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Sharing a horse with a show rider

From: Susan

Hi Jessica - Love your columns and E-L posts! I didn't find anything close to this in the archives. Since I trust your judgement and diplomacy, so thought it might be a good question for the newsletter. I can't be the only person in the equestrian world with a similar fix. Please leave my email and last name out, if you publish. Thanks!

I've been having communication issues with my trainer/coach/barn owner/manager (all one person). She's a really good horse careperson and instructor, but isn't count-on-able for conveying information unless asked direct specific questions. This depends of course on the assumption that the questioner even knows to ask in the first place. No implication here of lack of personal integrity or failure of judgement on horse matters, it's just that I am feeling that her apparent business practices do not fit with my expectations of appropriate fairness and "customer service".

Background: Adult beginning rider. First boarding/show barn. Since last fall, I have been riding a schoolmaster pony, on half-lease with the barn owner holding the other half as an agent for the owner (who will not sell). In this time, she has occasionally let others ride him on her half, but not taken into account the days I can/cannot ride or checked with me in advance, even though I have repeatedly told her which days those are, and have asked for her to contact me. Because this did not happen terribly frequently, and I got extra riding days because he was not leased to anybody else, I did not make a big deal about it. It was annoying at the time, but the trade-offs were "worth the trouble".

Recently, however, I've realized that my previously let-it-be attitude toward similar situations is coming back to haunt me. The pony had to go on layup due to a hock injury, and she switched me onto a horse with more ability and training, now that I have enough chops to deal with him. We are a great fit, and will be for quite some time, possibly forever. We're about to make it semi-permanent in the form of me taking over the second half of his lease. The thing is, the other lessee is a junior show rider who has been riding him for over a year. This past week, they took the horse off site on 2 of my riding days for show prep, and they will be gone 4 days this week again to an out of state show, effectively reducing 6-8 days of paid riding time down to 3 days. The junior had already made these plans well in advance and prior to my schedule being a consideration. As far as the trainer is concerned, I am not riding the pony, because my contract has ended on him as of July 31 and she has assigned him to someone else. However, we haven't signed the lease contract on this horse yet.

So, in some ways I have a decent bargaining position to work from going forward. Is it reasonable or common to give preference to the junior show rider over the adult student pleasure rider? In other words, is it expected that show schedules bump the non-show rider's riding time?

Other than buying the horse myself (yes, he is for sale and I am not certain I'm ready) and dictating lease terms to the other rider, what kind of options do I have? I know I can ask the trainer to find me another horse to lease, and share the lease with a non-show rider, but right now there aren't any at the barn that don't already have their own horses. Which means I'd have to pay the full lease until somebody suitable comes along. Also, I want to be a good enough rider to show, but have no interest in showing. Would it be fair/reasonable for me to expect her to sign a lease contract with additional notification and pre-scheduling requirements on her and/or the other rider, knowing in advance that the likelihood of her agreeing is low? If I do try to make contractual "demands", how can I do it in such a way as to maintain a smooth ongoing relationship? She's a bit my-way-or-the-highway about how she runs the barn, as most of her riders are juniors or have come up through as juniors and are accustomed to her ways, but don't get me wrong, she is quite generous at heart, and a fabulous instructor.

If you've picked up that I am uncomfortable with this as an awkward blurry mix between her boarding business and her goals as a trainer of show riders, you are on the money. If you've perceived I am frustrated and a little angry right now, that is also accurate - some toward myself for letting it get this far, and some toward her way of doing things (or not, as with respect to transferring key information).

I do want to resolve this without making a big mess of things due to my present emotional reaction. My underlying, possibly-but-not-entirely unfounded fear is that she'll invite me to ride elsewhere because I prefer not to continue to accept doing things 100% according to her habit, whim or convenience. This is my first private barn experience and I don't know whether it's better other places, or if this is typical.

Little help? Thanks in advance for your "horse-sense"! Regards, Susan

Hi Susan! Thanks for the kind words.

You're coping with a very common phenomenon, made more immediate and directly personal because of your part-lease of the horse. Time-share agreements can be tricky, especially if the second person signs on after the first one, and the first one has already laid claim to a year's worth of all of the dates that suit her schedule best. The second person is likely to get "leftovers" - you'll be allowed to make your selection from all the REST of the days, not from the full calendar.

