A friend of mine just messaged me very distressed. A person on her yard had called her ugly. Apparently there had been previous altercations and the individual in question has a reputation for being somewhat unpleasant – not only to my friend but to others as well. This kind of behaviour – and we can say the level of insult, takes us back to the school yard, not a livery yard. But it seems that for far too many of us, horse ownership involves a trip back to unpleasant childhood experiences as yard or barn bullying is all too common if on line forums and personal experiences are anything to go by.
Yard bullying basically falls into two categories – the overt which is insults, name calling, unasked for and unwelcome advice or criticism, blaming and accusations – the rider or the horse is responsible for everything that goes wrong or for mistakes or tasks which have not been done. Then there’s covert bullying which is more subtle but possibly even more cowardly and insidious. At the lower end this includes the ‘silent treatment’ – not speaking to the person and falling silent when they walk into the tack room or yard, excluding them from yard and group activities, spreading rumours, booking yard facilities and then not using them simply to prevent the victim having access to them, trolling, cyberstalking and at the higher end extends to stealing, property damage and even deliberately putting the horse or rider in harm’s way. If this all sounds extreme, believe me, it happens.
If you are or have been a victim of this kind of behaviour, the first thing you need to know is not to take it personally. Yes, this is about as personal as it can get if someone is in your face and insulting either you, your horse, or both. Faced with a barrage of vitriol, it can be extremely difficult to see this as a personal choice the bully is making. It is not about you – it is purely about them. For whatever reason right now, you have become the focus for their miserable little existence. And believe me, to engage in this kind of behaviour shows the individual is pretty damn insecure and unhappy. Happy people simply don’t behave this way. I am not making excuses for them, there are no excuses for this type of behaviour. But take it from me, it tells you that this person has major problems going on in their relationships, their work, their home life, their self-worth, their emotional life and yes, with their horse too. In order to feel even marginally better about all this, they have to seek out someone they can victimise and try to make them feel even worse for a moment than they do. Looked at this way, who would want to be them?
Being the target of a bully does not mean you are a victim or that there is anything wrong with you. Bullies are like sharks. They are constantly cruising for that next meal. You? Like that surfer innocently waiting on their board to catch that next break, you are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You unknowingly paddled yourself into the bully’s domain. The beautiful and successful are strangely enough just as likely to be bullied as anyone else. If you do not believe me, just Google the utterly gorgeous Jeri Ryan and her experiences in Hollywood. Men are just as likely to be bullied as women. I recently had a conversation with the father of a friend of mine. A successful competitive rider in his mid-50’s, who told me how being the target of a bully ruined his entire competition experience for a season. Bullies will target riders of all levels and all disciplines. You did not attract this person or experience by something you did or by who you are. Know this.
Livery yards are places where all kinds of personality types get thrown together. To say they should get on just because they have horses in common is like saying all drivers should simply because they all own cars. So, understand I am not referring to the one-off spat between two very different people who rub one another up the wrong way, where perhaps the odd insult and expletive gets thrown and then things settle down and they stay out of each other’s way. I am talking about targeted behaviour that persists over weeks or possibly months. And what to do about it.
When we are looking for a livery yard we focus on what amenities it offers our horses. Size of stables, turn-out, ménage, on-site security, access to bridle paths. Yet all too often we ignore the other half of the equation which is whether or not the yard will suit us. So, unless we are joining one of those forward-thinking yards who have a clearly stated #notonouryard anti-bullying policy in place, it can end up being trial – or should I say, ordeal, and error. If we have had a bad experience or simply never want to have one, we need to bear in mind that happy owners equal happy horses. It doesn’t matter what the yard offers your horse if you are miserable. So, if you are looking to move your horse, don’t be afraid to ask whether there is an anti-bullying policy in place or what kind of culture is on the yard. If you can, talk to people who are already there or better yet, have been there in the past. Also, in rare cases it is the yard owner or manager who turns out to be the bully. If you are new to horse ownership or the area, your local tack or feed store knows who runs the happy yards. Don’t be afraid to ask them for recommendations and to join a waiting list if necessary.
