When I was 12 years old, I told my trainer that I needed to move barns. She listened to me as I cried and explained that it just wasn’t working out for me and my horse anymore, and that my mom wanted us to try another option, and that I loved her and everyone there so much, and could I please please still come and visit and see everyone now and then? She gave me a hug and said, yes, of course, the doors were always open. The guilt I felt at leaving what I considered to be family lessened a little bit when I heard that small consolation.
So I went back to the barn that Saturday to tell everyone the news and say some goodbyes. I was in the outdoor ring laughing about someone chocolate chipping a jump when the farm’s owner and matriarch, who we all just called Granny, walked up to the fence line, looked at me, and shouted out, “What is she doing here?!” We all stopped and stared as she continued to yell, “How dare you come back here. You don’t deserve to be here anymore. You broke all of our hearts. You call your mom right now. Get out; I never want to see you again.”
She continued to berate me as I walked back down to the main house. I remember sitting on the front stoop, shaking from adrenaline and guilt, until I saw my mom’s Ford Explorer pull around the bend. True to the ultimatum, I never saw them again.
That was my first such encounter, but it wasn’t my last. In the process of leaving barns, I’ve been yelled at, guilt-tripped, you name it—and not just while I was a junior or young adult. As recently as 2019, I had to endure an hour-long tirade when I told my then-trainer that I didn’t feel the program was a great fit for me anymore and wanted to try another option.
Chances are good that my stories ring true to others. If you’ve managed to go your entire riding career without encountering a single unprofessional or otherwise negative experience while changing programs or barns, then you are one of the rarest of unicorns. It’s such a commonplace occurrence that we all know “The Rules”:
1. Don’t give notice without having something else already set in stone.
2. Have a quick exit strategy for all of your things.
3. Be prepared to potentially have to leave immediately after giving notice.
4. Budget for extra charges on your final bill.
All of this baggage was dredged to the surface again when I realized the commute to my current wonderful barn and trainer, Lisa, would be too far of a drive (an hour and 20 minutes roundtrip) to make on a regular basis. When I first made the trek back in September, a little voice in my head said, “This may not work long term,” but because it was the best option available at the time (and a great option in and of itself), I decided to join the program. Fast forward to now, and increasingly high gas prices mixed with a wonkier than expected work schedule made me realize the little voice was correct: The commute wasn’t sustainable long term.
This trainer is great; her program is great; the part that doesn’t work for me is purely geographic and no reflection on any shortcoming of hers. So why was I so scared to tell her I needed to move?
I called to give her the news and braced myself, my heart pounding. As I told her my situation, she was completely understanding—sad to see me go, but her door was always open if things changed. She wished me all the best, and she hoped I would stay in touch. And of course she was lovely and professional, because she had never given me cause in all the time I was with her to think she wouldn’t be just that—and yet, I was still prepared for the opposite.
As I hung up the phone, the adrenaline still racing, I became angry at all of the worst-case trainers that have given me anxiety around this commonplace situation. People will always need to change barns and programs—goals change, horses change, jobs change, life changes. But for some reason, changing barns feels like a betrayal, a feeling only exacerbated when some trainers behave like it is just that. It only takes one terrible encounter to create tension around every subsequent encounter.
This is not a small problem in our world. A quick search through the Chronicle’s forum reveals thread after thread, with topics such as, “Leaving my trainer—How do I tell her?,” “Trainers that disable their riders,” and, “The Dreaded Switching Trainers/Barns.”
Exacerbating this, the small world of the horse industry means all of these posts are written in anonymity. I’m part of the problem myself by not calling out any of the trainers in my own stories. Speaking up might save others a lot of grief; it also might prompt those trainers to change their habits if it starts affecting their bottom line. I’m simply not willing to take the risk of repercussions.
I love horses, and I love the horse industry in so many ways. But the culture of secrecy that allows for bite-sized transgressions creates a breeding ground for larger, much more sinister ones. These negative experiences also make it so much harder to trust the vast majority of trainers who are professional, reasonable, and considerate—like Lisa. When I told her I had to move, I was still so ready for the other shoe to fall right up until the end, even with all of the evidence she showed to the contrary in every interaction leading up to it.
I have no solutions for this conundrum, and by the time this blog post is published, I will have moved Azul to a closer program. I’m excited and hopeful for our new chapter, and I’m also sad that the old one closed too quickly. I’ll be getting to know new people, who have so far been wonderful and lovely to deal with. Hopefully, with every positive experience I accumulate, and I’ve had nothing but positive experiences since 2019, the part of me that’s holding my breath will relax just a bit more.
Sophie Coffey grew up riding by the seat of her pants in Virginia hunt country, and she took a flying leap into the top levels of the sport through sheer will and luck after a cold call landed her a job at Hunterdon, Inc. She continued freelancing as a jack-of-all-trades through her 20s for some of the top names in the industry, getting the best education possible in horsemanship and larger life lessons. After leaving the sport to pursue a career in marketing, she returned in 2018 as an adult amateur, and is currently teaching her baby warmblood mare Azul the ropes. She resides in Richmond, Virginia, with her fully indoctrinated horsey husband and several kitties. Follow her adventures between posts on Instagram @coffeyinthesaddle.