Part-leasing a horse with a show rider is tricky, even if you are also a show rider. Most trainers try to find a second rider who is NOT a show rider, for very practical reasons. Two show riders are very likely to want the horse for the same classes at the same shows, so it's more practical to look for another kind of person to share a lease - preferably someone who does not show and who is willing to ride the horse on other days when the show rider doesn't have specific plans for the horse. Sadly this arrangement is very often, especially at a show-oriented barn, seen NOT as an equal lease by two individuals with equal rights and equal priority, but as a part-time service provided by the second rider... who effectively becomes nothing more than a person who pays to exercise the horse on the days when the show rider isn't actually attending or practicing for a show.

In cases like this, a shared lease can be a good arrangement for the show rider, but is often not so very good for the other rider, who is, so to speak, a second-class citizen.

While you're considering this, let's turn to the question of why an instructor would give preference to a show rider over an adult novice pleasure rider. This will make sense to you ONLY if you can put yourself in the instructor's shoes (boots?) for a moment, and look at the situation STRICTLY from a business standpoint.

A riding school is a business. Students are a business. Barn owners and instructors who want to be financially successful need to identify and meet the needs of their specific market. Most of the time, it's clear which area barns are "show barns" and which are more casual lesson barns or boarding barns. Sometimes it's not so clear, either because the instructor doesn't really have a good idea of what she's about, or because the nature of the barn and the business is undergoing a change, perhaps from a casual boarding/teaching barn to a more formal show barn. Once this change has been completed, everyone will know just what sort of facility it is and what the focus is, but whilst a change is in progress, it can be very confusing for everyone. In most cases, as a facility becomes more show-oriented, there will be an influx of new, show-oriented riders - and there will also be a series of quiet (usually) departures of individual riders who were never motivated by a desire to compete, and who feel that they no longer "fit in" and that their needs are no longer being met.

Meanwhile, if the instructor wants to focus on show riders, and spends much of her time preparing her students for competitions, taking them to and from competitions, coaching them at competitions, etc., she may very well begin to see the remaining non-showing riders as place-holders and dabblers rather than as "serious" students. I'm sure you're familiar with the expression "Money talks", yes? From an instructor/business-owner's point of view, students who compete are typically much more profitable than those who don't. In terms of the bottom line, show riders bring in more actual income (direct income from show riders: extra lessons, show prep, coaching at shows, commissions on horse purchases and sales, etc.) and more potential income (indirect income from show riders: their success is excellent advertising, and leads to the acquisition of more show-rider students, thus more extra lessons, more show prep, more coaching, more commissions, etc.).

Contrast this with the absolutely predictable and unchanging, and much smaller, amount of income from a well-meaning, horse-loving individual who part-leases a horse because that's what she can afford in terms of money and time, and who has no competitive ambitions and no interest in competition.

Focusing on the show riders and making them a priority isn't necessarily a moral failing or a fault, but it very often IS a deliberate choice on the part of the barn-owner or instructor, for very practical (again, that pesky bottom line) reasons.

As I see it, you have a handful of choices, none of them ideal. First, you can carry on as you are, which means that you'll need to cope with the situation as it is for the remainder of the show season. Since you haven't yet signed a new lease, you do have some bargaining power, but not necessarily very much. ;-) If nothing else, you should talk to the instructor about achieving a more equitable arrangement, either immediately or as soon as show season is over (and YES, this should be written into the lease).

At the very least, you SHOULD be made aware of the other rider's competition schedule well in advance, so that you can plan your riding time. Shows don't just occur out of nowhere, they are scheduled, and riders sign up for them IN ADVANCE - months in advance, sometimes. Show prep is also generally arranged for well in advance, because it often involves other area trainers and their facilities - trainers don't just suddenly, spontaneously load up the trailer and haul six horses and riders over to someone else's facility for a pre-competition schooling weekend.

In answer to your questions, YES, it is common (and not entirely unexpected) for the show rider to "bump" the other rider's time - but not so often, and not without warning, and not without some compensation in the form of another horse to ride or (at least) a reduction in that month's lease payment to compensate for lost time.

Also at the very least, you should not be expected to pay for someone else's riding time. If you are paying for 6-8 days of riding time, and that time is reduced to 2-3 days because the horse sustains an injury and can't be ridden, you might be expected to pay regardless, and that might be entirely fair and reasonable, depending on the terms of the lease (check them). But if your 6-8 days is reduced to 2-3 days because the other person is riding the horse on "your" days, there should be a simple formula for pro-rating the cost of your actual riding hours. Otherwise, the lease itself isn't very meaningful.