I like to place yard bullies into three categories, Bully Lite, Bully Full Fat, and Bully 2.0. I’ve also got some tips on handling or simply preventing bullying for yard owners/managers and other liveries who witness bullying.
Bully Lite: Bully Lite is the person who constantly offers unwarranted ‘advice’ which is thinly disguised criticism of your ability. Bully Lite wants to undermine your confidence. Bully Lite is miserable and so is their horse. Usually we become targets for Bully Lite simply because we and our horse are happy (not allowed!) and got there by doing things differently to Bully Lite (also not allowed). Bully Lite wants everyone to be as unhappy as they are and also see their horses on permanent box rest like theirs. Misery loves company. Bully Lite likes to big note themselves and their advice comes wrapped in an anecdote which paints them as some sort of expert: ‘When I was working with Carl Hester he found this worked for him. . .’ Best response: ‘You’re probably right’. That’s it. Note you have not said they are right. You have also not thanked them. Do not thank them. You did not ask for this and did not need it. All they hear is the word ’Probably’. To them this says you have agreed with them. You didn’t. But it is usually sufficient for them to walk away satisfied. And by the way, this response also works with that relative or co-worker who constantly criticises you too.
Bully Full Fat: So, that obnoxious person is back in your grill, spewing out insults and spittle. What’s your best tactic? We know the bully is insecure and unhappy. They feel better seeing your reaction and knowing they got to you. Either through you getting upset or losing your cool. You can handle a 600 kilo animal. How much do they weigh? That’s right. You got this. Deep breath. Bullies need to be taken seriously. They need this to feel big. Ever blow up a paper bag and then pop it? That’s how easy it is to deflate one. You’ve heard laughter is the best medicine, right? It’s also the most effective anti-bully deterrent out there. The moment you show them you simply find them hilarious, nine times out of ten, you disempower them. No matter what they have said, laugh. Tell them they must have a lot of time on their hands to come up with this stuff. Do they have any idea how ridiculous they sound? Then turn or walk away and no longer engage. That being said: bullying is no joke. Are they coming back for more despite this? Resorting to other tactics? See list above. Are they Bully 2.0?
Bully 2.0. Uh-oh. Bully 2.0 is upgraded, re-booted bully on steroids. Bully 2.0 either reveals themselves almost immediately you arrive and relies on the fact that you do not want to wrong-foot yourself in a new environment by retaliating or else bides their time. When the monster is unleashed the first time you then write it off to them simply having a bad day. What you do not realise is you have just seen the real person emerge. Until it happens again. And again. If Bully 2.0 takes their time in showing their true colours, it can be unsettling as it calls into question your ability to make character judgments. Also, sometimes Bully 2.0 has presented themselves initially as helpful and friendly. Bully 2.0 is not your friend. And never was no matter your initial impression. Do not feel bad about ignoring Bully 2.0. However, be warned. Bully 2.0 is the type to resort to covert bullying. This includes stealing, damaging your property, backstabbing you by spreading false rumours about you or your horse, cyberstalking etc.
If Bully 2.0 targets you the moment you arrive at a new yard, you have one recourse and it is the one we do not like to reach for. But it may be necessary if you want to enjoy your time there. The military have a name for this: Shock and Awe. In other words, you immediately retaliate and with such force it tells the bully once and for all that this time they picked the wrong target. Do not mince your words and do not be polite about it. Let them know in no uncertain terms their behaviour is unacceptable and that they have nothing more to say to you – ever. I speak here from bitter experience. Set aside concerns about what impression you may give others. Because I can tell you they already have problems with this person. Your taking a stand will not stop you making friends but it will prevent you from being a continual target for this person’s unpleasantness which is what will happen unless you show them they have crossed the line. Remember what I said about that shark cruising for its next snack? It’s not personal. You are simply the fresh meat in the water. Don’t make yourself the next meal however. Leave them with a nasty taste in their mouths unless you want them to bite again.
