Mel Harms-Grossman asks a tough question: is professionalism dead in the horse industry? She uses real-world examples to start the discussion.
- The skill, good judgement, & polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well. – Learners Dictionary
- The conduct, aims or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person. – Merriam Webster Dictionary
More and more over the last few years, personal events and those shared by others in the industry have inspired me to examine this question: is professionalism dead in the horse industry? Could we do a better job of maintaining professionalism?
With the invention of the internet, social medial and smart phones our world has become increasingly fast-paced. Information gathering is faster, more easily accessed than in the past. Has this lead us to dispense with professional behavior among peers? Clients? Other service providers? Trainers? Instructors?
In an article released by Chron and written by Chris Joseph, the writer reviewed ten characteristics of professionalism. They included appearance, demeanor, reliability, competence, ethics, maintaining poise, communication (oral & written) organizational skills and accountability.
Of the above list, in my experience, the horse industry is failing most heavily in the characteristics of accountability, competence, reliability, ethics and communication. These items are listed in no particular order. I find many of the items to be very intertwined and difficult to separate at times.
In the past calendar year alone, I have personally experienced or been approached with the next set of true events. These events illustrate the failures I perceive to be the worst, listed above.
Price checking the neighboring trainer under a false name with the intent to set personal prices.
While it is not specifically un-ethical to check the prices of another trainer, it is fairly unethical to waste an individual’s time with a false story about sending them a horse. Their time is valuable too. If they are a professional, they will take the time to communicate with a potential client, breaking down costs and scheduling that horse to meet the request. Accountability wise, the false request also shoots in the foot the reputation of the one who made it. It’s just a snaky, under the table way to do things. I was always taught your words and actions represent you. In my opinion, the accountability of that individual just went out the window.
How could this situation be addressed more professionally? An easy solution with the internet and social media access we all have is to do an informal survey of what people are paying for training. Most people are willing to share a range. One could then address where their skill set and services fall into that range of collected information. Then an appropriate price could be set with research instead of a reputation-ruining action.
Furthermore, the requester could be up front and practice respectful communication with their neighboring trainer. If people were to come forth and honestly ask me, I would provide a price range and tell them why my services are set the way they are. Some questions to help set prices include: do you carry insurance? Do you have experience? Apprenticeships? Schooling? Are you paying for your own facility or renting? These will all play a factor in setting price. If those questions are perceived as offensive, then I believe that indicates there is more business exploration to be done before worrying about competing with the neighboring trainer.
Advertising services without the proper education, work history or resources.
Your contract or your word as a professional is your bond. It is unprofessional not to deliver on the items the client has paid for.
Now, I’m not saying that stuff or life does not happen or that the amateurs don’t make the mistake of choosing a horse not right for them. However, it is our job to be honest and upfront if we get into a project that is above our pay grade. So many clients and amateurs in the past have relayed how disappointed they were in the services of those who advertise as “trainers.” I say that because we have no qualification system for that title in this country. Anyone can hang their shingle out as a trainer, despite references, experience or education. Some may have references, but unqualified ones at that.
False advertising is not only unethical but also lacks accountability, shows one is not competent, lacks reliability and perhaps a sense of reality. Some small examples would be:
- The horse started in work at X trainer and is delivered to Y trainer as an under- or over-cared-for “problem horse.”
- The very trained horse that bucks and rears but only occasionally, so it has been drugged to perform in the show ring, trailer or intended task.
- The very experienced lesson youth who can “help” you train every horse in the barn or can exercise ride any level of horse yet has visibly made the issue worse.
- The traveler with “tons” of experience that can come to you because they don’t have insurance or facility, enough feed to make the winter or qualified experience but they LOVE horses.
- The instructor that can barely ride the well-broke schooling horse BUT can provide lessons or training rides or advice in several areas of interest.
- Finally, the equipment changer. This individual has changed and charged for nearly every piece of equipment used on the horse with no noticeable improvement. They have not referred the owner to anyone with more resources or education than they have acquired.
How could the situation be addressed more professionally? The advertiser could go through a process to confirm they have acquired the skills to be competent in the services advertised. Additionally, the potential client could be referred to an alternative resource that does handle the needed service.
How can one tell if they are qualified to provide services? Has the advertiser attended classes, seminars, university or hands on graded/scored learning opportunities to measure skills? Have they engaged in extensive on the job training to master necessary skills? (Multiple years and not with just a couple of horses.) Do they have the necessary resources to meet the parameters of the contract? Do they have the will to do what is best for the horse and owner, even if meeting that need is outside of their realm?
Sale and rescue horses inspire misunderstanding and misrepresentation.
This topic could be a novel in its self. I’ll try to stay focused as that is professional. Communication, ethics and accountability are the three characteristics I feel cover the majority of offenses here. This is a multi-dimensional issue and more than one party is often at fault.
On the side of the professional representing themselves or a seller, communication is of the utmost importance. Remember, the horse is the one that suffers most when that horse is incorrectly advertised or information about their health, age, training and temperament are altered or withheld. Secondly, communication with potential clients should remain truthful and polite. We are all busy, but it takes no more energy to be kind than it does snarky in how we address others.
On the flip side, overreactive responses or one party getting “butt hurt” because the other party typed a word they did not like is also uncalled for. If one party points out the requested information is available in the written or video materials, meter the response. It is the job of the seller to make the information available. It is the job of interested parties not to waste the time of the seller or their representative just because they are curious. It wastes the time of all involved & breeds nothing but “poor juju” in my opinion.
Commissions are also an area that lacks clarity and where the media has pointed out our failures as an industry. It is unprofessional to “double dip” as is it is in other areas of business, but it happens often. Along that same line, it is unethical to represent a horse with previously known lameness issues as sound while it is drugged up to the hilt. This too happens often and there is very little accountability when it does. These are some of the saddest cases and one of the largest disservices we can do for the horse.
How could this service item be addressed more professionally? For one, we could improve our communication skills by being accountable to the seller and the client. Telling the truth goes a very long way for one’s reputation. I would rather un-sell the horse by remaining truthful than sell the horse with a list of lies. Honest evaluation of true market value (research) considering all current factors is also appropriate. For example, a horse with known issues or heavy maintenance is not worth the same value as one with the same accomplishments and no known health issue. Ethically, are we doing what is best for the horse? Are we passing a client mistake or inability to care for the horse onto another? Or are we valuing the horse correctly and finding the ideal situation for the success of that horse?
In conclusion, I’m going the leave the answer to my professionalism question to you the reader to decide! My non-sugarcoated opinion is that we as an industry could do better. Exactly how we do that without personal accountability is probably beyond my pay-grade. Leave your ideas and comments. Respectful discussion is always encouraged!
For over 10 years, Melissa (Mel) Harms-Grossman has successfully trained horses for show at halter, reining, barrels, poles, ranch reining, trail, western pleasure and more recently ranch horse pleasure and western dressage. She enjoys starting colts, providing continuing education for started horses, finishing show horses and working to build confidence in trail horses. One of her most proud accomplishments is helping clients attain show goals of exhibiting at AQHA and FQHR World Shows. Mel trains horses at her own SunRunner Ranch in Buffalo, Minnesota.