In terms of riding time, it may not be possible for you to set up a better arrangement right now, since the horse's show schedule has probably already been set until the end of the season - entries paid, plans made, calendar dates circled. But in financial terms, you should be able to arrive at a more equitable arrangement whereby you don't pay for time that someone else is using. If you can draw up a new lease, the terms should be such that you and the show rider will be on a more equal footing, so to speak, at least in terms of who rides the horse on which days - and who pays for what. There should be a firm schedule - and a clear (written) understanding of what will happen if that schedule changes. Even if you know that show season is likely to be problematic, if you can arrive at an understanding that will take you through the months until the next show season begins, you'll have more time in which to look about for a better situation.

Don't forget that the horse itself isn't a fixed, predictable quantity - not just because ANY horse can become injured or ill, thus putting paid to everyone's riding plans, but because this particular horse is for sale. What will you do if it is sold to someone who doesn't want to share it at all, with anyone? Just something to consider...

Another possibility: Arrange to share a lease (probably on a different horse, though) with another rider who doesn't show either and with whom you can be on equal footing at all times. I konw that there's nothing available right now at THIS facility, but there might be a horse available elsewhere. It can't hurt to investigate the possibilities.

Still another possibility: Start now - and I would suggest that you do this in any case - and begin to look for a different sort of barn with a different sort of orientation. Every barn has its own atmosphere and every instructor has her own ideal clientele, and you might be much happier at a facility where the focus isn't on competition. OR you may find that you like your barn and instructor better than any others, and if so, you'll need to think about arranging matters so that you'll feel comfortable staying there.

As far as the owner/instructor's "my way or the highway" attitude is concerned, this is quite likely an accurate assessment of the situation. Realistically, it's very common - and not generally amenable to change from without. And truly, it's usually not such a bad thing. Owners and instructors who HAVE a clear "way", who make that "way" clear to their clientele, and who also make it clear that it IS "my way or the highway" generally have a contented clientele, because their barns are well-run, the rules and standards are consistent, everyone knows just what to expect, and anyone who interferes with the smooth running of the facility is asked to leave. I've always found that the best-run barns are usually managed by owners and/or instructors who have high standards, clear expectations, and, yes, a "my way or the highway" attitude. ;-)

Because you like this barn and this instructor, I hope that you'll be able to work out an arrangement that will allow you to stay and ride and not feel put-upon. Go look at other area barns, but look closely - watch lessons, talk to people who lease horses - and remember that NO barn will ever be perfect. This isn't just because you're part-leasing a horse! Even if you are the sole owner of a horse, can ride (or not ride) any day of the week, and can move your horse to a new boarding barn whenever you like, just by making a few phonecalls and hitching your own trailer to your own truck, you're still unlikely to find the ideal situation anywhere.

It's a rare fine thing for anyone to say "My boarding barn is just perfect, everything is done just exactly the way I like it." Most people are NOT happy about every single thing at their boarding barns. No matter where you go, something will be wrong... There will be too much turnout - or too little; your horse will be crowded with too many other horses - or he will spend too much time alone; the riding arena will be outdoors and useful only during half the year - or it will be indoors and either crowded all the time or so dusty that riding in it is a health hazard for riders and horses alike. Stalls will be cleaned too infrequently - or by people who are unkind to the horses; feed will be of insufficient quality - or of good quality and provided in too-large quantities.

And - just in case you were wondering - the sad fact is that even if you have your horses at home with you, unless you are incredibly wealthy and can afford the best of everything (and even then!), there will STILL be things you don't like about the horsekeeping arrangements. ;-)

A good instructor is worth a lot. A good barn owner/manager is worth a lot. Access to nice horses is worth a lot. I think that you need to sit down with your barn owner/instructor and discuss how YOUR needs can be met without compromising the other rider's show schedule. It IS quite possible that your generous, accepting attitude in the past has led her to the wrong conclusion, and that you need to point out, gently but oh-so-firmly, that you DO, very much, care about your riding and your riding time, and that any lease you sign will have to protect YOUR interests.

By the way, speaking of your own interests, I have to commend you on your wisdom in NOT rushing into the purchase of a horse. You're right, it's too soon - but not everyone in your position would realize that. Well done you.

Good luck, and do let me know what happens!


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