Horse Professionals and Customer Service

I read an article a few months ago, Is My Relationship with My Trainer Normal? It annoyed me greatly at the time, and I thought about it again recently as I’ve been searching for a new trainer, and customer service has been on my mind a lot. 

To me, this article basically amounts to a trainer saying, “Stop talking and give me money.” Trainers don’t have to be responsive, they don’t have to give you the attention you are paying for, and you are expected to foot the bill for them to show your horse without complaint. If you don’t think you are improving, well, that’s just because you don’t understand the subtle intricacies of horse training, and aren’t qualified enough to look beyond A+B is still equaling C. 

I may not be “Expert Horseperson, knower of all things equine,” but I am still moderately knowledgeable Courtney, and even if I don’t know everything horses, I know how I’m expected to behave in a professional environment. I know that I can’t push off my boss’s requests, ignore clients for other clients, and charge them for things not previously agreed upon. Why do trainers get away with this behavior? Poor customer service is rampant. People fall into this business because they like horses, and rank people low on the priority list. 

In my years of working with horse professionals, I have been annoyed by many things that I kept my mouth shut about. I showed up for a scheduled lesson, started riding, but when my trainer came in, she started reworking her footing instead of teaching me. 45 minutes went by before my husband took over working with her footing so I could get my lesson. One big name trainer, who I was so excited to work with that I bought 8 lessons up front, ended up being on her cell phone the entire time. I have a video of her staring at her phone while still telling me I was doing a great job. I never finished out the lesson package. There’s the chronic lateness. I show up on time, trainer doesn’t show up until 15 minutes later. Lesson still ends at scheduled time. Or, changing my private lesson to a group lesson without consulting me, and still charging me the same private rate. 

One of my favorite stories is when I paid for a lesson for my mother in law. I was a working student with this trainer, and therefore, I guess she thought I had “sucker” written across my forehead. She gave my MIL a 10-minute lesson, barely did anything, and asked my MIL if she felt sore. My MIL said she did feel a little sore (as expected of a brand new rider taking their first lesson), so my trainer had her get off and tried to charge me for a full half hour. Sorry, that’s not happening. I was so enraged, I fought that one. 

Most recently, I took a trial lesson with a new trainer, and I really liked him. After specifically asking him the best way to reach him, I emailed him to schedule a follow-up lesson. No answer. I messaged on facebook, no answer. He saw the message, I could see that. But still, no answer. 3 weeks later, he finally replies that he just saw the message, so sorry! But nothing else. Do you not want my business then? I find that hard to believe based on your Facebook advertising. So why are you putting so little effort into customer service? 

Customer service can make or break other businesses. Look at Yelp reviews of any random store or cafe. Uber drivers go above and beyond to get a good rating. Social media users are inflamed by anything they think is low-quality customer service. Yet, horse professionals get away with it because “that’s how it is.”

I know good horse people are worth their weight in gold. They help us understand our horse’s brain, they help us achieve our riding goals. But I think the true marker of a professional is someone who has the complementary skills of business sense and customer service. Yes, this is a horse business, but in the end, it’s a people business. The horses don’t pay the bills, the people pay the bills. 

This means, my horse doesn’t care if you’re 15 minutes later. But I, who has a meeting after this lesson, and needs to allow for enough time to get my horse and I cleaned up so I can get there on time, do care. I care a great deal. That meeting is what makes me able to afford this hobby, and it is (sadly) a higher priority than the lesson. 

It means that if I’m paying $60 for a lesson, I want your full (or if a group, divided) attention for the duration of it. Sure, you can take a breather (ideally when I take one too) or if something literally takes only a minute, go for it, but do you really think there is any situation that I would be happy to pay for you to play on your cell phone for the majority of my lesson?

It means communicating with me where you think my riding is going. If you can’t offer up the plan of my riding progression, I will assume you don’t have one. If you can’t tell me why I’m doing something in a lesson, I’ll assume you don’t know. If you don’t know, I certainly don’t know. Teachers and professors are expected to have a syllabus, do you have one? I wouldn’t expect an actual paper, divided up by semester (or lesson, haha) but I know trainers follow a basic formula/progression of the steps of building a rider, and if you can share your plan, I’ll know I’m on the right course with you. 

In that same vein, it means a two-way conversation about our roles training the horse. If you toss out that you should show my horse for me, yeah, I’m going to be a bit annoyed. First off, I pay for lessons so that I can ride my horse. It’s my horse, it’s my dreams, it’s my goals. If my goal to take my horse into a 3’9″ hunter derby, why would I pay you to do it? I don’t care if it’s the first time the horse does it, again, it’s my goal to take my horse into a hunter derby. What have I accomplished by having you show my horse? Yes, I get it, it needs “miles” or whatever. How about, I’ll pay the show fees to ride my own horse for miles, because that’s the point of buying my own horse. For me to ride. If the trainer thinks that I’m not ready for the derby, well, that’s the entire point of being in a training program, isn’t it? For me and horse to prepare for things like that? If I’m not actually ready, why would I go to the show in the first place, let alone pay all the fees for someone else to do it?

I know not all horse professionals rank customer service as a low priority. I’ve talked with some trainers that make my heart sing at how much they do care about providing excellent customer service. In that group, even some of the Big Name Trainers I contacted consider customer service a priority. I reached out to one BNT about lessons, she emailed me back within 10 hours with her cell phone number so we could talk directly. My friend recently reached out to (author of a recent amateur article) about a lesson. She didn’t have the contact information so she just contacted the sales page. It wasn’t her, but they brought the message all the way to her, and then her secretary reached out with information. It was maybe a three days total response time, and they provided updates of where the message was along the way. These are two both highly talented riders and trainers, but they understood the importance of customer service. 

