The reasons horse owners keep their horses with a particular trainer or at a particular barn include the discipline they do, the program offered there, price, geography and convenience, and the amenities offered. Whichever of these reasons is most important, the bottom line is that horse owners want to have confidence that the horse they own is getting proper care
It’s more complicated than that, though, because the relationship that horse owners have with trainers or barn owners/managers is a complex one, one that, like all relationships, changes over time.
And in the age of the Internet, and with the modern sensibility of everybody being an “expert,” that relationship can be especially challenging. Which has led to me pondering this question: If you really think your trainer or barn owner knows so much less about horse care than you do, then why are you keeping your horse at their barn?
Of course, your professionals should always be open to a conversation with you, and they should be able to explain why they do or don’t do something or endorse a product. But if you really think you, or someone you read on the Internet, knows more and is more personally invested in the care and welfare of your horse than your current trainer, we wonder why you don’t find someone else?
There was a time in my life, as with almost all horse owners, where I was pretty much at the mercy of my trainers. I didn’t have the knowledge that they did, so they were my horse-care gods. I can remember learning to put on standing wraps, the first time I treated an abscess, and the first time I saw a horse euthanized because of an injury.
I remember feeling like a sponge, thinking that I would never soak up all the knowledge they carried with them. But then, just as with the rest of life, you grow up, and you grow out, and you discover that everything you learned as a child isn’t always strictly true. Sometimes this is due to advances in research and technology (I was in my mid-30s the first time I saw a portable ultrasound machine, and about 10 years later I saw my first digital x-rays). Sometimes it’s because you realize that they weren’t really gods, and they weren’t actually omniscient, but they really were very, very experienced horseman.
Today, Heather and I are the “gods” here at our Phoenix Farm, and we’re trying to pass down our knowledge and experience to our students, especially to the younger generation. We read and study as much as we can to stay abreast of new developments, and we have good relationships with excellent veterinarians and with our equine chiropractor and our excellent farrier, all of whom we can call to discuss things with if we have questions. We certainly don’t pretend to know everything, but we work hard to know as much as we can.
Heather recently had an experience, when she was contemplating a horse for a client. An amateur from another barn felt the need to inject herself in to the conversation, and she forcibly expressed her concern that horse had shivers. Heather knew this about the horse (it had been disclosed by the current trainer), and our former CCI** horse, Master Merlin, had also been a shivers horse. So she had plenty of real-world experience with shivers.
And yet the conversation went like this:
Other Person: “You know that horse has shivers?”
Heather: “Yes, I’m aware. I had a horse with the condition, so . . .”
Other Person (cutting me off): “It can be a real problem to maintain, I read somewhere there are some dietary stuff that helps.”
Heather: “Yes, I know, I had a horse . . .”
Other Person: “I mean I don’t know if I’d want to do that. There is a lot to consider with a condition like that, but if you look around the Internet you can find a lot of information about it and try to figure out if you can work with it.”
Heather: “Well yes, since I had a horse for 12 years with the condition and competed him, I’m very clear on . . .”
Other Person: “Do you want the number of my chiro? He might know something about it.”
Heather: “Thanks, but I have my own chiro, and I know a lot about shivers . . .”
Other Person: “It can just be so complicated! Hey, where are you going?”
Heather: [walking purposefully away].
Clearly this person was a rude busybody, but I’ve found the “I-know-better” attitude getting stronger and stronger these days. Fortunately, much of it is harmless (feeding a useless supplement or using a magic browband).
But it can be annoying. We use the practitioners we use because we believe they’re the best locally at what they do. While our clients are welcome to use their own practitioners, it can often be awkward when a client chooses to use someone that we consider incompetent. If we’ve seen a client’s vet, farrier or body worker do things that we consider detrimental to a horse, then we can’t help but feel obligated to discuss it with the client.
Similarly, if you’re using a supplement that has no supporting scientific documentation, is it wrong of me to tell you, “There is no proof this item works, however, this product, which is used to treat the same problem, does have scientific documentation. Why not use that one?”
We will always listen when a client says, “I’ve owned this horse for X years and I’ve found he needs Y or Z.” We’re less compelled by, “I heard horses should have A or B.” But I’ll tell you why I agree or disagree, and it won’t be “cuz I said so.”
But it’s a stickier wicket when you are talking about someone’s chosen practitioner. Then you are dealing with human relationships and emotions. I’m pretty thick skinned, so if my chosen practitioner is excellent, and a straight shooter, that works for me. But sometimes a practitioner with a better bedside manner, but a significantly lower skill set, can make an owner “feel better” than the guy who isn’t going to sugar coat the story. If that lower skill set isn’t damaging to the horse, I can live with it, but if your horse’s care is compromised, then I’m going to say something. There are times when feelings matter, but not when the horse is suffering as a result.
We’ve never required our clients to use our practitioners. And we expect we’ll ever take that step. But there are moments when we think we should.