How I Learned to Walk Away from Toxic Barn Behavior

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Here’s the thing about gut instincts—they tend to be accurate. 

Jen (names have been changed) was the big time trainer. We met before my first big show, and she came off as… quiet. The kind of quiet where you feel like they dislike everything you say, which makes you want their approval more. She was a perfectionist, type A trainer with accolades to back it up. As I moved up, I lessoned with her more. She had a big laugh and bright smile reserved for special occasions. We got along okay. I stayed quiet. 

Eventually, I got my forever horse, Handsome, who became the first “fancy” client horse Jen had in a while. He was competitive with her in the pro divisions, and got champions with me in the 3’. At the time I was the “biggest” showing client, and taught by all 3 trainers. Honestly, it was pretty great being the #1 priority. With Handsome, Jen placed high in some big time classes. Thanks to him, we became closer and I saw her less saccharine side come out more—especially when she didn’t pin well. 

There’s no hiding it; she was a sore loser. Everyone steered clear when she lost. With more time at shows, they told me who was a “good” or “bad trainer. Those outside our barn were ripe for verbal slaughter, and those in the barn were not immune from the scathing remarks either. 

I always hated how polished the barn expected me to be: brand new gear every year, perfect public display at all times. I became a submissive barn rat. By the end of the year I was confident, bold and ready for more. Then came the AOs. My fear grew with the height—each jump felt like a mad scramble. Handsome was older and needed more oomph to jump well. I didn’t have the confidence or endurance to keep up. For the first time, I felt sickening anxiety. 

Jen didn’t handle my nerves. I started pulling back mentally, dipping out of divisions and derbies, enjoying being at the shows more than showing. My dwindling confidence frustrated all of the trainers. I lost the submissive act and tried to be more authentic. This “bad” (read: normal) side grew too much in Jen’s mind. She passed a lot of judgement on my personal life with questionable comments like me being the next “horse show ho.” I didn’t suit their expectations anymore. 

By now the barn had new kids with parents who had big dreams and pockets—Jen’s raison d’etre—it meant upscale horses for her to ride. Jen had developed a vibrantly jealous and hostile attitude around successful trainers. Her temper grew along with her competitive appetite. She’d had a taste for winning in the big ring with Handsome and would do anything to be the best. 

During a big midsummer show, Jen did the derby with Handsome and Bob, scoring high in round one. When the callback came Jen was poised for 1st and 2nd place. Unfortunately Handsome rounded a turn to a backlit fence and hit the brakes. Luckily Jen was okay but this honest stop scared the crap out of me. I scratched every other class, and we made an obsequious excuse that Handsome strained something. 

At the end of that year, my endurance improved but my nerves didn’t. My “bad side” came out more at the barn. When the shows started another trainer suggested I start small, but I was still afraid. Handsome stopped more. Jen was thrown again and refused to ride him. The big clients were getting a lot of attention, surpassing me as #1. They bumped me down to “B team” i.e another trainer riding Handsome and moving his stall further away. Mentally, I was over the fear and scratched the classes that freaked me out. Jen hated when I did that, but luckily had new clients to divert her attention to. 

I started using pharmaceuticals for my nerves, spending show days in a dopey daze. Jen hated it. She hated my nerves, but disapproved of how I handled them. She told me to pull it together and that “people were talking.” Her demands for updated gear became another point of contention between us. 

The next season had some changes with led to more fun. I spent it in the jumper ring with a forgiving bay working with another trainer in the barn. We did whatever felt fun. Handsome moved to the back of everyone’s mind. As he was no longer Jen’s pro horse, he had been downgraded to non professionals for training. My outdated attire still raised problems. I was scolded for things like my trunk, car and appearance more and more. 

Then came the August show. It had been hot and uneventful until Friday. My friend Tara and I were in the same class. We warmed ourselves up and waited for our trainers. No one came. The gate guy called getting irritated. Jen showed up and asked when we were going.

“We’re supposed to go right now,” I answered.

Jen stopped dead and stared at me. “I cannot believe you just said that,” she snapped. “That is so f’in rude. Go back to the barn. I’m not training you.”

I declined her generous offer, riding after Tara. Jen zoomed away in the golf cart. A few minutes later, another trainer drove over, “You’re out, leave the barn.”

