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Top Trainers Share the Keys to Maintaining a Healthy Barn Dynamic
by Erica Greathouse
Anyone who has been part of a competitive show barn knows, that at times, drama and conflict can make it feel like you’re in the middle of a reality television show. However, unlike reality TV, barn drama is less than entertaining and can cause a myriad of other problems that ultimately interfere with productivity and success. In order to deal with barn drama, many top professionals have refined their programs and established rules to help keep the peace.
Rob and Mary Meneely own and operate Meneely Show Horses, Ltd. located in Conyers, Georgia. Together, they have trained and coached several ApHC World and National Champions, AQHA World and Congress Champions, and recipients of the Justin Rookie of the Year award. In addition to training, Rob holds judges cards with AQHA, APHA, ApHC, PBHA, PtHA, NSBA, and NRHA. Mary, a two-time NCAA National Champion and three-time NCAA Reserve National Champion coach of the University of Georgia Equestrian Team and new coach of the University of Auburn Equestrian Team, knows the value of teamwork. The Meneelys are very team-oriented and have learned the importance of tailoring their program to accommodate a large group of people with different skill levels, goals, and personalities.
Past experiences have taught Rob to be selective about whom he allows in the barn. He says, “I usually vet people before I allow them in our program. I have learned that one bad apple can ruin the whole bunch, and I want everyone to get along as well as possible,” he says. Additionally, he finds that clients benefit from setting specific goals for each show season. The Meneelys hold a December goal-setting clinic, where they sit down with each client and set reasonable goals for the next year. “We find that setting goals helps our clients focus on their own progress rather than constantly comparing themselves to others. We make sure they set realistic and attainable goals, and we encourage them to display them somewhere they will see them and be able to hold themselves accountable for their goals year round,” he says.
Although the Meneelys keep 30 horses in training, taking only 6-12 horses to a show, along with their main assistant and two other helpers, allows each client and horse to get enough attention. When Rob has horse and rider teams competing in the same division, he finds that keeping their individual goals in mind helps to keep the sole focus off who wins the class and more on each team making progress with his/her horse. If conflicts arise, Rob always tries to be the mediator. “If you squash the issue right away, it doesn’t have time to build and become an even bigger deal,” he says. By keeping clients focused on their own success and being the mediator between them to resolve issues, Rob finds that the barn functions as a team. Also, the Meneely barn enjoys being social together, going out to dinner, and making each horse show a family event. Rob tries to spend as much time as possible with each team at the shows, however, there have been times when a client will feel as though he/she has not received enough time or focus, and that can cause issues. “Conflicts are going to come up when you’re spending that much time in a high stress environment with that many people, for a long period of time, but it’s all about how you handle each issue,” he says. He finds that keeping communication open at all times helps his clients feel comfortable and function as a team.
Over the years, Rob has established a zero-tolerance policy for cliquey or divisive relationships in the barn. “I want everyone to be included and have found that cliques are never a good dynamic. If a conflict gets too bad and there is no possible resolve, I will ask a client to leave,” he says. Negative barn dynamics that cannot be resolved aren’t worth compromising the positive atmosphere in the barn. He would rather ask a client to leave than allow a problem to escalate.
Rob’s system has evolved and changed during his training career due to many experiences with different types of personalities. “We have mostly Select Amateurs in our barn, along with our youth. I think those two groups fit well together, since the youth are on more of a time frame and the Selects are very easygoing. Together, they create a positive balance in the barn,” he says. Furthermore, Meneely stresses that it’s imperative to keep business separate from personal relationships. “You have to be thick-skinned in this business. In the end, it’s all about keeping a healthy and positive environment in the barn where everyone is comfortable to grow, learn, and achieve their goals,” he says.
Sara Simons and her boyfriend, RJ King, of Aubrey, Texas, are the head trainers at Simons Show Horses. Sara and her sister, Jana, have been an instrumental part of the family business, which was started by her mother, Andrea, and father, Lynn, for as long as they can remember. Due to immense dedication and commitment from each family member, Simons Show Horses has grown into a renowned operation with multiple home-bred and -trained APHA and AjPHA World Champions in numerous events. They stand many successful stallions including the legendary APHA stallion, Zippos Sensation. Seven years ago, Sara became a professional trainer and now keeps 30 horses in training while juggling a busy show schedule, national and international clinics, and judging APHA, AQHA, NRHA, and NSBA events all over the world.