Yard Owners: You didn’t sign up for this, did you? Nobody does! Managing a livery yard isn’t just about managing your grazing and facilities but calls for a complex set of people skills too. Nothing prepares you for this. You can end up playing peacekeeper and therapist along with wearing all your other hats. You need to know when something is just a minor spat between two people who usually get on with most others, and when you may be looking at something more serious which may require you to step in. Having a clearly stated anti-bullying policy will help here. An equine lawyer can advise you on drawing this up. People can have personality clashes. However, persistent complaints about one particular person’s behaviour which is causing distress, need to be addressed. Sometimes we simply are unaware of how we may be coming across to others, so give the person an opportunity to course correct by talking to them in a non-judgmental way, before taking more drastic measures. Just be aware from a legal standpoint that you have the same responsibilities as a landlord to ensure your tenants (liveries) have ‘quiet enjoyment’ of the property. If someone is being targeted due to race, sexual orientation, religion or disability, I should not need to tell you this is a hate crime and a police matter. Keep an eye open if someone seems excluded from the mainstream social flow of the yard. Sometimes people don’t want to socialise. They just want to come and take care of their horse and nothing else. But ensure this is the case and not due to feeling left out or worse.
Other Liveries: Bullying is everyone’s business. Who when at school witnessed someone being bullied and walked away from it simply relieved they were not the bully’s victim today? We aren’t at school anymore. If you see or hear someone being bullied it is your responsibility to step in. You do not have to resort to the tactics of the bully. You don’t even have to take sides. A simple ‘This yard is not the place for this kind of behaviour’ should suffice.
Lastly, I mentioned those rare cases where a culture of bullying exists on the yard because the owner or manager is the bully. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in this position, you have but one course of action open to you and that sadly, is to find somewhere else for you and your horse as soon as possible. Also be aware that if it is the yard owner who is the bully, despite what it may say in your livery agreement, you do not have to give notice to leave as the bullying constitutes breach of contract and loss of ‘quiet enjoyment’. The moment you find an alternative – go. This also applies if you have been a continual victim of bullying on your yard, have complained to the yard owner and they have done nothing about it.
When livery yards work well, they work exceptionally well providing us with a well-run place to keep our horses, and a built-in social life too. Of course, we can all have our moments. And sometimes things can be taken out-of-context or someone is quite simply having a bad day. They could be under stress from challenges in their lives we do not know about and over-react as a result. Bullying is different. Despite some perceptions that still exist, most horse owners aren’t elitist or affluent. If we had money we would have our own horse properties as opposed to being on a livery yard in the first place. Most of us work long and hard at ordinary jobs, and make economies in other areas, to be able to afford to have a horse. Therefore, our time with our horses is precious and hard-earned. Nobody needs it ruined by bullying or by being made to feel unwelcome where we keep our horse. It is a sad indictment of a sport that so often we need to resort to reaching for a line from a Ludacris song and not care about it, as bullying is so endemic within it, simply to survive. And yes, that particular track did become my anthem when learning to deal with Bully 2.0.*
Just like finding the right horse for you, finding the right yard may take time and a period of trial and error. Since departing the yard where I encountered Bully 2.0, I have been blessed with being on yards where people have been universally friendly. Even on yards where bullies exist, they are usually not representative of the majority of horse owners there. Encountering one does not necessarily mean you will have to move or that there are not many people there whose friendship you cannot enjoy. As horse owners we are all practiced at setting boundaries and at showing our horses quite clearly they have crossed them. So, don’t be afraid to tell people to get back. But at the end of the day, if nothing works, also don’t be afraid of putting your own happiness and wellbeing up there with that of your horse.
* If you do not know what this is, Google Tom Cruise as Les Grossman dance. If you are under 15, please check with your parents or responsible adult first.
Written by Helen Watts