Toxic Trainer Relationships: What to Watch Out For When Finding the Best For You and Your Riding

Photo by Erica O'Neil

BY JESS CLAWSON

A toxic trainer can kill someone’s love of riding faster than just about anything. From verbal to sexual abuse to simply playing favorites, trainers who are negative influences in our lives do way more harm than good – no matter how many ribbons they have on the banner.

How do you recognize toxic traits in a trainer? It can be so hard to know whether something is actually wrong, or if we’re just overreacting. The important thing to remember is that if you’re feeling bad more often than good, something is amiss. Here are several abusive traits to be aware of, based on conversations I’ve had recently with friends:

Yelling at students in front of others or saying degrading things.

Being rude or mean to people does not help them learn. Do some of the top trainers in the world do this? Yes. Does that mean it’s okay? No. You deserve to be treated with respect at all times, regardless of how well you are riding. You don’t need to tolerate being screamed at or humiliated to get better at this sport. There are coaches who can make you better, and be respectful at the same time.

Prioritizing competitive outcomes ahead of the physical and mental welfare of horses or riders.

We all like to win – my trainer included, but if I don’t do well, I know she still cares about me as a person. She’ll just help me sort out whatever went wrong so we can do a better job next time. I rode with a jumper trainer in Florida for a while who put it as simply as I’ve ever heard it said: “I will never hurt a horse to win a ribbon.” That goes for riders, too. It’s true that a trainer’s career success depends broadly on their students’ success at shows, but that does not mean that their career is more important than you or your horse. If you feel like you’re being pushed to compete and you don’t want to, you don’t have to. A trainer who tells you otherwise is toxic. And regardless of how well you and your horse do, you both deserve respect.

Letting other people in the barn scapegoat, demean, or bully each other.

“Charlotte” (names have been changed), a 20-year-old jumper rider, told me she was “bullied incessantly by other girls my age in the pony club under our trainer’s supervision, and there was never anything done about it.” How can a rider focus on their love of horses and their sport if they’re being mistreated by others in the barn? It is up to the trainer to keep a healthy environment for everyone. While trainers can’t always control the behavior of their clients, having rules about conduct in the barn at shows, as well as social media policies, keep environments safe and fun.

Photo by Anouska Haantjes

Participating in that bullying themselves.

Trainers can do a lot of harm with their words. “Jessie”, a young adult hunter rider, remembers when she was 13: “I had a trainer who used to comment on what I ate, and would say ‘you can’t be eating that much if you want to keep riding ponies.’ I was in the eighth grade, and that was when my eating disorder got really bad.” Jessie also had an IEA coach who would drink alcohol before their horse shows “and then scream at us every time we made a mistake, saying we were the reason she drank.” It is wildly inappropriate to talk to anyone this way, but especially to minors. Please understand that if someone else is saying this to you, what they are saying is abusive and you do not have to tolerate it. Your wellbeing is more important than riding in any given barn.

Playing head games with students.

Toxic people can play a lot of head games. Be wary of triangulating: “she doesn’t mind when I do this, so you shouldn’t either” or in other ways using others to justify their behavior. Also false promises like telling students they can have X if they do Y and then not giving them X (like promising someone the ride on their favorite school horse at a show if they muck all the stalls for a weekend and then revoking that promise after the stalls have been mucked). In addition, gaslighting (lying in a way that disputes what you know to be reality so that you think you’re crazy) and playing favorites are also toxic forms of manipulation.

Telling you to keep things from your parents or other adults.  

Be aware of power dynamics at the barn. Do you feel like your coach has all the power and you have none? That is a potentially dangerous situation that can lead to abuse of all kinds, including sexual abuse. If you’re in a situation like this or think you might be heading in that direction, please tell a safe adult. Also run far away from any trainer who asks you not to tell your parents, family, partner, or anyone else what’s going on in the barn. They’re setting up an abusive situation.

Photo by Erica O’Neil

Refusing to take accountability.

Good horse people own their mistakes, and don’t blame everything on the horse. The same concept extends to your trainer. Regardless of how much they or their students win, their ego should not take over to the extent that they can’t take accountability for their mistakes. If they mess up, they should own that as opposed to blaming other people, including students or horses. That is responsible leadership.

Trainers are supposed to be role models of good horsemanship, and being abusive is not good horsemanship or good, well, humanship. A healthy environment is nurturing and supportive. If you dread going to the barn every day, please listen to your instincts. Your first priority is to your own wellbeing, not your trainer’s resume.


About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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