Everyone at the ring witnessed this weird sequence of events. Embarrassed and confused, I quizzed Tara on what had happened to be sure I didn’t cross a line. I will never forget the look in Jen’s eyes. Shock and unmitigated anger. Ot was unsettling to see it so raw in the face of people I loved. There was no discussion or explanation. 

After a few days, I got a text saying the only thing I could possibly do to get back in the barn was apologize to Jen. I did so through gritted teeth. Not even looking up from her phone, she said “Mhm, I appreciate it” like she had just done me a big favor. 

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Then the rumors started spiraling. A trainer texted my mom, claiming they thought I was on meth. This bizarre assertion was met with incredulous laughter from us. A meeting was arranged. Jen was silent the whole time minus a comment about my “change.” She never looked at me. The trainer who helped me in the jumper ring spoke the most, being genuinely concerned for me. Jen brought up my personal and sexual life a lot, turning things I had told them in confidence into ammunition. The trainer who accused me of using meth finally retracted the comment, issuing a professional not personal apology. Jen never apologized to me or my family, she snorted a lot and left. 

There was tension in the following months. Jen wouldn’t teach me. Being the barn pariah was tiring. I was desperate to renew my standing. Before the start of the new season I relented, texting Jen saying I wanted the weirdness to be gone and to move forward, shouldering all the blame for what had happened. Seemingly vindicated she cheerily replied saying how much my apology had meant. We were happy again. I stopped competing to alleviate the apparent source of the issue. I tagged along at the shows taking photos and having fun. I thought I was a friend now—not just a client. My photos were great, Jen was obsessed with them and showered me with love when I got a good one. 

That summer a few longtime clients left—the ultimate betrayal for Jen. Another trainer became sick, and the remaining was fired for embezzlement and fraud. Jen was distraught, wondering how she could continue alone. She picked herself up, turned down help from other professionals and moved forward solo. The remaining clients believed she could do it. She seemed a changed woman and though angry, she was kinder to us. 

But people kept leaving, and we decided the people who stayed were the only morally upstanding ones. I personally believed everyone who left was selfish and morally bankrupt. The “mains” and I spoke constantly. Jen stalked everyone online trying to glean every bit of info from posts and likes. Words like “cow” “bitch” “c u next tuesday” were used to describe the traitors. 

The fall shows came and went. I was fired from a photography job for cursing at an “enemy” trainer who had betrayed us. I was trying to defend everyone who had been hurt. 

Jen started traveling more. She was increasingly paranoid, pressing each client about activities in and out of the barn to assess our loyalty. Things were increasingly chaotic at home. Chloe, a teenager and the only stable hand, ranted about the unorganized semi-dangerous conduct. Horses started getting hurt, going down. Chloe was the only home, and angry that she was always expected to do tasks she wasn’t prepared for. I had questions too, wanting to know who besides Chloe watched my horses. Once Jen was home, she sat me down with an eerily familiar look. I had been her “biggest supporter” and now was a “troublemaker”. 

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Jen went right back to her old ways of blaming me and spewing hateful comments. Suddenly I didn’t feel so loyal, and began to speak with those who left. They explained their decision, and filled in the horrific blanks. Sadly their horses suffered more than they did. These former clients slowly explained the pattern of manipulation: receiving attention when they did favors, treated awfully then reeled back in. Though I had been in the dark about the diminishing horsemanship aspects of the business, I knew they were right about Jen because I had felt it too. 

I knew Jen wouldn’t train riders/horses she felt were beneath her. I knew Jen didn’t care for the horsemanship part of the business. I knew our barn people were expected to shun all others and never question why. I knew that clients who had more money got better treatment. I knew that Jen made awful comments to everyone—not just me. And I knew they were not above revenge. 

Handsome wasn’t safe and he definitely wasn’t benefiting from their “training.” I finally made the move that needed to happen for years.

In an effort to be faithful to this barn, I became a petty inconsiderate asshole. I actively participated in the toxic gossip and public displays of malice. I erroneously assumed I was too clever to be blindly loyal to someone. It was embarrassing. Even as a relatively well educated adult, I acted like a child; vindictive, mean and willfully ignorant when I knew better. And I can’t blame everything I did on Jen. 

Moving forward, I apologized to those I had hurt and worked towards forgiveness. People were incredibly kind. Everyone seemed to know why I did what I did. Jen’s barn was known for broadcasting morality while treating clients and horses terribly. 

Leaving was liberating and humbling. 

You are who you surround yourself with, a lesson Jen unintentionally served to me. I left and I never looked back.