Making customer service a priority would not be difficult. The trainers themselves need to set a new standard and decide to respond to all messages within a timeframe or at a set time, lessons will be on time, they will not be on their cell phones, and they will give all paying clients the attention they pay for. Basic things. But right now there’s no incentive for them to do this. Amateurs allow customer service to be a low priority because “that’s how it’s always been done,” and articles are published telling them they should just expect this kind of treatment. I think we should set the standard and insist on good customer service. I’ve personally decided I’m sick of putting up with bad customer service, and I will not patronize any barn that makes it a low priority. In the future, I plan to call out bad customer service as I see it. Not publicly, and not in an attempt to embarrass, but to tell them how it affects me personally, and why I need to be at a barn that puts a priority on good customer service. I will give my money to trainers and professionals who view our relationship with professional respect. 

I’m not being difficult, I just want a respectful relationship with my trainer. I will do my part to respect their time, not bother them with unneeded messages, make sure my expectations are clear and pay on time. 

I hope others will join me in insisting upon good customer service, and maybe we can change the industry for the better. 

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  1. I’ve learned to just put my money where my mouth is… and more importantly, allow people into my life who enhance it, not drain it

    When I first started taking lessons in the area, I worked with a bigger local trainer. She ignored me in group lessons and completely disregarded my request to take a private lesson WITHOUT telling me. I never worked with her again. It’s hard not to take that sort of thing personally, but in my heart I know I’m a good, loyal customer. I may not have as much money to spend as others, but I pay on time every time, I show up on time and do what I’m asked. It’s not worth my time to have a trainer who doesn’t respect me for who I am and what I’m capable of.

    1. That’s how I feel… all clients deserve respect, and I certainly wouldn’t put a horse in full training with one that doesn’t think I’m worth noticing for my individual lessons.

  2. I think, in my area, a lot of the reason we put up with it is because we have a shortage of competent professionals. I know you and I have discussed this before, but if Sally the dressage instructor is the only within a 1.5 hour drive, then you’re going to put up with Sally’s bull vs. driving three hours to try someone new…who may do the same things Sally does. 😉 It’s annoying and an unfortunate reality of living in a less developed area.

    1. That is a shame, although if all of Sally’s clients insisted on respect, she would have to change her operating model to stay in business!

  3. Omg can you imagine the accountability on both sides if trainers had to come up with riding plans with their students? Bet we’d have some pretty amazing riders and happy client-trainer relationships!

    1. That would be pretty incredible! I was at one barn briefly that had it all written out, and it was shocking. Only time I’ve seen something like that.

  4. Having been at big barns before the things I have seen as common practice really frustrate me and I took all those things into consideration when I moved and looked for a new trainer.

  5. You bring up so many really good points here. The culture of lateness, and honestly backstabbing and shit talking, in equestrian business is crazy. I’m inclined to think that it is due to poor communication and unrealistic expectations. Lie to a client just a little (“oh, your daughter will be jumping in three months”) to keep them on, be overly optimistic about the sales prospects of a horse because it will be better for everyone, fudge reality a little in a sales ad…. It’s rampant in both directions, though. Clients who want more than they are capable of, buy horses they can’t ride, don’t make the effort to improve their skills and still expect results.

    The industry definitely needs change, in both directions!

    1. Unfortunately, trainers do have to deal with pressure from clients, and I do feel for them, but it is another aspect of the job they choose. The same thing happens in all industries and aspects of running a business. For someone they want to continue doing business with, I’d hope they would set clear boundaries and expectations. If that doesn’t work, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a trainer making the decision that they don’t want to work with that client anymore.

      But is it a two way street, and I’m definitely in favor of clients being reasonable and respectful to began with!

  6. People would get pretty peeved at me if they were paying me by the hour to fix a computer or server and they were paying me to talk to other people or mess around on my phone 50%+ of the time. As far as I’m concerned this almost amounts to theft. I’m not being paid to goof off and socialize with other customers and friends. If I messed around for 30 minutes in an hour I would cert expect the customer to demand I only bill them for 30 minutes total of work. I just did that with a renovation company that gave me an hour “free”.

  7. Everything talked about here I’ve seen. I haven’t personally experienced it because I’ve always received apologies for any lateness and full attention from all of the trainers. Now, I’ve only really trained under 3 trainers my whole life so it’s probably just luck.

    But I’ve seen people be taken advantage of and people be given less than what they pay for. I think my tendency to ask and analyze why I’m doing helps keep those types off my radar. It is customer service first in this industry and I really don’t think that you are asking too much. Those are the things that are expected of the people paying for the lessons, why should those who are being paid for the lesson do anything less?

    1. That’s great you do ask! It sounds like that’s kept your relationship with your trainer(s) honest and productive, maybe a little bit more than luck, hehe.

  8. I’ve been lucky to have some really fantastic trainers but have seen some pretty awful ones. Hold on to those that you’ve got and make sure you appreciate them for the customer service they provide!

  9. i’m willing to forgive a lack of ‘business’ skills in the horse professionals i work with if my other needs are met: namely, that i’m learning from them, getting value from them, trust them, and (perhaps most relevant to your point here) don’t have any unreasonable trouble in getting on their calendars.

    in my experience a lot of horse ppl are… pretty crappy business ppl haha. that’s no excuse tho. and there are a lot of really shady ppl in this business for whom i have no tolerance or patience.

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