June 2020 - Ask Dr. Darby Bonomi
Written by by Dr. Darby Bonomi
Thursday, 28 May 2020 04:13

ask dr darby

Performance psychologist and equestrian answers readers’ questions.

Dear Dr. Darby,

Can you give me advice on shifting the culture of my barn? Right now there is a lot of competitive tension between riders. They even compete for my attention and get into arguments about how much time I spend with each of them. These conflicts get in the way of my ability to focus on what I need to do to train them and their horses. For instance, sometimes one horse only needs 20 minutes when another horse needs 40. It’s not about preferring one or the other. I feel like I’m tiptoeing around my own place. I have tried to talk to the individuals directly involved, but they seem to feel the problem is with the other or with me. Please do not use my name or location, since that will only fan the flames!


—California Trainer

Dear Friend,


I’m sorry to hear that you are experiencing this uncomfortable situation. Tension between clients is tough on everyone at the barn—from the grooms, to the trainers, to other clients as well. Horses feel the tension too, so there are lots of good reasons to get a grip on negativity — and fast. If you add gossip to the equation, morale will tank quickly.

Perhaps now is a good time to do a barn culture assessment. The COVID-19 shelter in place orders have physically separated us, and offered us the opportunity to reevaluate our priorities and connect with what’s most meaningful. I think most of us realize more acutely than ever how important the barn and the horses are. I know I’m not alone in viewing the barn as my sanctuary. It’s the place where I recharge, refuel, and get grounded. Negativity, tension, and conflict of any sort are intrusive and can ruin the whole experience—and definitely keep us from riding our best.

In my work with trainers, I often get questions similar to yours. Trainers tend to be pleasers—they try to make everyone happy, from the clients to the horses, to their staff—and they run themselves ragged in doing so. Rather than trying to please others, decide what kind of community and experience you want for your program.

Ask yourself:
•    What do you stand for?
•    What are your overall values?
•    What kind of barn feel do you want?
•    What kind of personality traits do you value in clients?

Become really clear about how you want your barn to operate and why. Write a mission statement, and then write down how you will support that mission. Becoming exquisitely clear with yourself about what kind of you barn culture you want, will allow you to start to develop the tools to be clear with others.

As a trainer, you often occupy a parent-like role. In truth, you are the parent of your barn. You have to guide behavior and, at times, set limits. When your kids are arguing about something petty (like who got more, for instance), you don’t get in the middle of it. Similarly, don’t get involved in barn squabbles. (You’ll never win anyhow.) Instead, be clear about the behavioral and emotional expectations of clients in your program. Remember, you, the trainer, are the keeper of the culture. If you don’t want clients to bicker amongst themselves, address it head on and don’t tolerate it. Make sure everyone understands that the barn is a community or team—and as such needs to work as a supportive whole, not warring factions.

Create The Culture

Of course, it’s hard to switch horses in mid-stream (sorry for the pun), so if there’s a lot of conflict among current clients, you’re going to need to intervene and set some new ground rules.

You may need to have a barn meeting to talk about the realignment of the priorities and culture, and put your expectations in a memo. While that might seem tricky, taking things on directly and clearly will be a relief—both to the clients and for you. Once you have made the expectations clear, addressing transgressions will be easier.

Clear, written expectations will also make life easier when potential new clients approach you. Now, instead of just evaluating the client only on the basis of riding skills, experience, and goals, you can also add a values assessment. Do the client’s values and expectations align with your program’s? If not, then think twice about taking them on.

Especially in financially tough times, trainers who have open stalls may feel the need to take in whoever shows up at the barn gate. They may not feel the luxury to choose who they want to work with. Even in this situation, it’s important to remember that as the trainer, it is your program. As the barn parent, you’re the decider. Not everyone will be pleased with every decision—in fact, someone will always be displeased. But if you make decisions based on your values, rather than on pleasing others, you will feel more grounded and aligned in your direction and less vulnerable to the intrabarn tensions and conflict. Best of all, your work environment will be a happier, more creative and vital place to be—not just for you, but for all those around you, including the horses.

If you have a question for performance psychologist Darby Bonomi, PhD., please submit it to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . You are welcome to ask a question anonymously, but please provide relevant background regarding your experience and other details that enable her to best answer your question.