Last month we focused on (a) the importance of knowing your trainer before your send your horse away to be trained; and (b) the appropriate things to consider before jumping into this type of situation because your trainer’s skill level is critical – and sending your horse to someone who is unskilled can cause much, much more harm to your animal than the benefit, if any, it provides.
This month I am again talking about being sure you know your trainer, but for a much different (and much more important) reason that should go without saying: while it is important not to entrust your HORSE to a trainer whom you have not investigated thoroughly, it is even more important not to entrust your CHILD to a trainer whom you have not investigated thoroughly. It sounds obvious, but many, many people are entrusting daily the welfare of their children to trainers who do not have good judgment, good skills or, at times, good intentions. That being said, let me interject that the vast majority of trainers are wonderful, honest people, but, just like the rest of society, there are bad seeds among horse trainers too. And this is a story about one of those in the hopes that it will remind folks to keep a lookout and pay attention, just in case!
I received a frantic call from Jane (not her real name). Jane is a brilliant physician. She is also an accomplished dressage rider. Her 14 year old daughter (Amy) is a talented, aspiring hunter jumper rider. Jane and Amy had been training with the same trainer (John) for years and had gotten to know John very well. Or so they thought. Jane was calling me because John had punched her daughter in the face. Yes, the adult trainer had punched the 14 year old girl in the face. After the initial wave of shock and disbelief, I began to analyze what happened. Apparently John had a drinking problem which he had hidden very well so that he was very high functioning most of the time. But his disease had progressed to the point where he was drinking more and correspondingly becoming surlier. In this instance, Jane and Amy were coming to get their horse in order to move him to a new barn to get away from John because he had become hypercritical and argumentative with all of his riders and their parents and was gradually losing them all, one by one.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon when Jane and Amy went to pick up the horse and John was angry that they were moving, of course. Amy went in the barn to get the horse and was leading the horse out to the trailer when John came and snatched the lead rope out of her hand and screamed at her to get away from the horse because he said they owed him boarding payments (a lie) and so he had a lien on the horse and so they could not take him. She snatched the lead rope back from him and made a sarcastic comment to him in teenage girl language – and he punched her in the face, knocking her to the ground. Amy scrambled to get up and ran outside to tell Jane what just happened. Jane called 911 to report the incident and then went inside the barn herself to get the horse. John was guarding the stall door and lunged at Jane and dared her to take another step. Having decided John was unstable, Jane went outside to wait for the police. When the police arrived she and Amy explained what had happened. The police arrested John and took him away. After John was gone, Jane and Amy loaded up their horse and left. On the way to the new barn Amy tearfully admitted that John had become increasingly verbally abusive to her, but because she kept winning at shows, she was afraid to tell Jane because she did not know if she would win as much with a new trainer. So she tolerated his abuse in typical “battered victim syndrome” fashion – just heartbreaking for Jane to hear. It was only when John’s abuse extended beyond Amy to more and more folks did Jane realize what was happening – very scary. Jane was calling me to see if she could sue John for damages or attempt to have him stripped by USEF of his ability to train and to show so other folks would not be at risk.
Of course Jane felt horrible for not paying more attention to how John was treating Amy and for having left Amy alone with John so many times (at barn, shows, elsewhere). It had never occurred to Jane that John might do anything untoward. If Jane had spent just a little money investigating John by getting a criminal background check on him, she would have discovered that he had been arrested three times for domestic violence. Beyond that, if Jane had simply stuck around when Amy was at the barn rather than going to run errands, odds are Jane would have detected John’s inappropriate attitude and behavior long before the punch in the face – thus arguably avoiding the punch. I am certainly not condoning “helicopter parenting” by any means, because I think it creates unrealistic expectations in children – expectations that someone will always be around to fix everything for you. But a quiet background presence from Jane might have been very helpful in this scenario.
So, not only check out and keep tabs on your trainer and his or her behavior with your horse, but please do so as well with your children. Again, most trainers are hardworking, good folks who do not get paid enough for all they do but sometimes that is not the case. If you (a) learn about your trainer and pay careful attention to his or her attitude and behavior; and (b) hang out with your kids at the barn and at shows, the odds of anything bad happening will drop exponentially! And most important, the time spent with and around your child will hopefully be rewarding and relationship-building for you both!
If you get into a bind and need assistance or just want to ask some questions to avoid getting in a bind, feel free to email me at email@example.com. I often will answer a short and simple question for free if I have time and know the answer off the top of my head! If you don’t hear back from me quickly, it’s not because I don’t love you or think you have a great question or because I don’t know the answer (usually), I’m probably just really busy and haven’t had a chance to email back. And you can always buy the first hour of my time for $250 (my usual hourly rate for 2013 is $325). Lots of folks will save up all their equine (and some corporate or real estate) legal questions and short documents and sit with me for an hour and we will do as much as we can during that hour and it’s only $250. You can check out my Twitter feed @nchorselawyer as well as my web page at www.rl-law.com/professionals/dorothy-bass-burch/ or our firm’s Equine Law Group web page at www.rl-law.com/equine if you’re interested, and yes, in addition to providing what I hope are interesting and informative stories, this blog and the Twitter feed referenced above are also advertisements for legal services. I have to tell you that in bold, says the State Bar.
Be careful out there and have a wonderful springtime riding! Thank heavens for warm weather finally!!