Working with employees, adhering to contracts, dealing with late or missed payment… ethics in the world of equine business can get your head spinning. Claire Trafton discusses a few examples.
Talking about ethics in the equine world is like talking about politics — it can go on all day. There are ethical matters in training, showing, veterinary practices, grooming, equipment, breeding…. you get the idea. But what about on the business side of things? If you’re a trainer or a professional rider who has services offered for clients, there are ethical dilemmas in how you manage your business. From money to employees to contracts, there are ethics that can be detrimental to your success because you simply didn’t do the right thing or because you crossed a legal line. Run your business with integrity.
Imagine if your horse business wasn’t about horses: how would it work if it were real estate, technology, cars, or a corporate company? Sometimes taking the idea of horses out of the equation makes it less complicated. If you were involved in another industry, how would you expect the owner or CEO to act in an ethical dilemma?
But, as we all know, ethics come in all 50 shades of grey. You have a moral duty to yourself, your program, the horses, and your clients. Here are some big-picture business ethics for equestrians!
Fraud is Fraud. No Two Ways About It
At one time or another, you will sell a horse or two in your professional career as a trainer. In that case, you’re the agent and you get a percent commission from the sale price for helping sell that horse.
Idea #1: Sell the horse for 80k, tell the owner it only sold for 30k. I just made a bigger commission! I’m rich!
Idea #2: Don’t do that.
The motivation behind this unethical move is money. We all want all the monies, but if you’re having to lie to get it, you’re doing it wrong. For one, you shouldn’t be lying to your own client about how much you sold their property for. Secondly, when they find out they have every right to sue you and splash your name everywhere for everyone to see. It isn’t worth the risk. A public lawsuit is the last thing you’d put on your Christmas list. Sell the horse according to the agreement you have with the owner, it’s that simple. In any other industry, this is no different than embezzlement.
Stop Calling Your Employees “The Help”… Or Worse
I was appalled when I heard a renowned trainer refer to her employees as “my Mexicans.” Stop. Just don’t. It’s highly unprofessional and embarrassing.
It’s easy to change your wording. Call them (if they’re a group) by a politically correct term, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because you’re a professional and you need to treat your employees with respect and fairness. Imagine this language in an office setting — there would be a discrimination complaint before you could say “I didn’t mean anything by it”.
Regardless of the background of your employees, make sure you are treating them like equals. More than likely, they would enjoy their job more if you treated them respect and gave them a learning experience. That high school girl busting her butt after school to clean stalls in trade for riding lessons? She could be the next best student worker if you let her. That boy who doesn’t come from a horse family but wants to spend every waking moment in the barn? Don’t take advantage of his dedication — see the potential.
Barn help can be hard to come by. It’s even harder to come by when you don’t respect them and word gets around. They’re also not your punching bags — don’t lay blame on them just because they’re there. There’s no need to point fingers when you have no proof and it’s unethical to let someone else take the blame just because it’s easy.
Written Word is Sacred
Oh, contracts. No one ever reads them, right? “Accept Terms and Conditions and Continue”.
If you put something in writing, you have to do it. They are paying you for it and the contract was signed. Clients want what they are paying for and what you promised them. Nothing will make a client angrier than learning that their horse is getting three days of training instead of six.
Be honest with your client if your assistant is doing a majority of the riding on their horse — maybe even offer a discounted price for those who are more than happy to have your assistant on board. What is going to hurt you is when your client’s expectations are the complete opposite of reality. They will appreciate transparency and the truth.
Be sure in what you’re offering in writing that you’re able to serve every client that way every day. Since it is a legal binding document, legal action can be taken against you. Be careful of what you say in email or over text messages; these can be used against you as well if you don’t maintain integrity in conversation. Consider the four-hour-rule: the best move when dealing with a difficult client is to wait and not respond. Reconsider your response or seek legal advice to ensure your next response is correct.
The Best Client is One Who Doesn’t Pay Their Bills!
… Said no one ever. You’re bound to run into clients that are either forgetful or have some financial troubles and they start making promises instead of making their payments. So how do you deal with that in a professional and ethical way?
If you’re a barn manager or you have a training program, you’ve probably heard of a lien. In a basic sense, right of lien gives the stable the right to enact ownership of the horse/property from the owner that isn’t paying their bills. The stable can then sell the property in order to make up for the debt.
However, you have to be incredibly careful when putting this into your contract, because these stableman’s liens vary from state to state and aren’t legal in some. There are limitations on when the stable can assume ownership, how much the property can be sold for, whether the owner has to be taken to court, who can conduct the sale, and more. This can be a messy, time consuming, and an expensive way to deal with a client in debt.
Be sure that you have other precautions set up to prevent things from going this far. You can have a clause that terminates the contract and your duty to provide training to the horse after so many missed payments, late fees, bounced check fees, and so on.
First and foremost, follow-up with your client. Sometimes a reminder is all they need before you start jumping your guns. Start small and work your way up to more drastic measures. You can use small claims court and get a lawyer involved — use these to your advantage when necessary.
There’s also an ethical obligation to the animals. You can’t stop feeding the animal just because the owner stops paying; that is neglect and you are held accountable. Don’t mistreat the animals just because the owner isn’t paying you. These animals depend on you for their care and it isn’t their fault the owner isn’t paying up.
Are You Feeling Ethical Yet?
Bottom line, be the professional you advertise yourself to be. That means you’re accountable, fair, a good communicator, trustworthy, moral, and a leader. Be the example! If someone has committed a crime, it should be dealt with so someone else doesn’t fall victim to their actions. Take pride in your business and in the way it is managed. Hold yourself and your business to higher expectations. Making ethical decisions protects everyone’s best interests and you will be more successful in the community, with your clients, with your horses, and with yourself.
Claire Trafton is a junior consultant at Entrigue Consulting, a full-service equestrian marketing and brand agency. She has worked on multiple professional rider and equestrian brand accounts managing social media content creation and growth. Claire enjoys working with riders across all horse sports including dressage, jumpers and eventing, but in her spare time rides western from reining to pleasure. If you have any questions about social media, please contact Claire at [email protected].