rudeness OK sometimes? I just don't know.

Alison--Yes, it is the abuse of horses that I am speaking about here. And yes, I could have said that I consider (on what knowledge I have) that trainer to be abusive. Maybe I should have.

Funder--I like your approach. I will have to remember that. Understatement.

wilsonc--You are so right about beginners needing to learn and it ultimately being their responsibility. Nonetheless, I have a lot of sympathy for how confusing the whole thing can be. These beginners obviously trusted "former assistant trainer", who is a very knowledgable person. Why was she touting Big Name Trainer despite what she knew about him? I don't know.

The whole situation is complicated by the fact that after the beginners were out of earshot, former assistant trainer gal made some disparaging comment about the "newbies" to me, which annoyed me so much (OK, I was already annoyed) that I said (in my famously tactful style) that she and I had both been beginners at one time and did not ride as well as we used to now, and that I saw no real difference between them and us, nor did I think much of talking one way to their faces and another way behind their backs. I haven't seen her since. What bothers me is that I never said anything to the beginners--again, not that they were asking for my advice.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--Yeah, it still comes down to that for me. Would I have done good or harm if I had spoken up? Did the beginners just need to find their own way?

Laura Crum said...

I guess I should add into this discussion that, in general, I am quite willing to speak up--and I'm not particularly tactful about it (whether this is a fault or a strength, I've never known). I just didn't know what was best to do in the situation I described.

But I was out to dinner the other night with two friends. One of them treats her horses the way I do, the other is a bit more detached. We were discussing yet another team roping friend, whose horse had suffered the dreaded "suspensory tear" and though it had been rehabbed to soundness twice, had crippled up when asked to be a rope horse again. This friend had rehabbed the horse to soundness yet again and wanted to give it to a good home as a light riding horse. My friend with the more "detached" attitude scoffed at this and said that this person should sell the horse to the rope horse trader and get her money back. I got a little hot under the collar at this and asked this friend (quite forcefully) "How is that a good thing to do? The horse will cripple up again and perhaps end up going to slaughter. Not to mention its quite unfair to the next buyer. You would do such a thing--just to get your money back?" You can imagine that a brief silence fell. Fortunately the friend who feels as I do about horses (but is not as direct, shall we say), smiled at me and I knew she agreed. So I didn't feel too bad about saying it. In essence, as long as I can see my way clear, I am quite willing to stand up against what I think is abuse. But in the situation I blogged about, I was just confused.

Shanster said...

I agree there is no black and white in these situations... even giving advice to have to take each case seperately - take the person, the situation all in and go from there.

I wonder tho' if giving the advice of watching lessons given by the person would help?

I know I couldn't tolerate someone screaming at me... and if I witnessed it, no matter how good the trainer was, I'd find someone else. That would have been true as a beginner as well.

Dunno - maybe people think that is the way it's supposed to be and there are beginners who would think screaming is part of the experience.

I've learned to go watch people before really enlisting their help... see if their style is one I can understand and learn from. That would seem fairly objective and fair advice...

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--You're right. That is absolutely the perfect thing to say. In hindsight (and with your insight) I should have said sweetly that with Big Deal Trainer, or any trainer (or helper), that the beginners should maybe go observe him first, watch him give a few lessons, just hang around his barn. I could have interjected this politely into the conversation, I think, even though no one had asked my opinion. The trouble is that I was so fixated on why the heck former assistant trainer was bragging on Big Deal Trainer after all she had said to me about him and wondering if I should say, maybe like Funder says, "Ya know, he's really hard on horses," that I totally did not come up with any appropriate thing to say. At all. So thank you. Next time I'll be more prepared.

Laura Crum said...

Oh, and as for the sceaming, I worked for a trainer in my twenties who did a lot of screaming and took lessons from another. And I have to say that I did accept it as the norm. These guys were big successes in the show ring--they were my heroes. I finally came to the end of it--after lots of private tears, and I never tolerated that sort of thing again. When I took the couple of lessons from big name trainer later in life and deduced he was a "screamer", I never went back. But I'm not sure that anyone could have told me not to put up with that until I was ready to hear it. I thought it was just what I had to do to learn this so-wonderful skill of riding cowhorses.

HorseOfCourse said...

Again - no easy answers, Laura.
But I do wonder about the former assistant trainer who recommended the trainer even if she knew from first hand experience that he was abusive?
And even backtalked the ones that were asking for advice afterwards? Hm.
I guess I would have been a bit annoyed too.

In general I am getting more and more reluctant to get involved. I want peace and quality time with my horses.
It might not always be the right thing to keep quiet, but unfortunately you often get more involved than you were prepared for.

Another thing. In a situation like you described, Laura, it's often easy to think about what one should have said or done afterwards, but not quite as easy when you stand there.
I at least would have been very surprised with her recommendation of someone you (and she) knew was abusive. If something comes very unexpected, it takes some time before you are able to digest it, and act.

Shanster said...

I ALWAYS think of better things to say or do AFTER the situation is over! Sometimes you are so suprised by something takes a minute to absorb and respond in kind. I know some people have that gift to take it in and respond right away but I'm not one of them!

Susan said...

To me there are no gray areas when it comes to abuse. When I was younger I didn't think I had the right to speak up, but now I say, loud and clear, CALL PEOPLE ON THEIR SHIT!

And not just with animals. Years ago there was a little girl I knew who ran and hid when her mother's boyfriend came to take her home. I could see the fear on her face, but I was one of the adults who told her she had to go home. I can only guess what that little girl went home to, but today she is in prison because of a severe drug addiction. I will probably go to my grave feeling guilty because I didn't speak up for that frightened little girl and get to the bottom of what was happening in her home.

I will never let that happen again with either animals or children. Speak up and speak up loudly!

Laura Crum said...

Susan-- You have a good point. And, as I tried to say with my previous comment, I am in general someone who does call people on their shit. I think all of my friends would attest to this. It does not always make me popular. But to be fair, I also don't care for all the bad mouthing you hear in the horse world--so and so is a rival of "my" trainer or doesn't use my preferred method and so I'm gonna run him down. You hear this crap all the time and its very hard to sort out what the agenda is. I did not think I would necessarily do good by jumping in to call Big Deal Trainer abusive to some folks who didn't even know me from a bar of soap. I might be wrong about that. That's why I wrote the blog--to get new insights (and I'm getting them).

Shanster--I'm like you. I always think of the perfect comeback...much, much later. Like several days later.

Horse of Course--Former assistant trainer gal is very personable--she has lots of knowledge and seems very well intentioned. Its only over time that I discovered there were some odd paradoxes in the things she said and did. I still do not get why she goes on about Big Deal Trainer's talent and recommends him, when she complained so bitterly to me about his behavior. She told me story after story about how cruel he was to horses and people. So why does she sing his praises to others? I don't get it. Is it simply that she likes being associated with someone who is a big name? Nonetheless, everyone likes her and I'm sure she influences a lot of people.

And yes, I too want a quiet life and quality time with my horses. I don't associate with "professional" horse people to speak of any more. I hang out with my friends and ride the trails with my son. I'm somewhat of a "horse hermit", as I've blogged about before. Thus I am sometimes at a loss as to what to say when I am faced with such a situation. It is my impulse not to get involved--yes. But I want to do what's right. Like I said--I get confused.