Handling Barn Drama: Protecting Your Happy Place

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

BY JESS CLAWSON

Barn drama is as prominent as barns themselves. It happens everywhere… even if you’re the only boarder. “Did you hear what so-and-so did?” I say to my horses as they kick their stall doors to ask for more hay.

But juicy gossip isn’t always harmless fun. In fact, it can really hurt people. This sport is hard enough, with myriad reasons for us to feel bad about ourselves at any given time. Missed a distance in a big class. Can’t afford the newest helmet. Didn’t import our horse. Don’t like how we look in breeches. Not as brave as we want to be. 

So what happens when someone spreads a rumor about us? Or when we constantly feel like people are talking behind our backs? What do you do when a little barn drama turns into a full blown Mean Girls moment?

What to Do If Someone Else is the Target

If the barn gossip squad maliciously targets someone you know, empathy largely solves the problem. When a barn buddy sidles up to you with the latest salacious news about someone, resist the temptation to participate. Instead, think about how you’d feel in their shoes. Probably not great!

Most of the time, people spread gossip because they like the validation and attention they get from being the one to spread the news. By refusing to give them that validation, they will stop seeing you as someone they can go to.

Instead of participating in hateful gossip, here are some things you can do or say instead:

  • Tell them you like the person they’re speaking of, and you’re not interested in talking about them behind their back.
  • Say, “Why are you telling me this?
  • Or, “That sounds like something you should take up with them instead.”
  • Or, “Do they know you’re telling people about this? It sounds like it might be personal.”

Talking maliciously about someone behind their back can hurt their reputation unjustly and cause enormous personal stress, but barn drama isn’t always limited to words. Messing with someone’s stuff, creating inconveniences for them out of rudeness, being socially exclusive, or—in my mind the worst case scenario—taking out their negative feelings on that person’s horse are all examples of malevolent barn behavior. 

If you see something malicious going on, you have a responsibility to act on behalf of the person being harmed. Keeping your head down and staying out of it is complicity. Alert the barn manager (or your own parents if you’re a minor). If it makes sense and is safe to do so, let the person know what they’re doing is not right. No matter how “cool” these gossipers may seem, it’s not worth damaging your own integrity to be in “The Plastics.” 

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

What to Do if You’re the Target

It’s incredibly hard to be on the receiving end of a barn drama attack, but try to remember that you deserve to be treated with respect at all times. Sometimes people just don’t like each other, and that’s okay. But regardless of whether you rub someone the wrong way just by being yourself, they should not be gossiping about you or instigating drama meant to bring you down.

When I was a kid, I was bullied a lot. I was shy and weird and awkward and nerdy. I’ve turned out great (joke’s on the haters!) but it was HARD. I remember adults telling me two things about bullying: “He’s only picking on you because he likes you,” or “Ignore them and they’ll stop.”

Both of these sentiments are wrong. Being mean to someone is not loving, and ignoring the bullies often does not make them stop. I wish I knew this when I was kid, because I would have accepted a lot less abuse.

Here’s what does work, according to a variety of experts:

Know you’re better than that. Confidence really is magical, and it is totally a fake it til you make it sort of thing. When I was in high school, I saw some students try to start something with a friend of mine. Instead of crumpling like I did when they sent their horribleness my way, she simply said, “Oh no. That is not true. That’s actually pretty stupid.” I was AMAZED at how well it disarmed the bullies.

Stamp it out immediately. It’s tempting to let “small” things go when other people are rude, but small things turn into big things quickly sometimes, and toxic people will often test the limits of what a potential victim will take. So let them know immediately what isn’t going to fly with you. If appropriate, you can alert the higher ups. Consider responses like, “That is not an appropriate way to behave towards/speak to me,” or “Did you really say that?”

Avoid stooping to their level. I want to use all my very best zingers on people when they are rude to me. However, that doesn’t actually make me feel better after the fact. What does is rising above. Not in an ignore-them way, but in an approach-them-directly way. Rather than saying, “Yeah well we all know you haven’t had a clean lead change in six months,” just say, “I sure do love my beautiful horse!” Or smile beatifically in the best southern lady “bless your heart” kind of way and wait ‘til you get to your car to cry. You’re certainly allowed to have feelings, just try not to show them to bullies.

One of the hardest parts of being the subject of rumors is the feeling of powerlessness that comes with it. That can trigger stress, depression, and anxiety. Consider ways to handle those feelings, like being kind and compassionate towards yourself, focusing outward or on the bigger picture, taking your horse for a nice long trail ride, or whatever will make you feel more at peace. 

Remember, too, that rumors always fade with time. The less fact-based they are, the faster they go away. Because here’s the thing: if you’re showing yourself to be a kind person of good character, that is going to be a lot more obvious to people over time than whatever Regina George wrote in her burn book. 

What to Do if You’re the One Spreading the Drama

Here’s the guilty secret about barn gossip—a lot of us don’t want to admit that we secretly love it. Most, if not all, of us have been involved to least to some degree. There are a lot of reasons why: we want to be part of the in-crowd, the target of the rumors or bullying is someone we dislike, we are insecure about our own accomplishments, etc.

Sometimes we stir the pot because chaos is what we know best. Your life might be chaotic for systemic or institutional reasons beyond your control, but if you find that you are feeling compelled to start or sustain drama, ask yourself whether you might better spend your time and energy focusing on feeling better yourself instead of bringing other people down.

If you are in a barn climate that feels like a constant rumor mill and the only way to get along is to go along with it, then I would strongly suggest moving to a different barn. It is not worth your health to stick it out in a place that thrives on our most toxic impulses, because even if you think you’ll avoid the whole drama stew, you might find yourself in it before you realize what you’re doing.

Sometimes we all need a reminder to be more empathetic. Spreading rumors or being cruel to another person is hurtful, and those actions have consequences. Victims of this sort of bullying behavior are much more likely to engage in self-harm, suicidal ideation or suicide attempts, or develop eating disorders. Is scratching that drama itch worth putting another person at risk?

Our barns should be our happy place, where we get to spend time with our horses and in the company of other equestrians. We don’t have to like or be friends with everyone else at the barn, but we do need to treat each other with respect.


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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