Sara has seen firsthand how many different factors come into play to make a barn atmosphere both positive and successful. She explains the importance of discussing people’s goals and expectations before they become a part of the program. She is quick to point out that accepting one person in the barn, who doesn’t fit, can disturb the entire barn dynamic. In order to prevent discord, Sara will sit down and talk to a potential client about the program and make sure he or she is on the same page before she accepts them into the barn. She finds that keeping similar personalities and people with similar goals helps to create a positive working environment with minimal drama. “Unfortunately, sometimes you have to learn things the hard way, and we’ve definitely had clients who didn’t fit our program,” she says. “That’s okay; that’s how you learn and that’s why there are a lot of different programs. Not everyone is going to fit in one program,” she says.
One of the things Sara learned early on is not to overextend herself and take on more than she and RJ can handle. “When trainers are overextended, clients are unsettled and conflicts arise,” she says. She finds that taking clients of similar skill levels helps to keep her attention fairly divided and allows each client to get the time they need to be successful. Even though some of the more advanced clients might not need their “hands held” all of the time, Sara believes that a lack of attention can breed animosity. If she does have a novice rider or a team that requires more attention, she tries to do extra work at home. “The horse shows are not for hardcore training. The majority of our work is done at home. If the horses and riders are prepared, that makes everything at the show much easier and run more smoothly,” she says. There are definitely advantages and disadvantages to having clients on the same skill level; oftentimes, they are in direct competition. Some might find that type of direct competition within the barn can cause more problems, but Sara welcomes it within her barn. “When my clients compete against each other, it makes them push themselves to be better. There have been many years when I’ve had the top three placings in classes at the World Show. I like my clients to look up to each other and push themselves to be better in each lesson and each class,” she says.
Another key factor in keeping the peace in the barn is matching the right horse with the right rider. Sara tries to keep clients’ expectations reasonable and picks horses and events based on her clients’ goals, ability, and dedication level. Sara has also found that having horses that ride similarly has helped to make the program easier to follow for clients. “Our clients know what to expect when they ride a horse that we’ve trained. We like uniformity and find it helps our clients to make easier transitions from horse to horse. It also helps them know what to expect when they ride their horses if they live far away and haven’t been able to practice very often,” she says.
Sara has found that a delicate balance is achieved by taking a maximum of 10-16 horses to the horse show. At the show, she and RJ help to make each client feel valued by spending equal time with each horse and rider. “My clinic background has really helped me to balance my time with a lot going on at once. I can have a few clients riding at the same time and keep track of them all. I have learned to be more articulate, versatile, and creative with my teaching, and that really helps at the horse shows when there’s so much going on at once.” Sara also finds that having clients practice together promotes camaraderie. However, if conflicts do arise between clients, she usually interjects. She has learned, over the years, that being passive can lead to more extensive conflicts over time.
Over the years, Sara has found a barn dynamic that works for her and translates into success in the barn and at horse shows. “We’ve been very blessed with fabulous horses, along with loyal, long-time customers, and a great support system. Our program wouldn’t work for every trainer. It just works for us. I think that’s the key. You have to find what works for you and your clients and that’s what creates balance and a positive environment,” she says.
Kellie Hinely of Chino Hills, California, owns and operates Trendsetter Performance Horses along with her assistant of 15 years, Deann Hudson. Together, they have coached amateur and youth competitors to AQHA and AQHYA World Championships, Congress Championships, and top tens in numerous events. Kellie has been training for 16 years and keeps 45 horses in training. In order to keep a program of that magnitude running smoothly, it takes careful preparation and systematic planning both at home and at the show.
First and foremost, Kellie recognized early on in her training career that there was no room for drama in her barn. “I have a very strict ‘no drama’ policy, and I tell people when they first come to me that I won’t tolerate drama. I also have no problem reminding people who have been in the barn about my no drama policy. I simply won’t tolerate it,” she says. Kellie is very adamant that her job is to train the horses and help her clients be successful in the show pen. Although she knows there can be personality conflicts within a big group, she tries not to get involved. She says, “It’s better for me when I don’t know what’s going on between clients. I used to be involved in every issue, but it made me a crazy person trying to manage every conflict.” However, she will intervene if barn drama is affecting the end goal of being successful at the horse show.
Although Kellie does encourage her clients to work through issues on their own, she makes sure to create an open line of communication. “I don’t entertain gossip and I don’t choose sides, but I will dismiss a client if I feel he or she is overly confrontational and causing the majority of the problems,” she says. Kelly also acknowledges that happiness is key in any client-trainer relationship. She says, “If my program isn’t working for someone, and they aren’t happy, then it might not be the place for them. One unhappy person can change the entire barn dynamic. I know my program isn’t for everyone, and there have been times when I’ve helped people find a program better suited to their needs.”
Along with her assistants, Kellie takes 15-25 horses to a horse show. She’s found that arriving rested and fresh makes her much more efficient. “I don’t drive to the far-away shows anymore; I fly. It allows me to be fresh and ready to teach. It also allows me to keep a positive work-life balance. I’m a better mother, wife, and trainer for my clients. When you’re overextended, it’s hard to be efficient at anything,” she says. Because having that many horses at the show can be overwhelming, Kellie is a big believer in doing most of the work at home. “When we’re at the horse show, we’re there to show. We do our homework at home, and if a horse or rider is not prepared, they don’t go to the horse show.” Kellie also brings plenty of help to the shows so everyone feels they’re getting the attention they need to succeed. “I probably bring more help than I need to the horse shows, but I want to make sure that everyone has what they need and they have an eye on them at all times when they’re preparing to show. My assistant, Deann, will be at one arena when I’m at another arena, so our clients are never alone,” she says.
While direct competition can bring out jealousy and conflicts between riders, Kellie believes her clients know she is doing the best she can for each team. “We work really hard and do the best we can for each horse and rider. At the end of the day, that’s all we can do. There can only be one winner and, no matter what, someone is going to be disappointed. As long as my clients know we did the best we could, they’re generally happy,” she says. Having her daughter, Taylor, show horses has helped Kellie understand what it’s like to be a horse show mom. “Being a show mom has given me a greater understanding and much more patience for the emotions parents go through and how stressful it can be when their child is showing,” she concludes.
Chad and Shane Christensen, brothers and co-owners of Prospect Ranch of Pilot Point, Texas, have coached numerous World and National winners and Top Ten earners in AQHA, APHA, ApHC, and PtHA during their 14 years in business. Typically, they keep 25 horses in training and attend horse shows throughout the country.
Over the years, Chad and Shane have refined their program by paying close attention to barn dynamics and getting involved before small problems escalate. “We try to be the mediators when there are issues, so they don’t escalate and interfere with what we’re trying to accomplish around the barn,” they say. When Chad first started training, he let clients work out conflicts on their own. He quickly discovered that problems were rarely resolved and he would have to intervene anyway. According to Chad, communication is key. Chad, like many other trainers, has realized that one trouble-causing client can ruin the whole barn dynamic, and he will ask a client to leave if he/she becomes too disruptive.
Managing a big group at the horse show is always a chore and Chad has realized that taking 10-12 horses is the best number to be successful and keep clients happy. “I always bring two assistants to the horse shows in addition to Shane and me. We do a lot of practicing the day before we show so my clients feel prepared,” he says. Recently, the Christensens changed their system to incorporate a divide-and-conquer mentality. Shane focuses on youth competitors and Chad focuses on amateur competitors. This division takes place both at home and at the shows. They find it helps people feel more prepared and get more consistent attention. They say, “Horse showing isn’t an exact science, but if your clients know you did the best job you could, they’re usually happy, especially if they had fun with the barn and enjoyed their weekend. For the clients, this is their hobby. If the atmosphere isn’t fun, they aren’t going to be happy. Win, lose, or draw, a positive atmosphere will enhance their experience and make for more success and barn harmony.”
Although reality TV is entertaining, very few people thrive when placed in that type of drama-filled environment, and a show barn is no exception. By implementing rules and a system that promote a positive barn dynamic, horse trainers and their clients are able to put the drama aside and focus on the reason they put all their time, money, and work into a sport we all love so much.