Navigating the line between business and friendship is difficult, and always has been. That seems to be amplified in the horse world where, for many of us, our business is tied so closely to who we are and what we love.
For many of us in the horse world, especially those of us who are equine professionals in one way or another, our business tends to be a very personal thing. It’s not just how we make the money to support our passion — it’s also how we support ourselves and our families. The hard part is that our services are for other equestrians. As horse people, other equestrians are pretty much our only friends. Our close-knit circles tend to be small, but our extended equine family is pretty vast. Add into that positive relationships with show acquaintances, trail riding friends, and that person who you met at the one clinic with the really cute paint who you formed the bond with, but whose name you definitely don’t know, and your circle of horse “friends” gets a lot larger. In many instances, it becomes difficult to divide those friendships and associations with our businesses, especially when our businesses are so closely tied up in what we love and who we are. But the fact of the matter is, business business. And friendship is friendship. And the minute we start taking our friends’ choices to shop elsewhere or utilize other services personally, we run the risk of alienating a lot of people who never meant to attack us, and realistically, have no problem with us as professionals. Or maybe they do. But in the world of business and friendship, this is a very thin and hard line to walk.
On one hand, there is large variety of fields within the equine industry. From people who work directly with you and your horse (such as trainers, coaches, body workers, vets, dentists, farriers, saddle fitters, barn managers, etc.) to those who provide products that you and your horse need (such as tack store owner, feed suppliers, supplement dealers, hay suppliers, etc.) to those who have larger ticket items and services that keep your horses where they belong and help get them there (such as fence builders, contractors, vehicle and trailer sales, etc.), there seems to be a plethora of ways to earn a living within the equestrian world.
On the other hand, as our circle of horses friends and associates becomes larger, we get to know more and more of these people. Without trying very hard at all, I can think of multiple people within each aspect of the equine industry who I would consider friends — or at least friendly associates. These are people I like and respect and, in general, are people to whom I would like to give my business.
But here’s the thing: I only can use one farrier. I only can afford to go to one coach at a time. I can use one trainer for my horses at a time (and for a finite time at that). I can only use one body worker at a time and I can only buy one truck or trailer every once in a while (heck, right now I can’t even do that, but that’s another story).
That means, when it comes to giving my patronage to those in the equine industry (many of whom I consider my friends), I have to make choices. Sometimes those choices are cut and dry. I’m sticking with the farrier I’ve used for the past 10 years who keeps my horses sound, rarely cancels appointments, and is willing to work with me on the more complicated cases. The fact that he’s my friend is a bonus, but it’s not the reason he’s my farrier. Other times the choices are a bit more nuanced. Maybe I choose one trainer over another because I think their training style and the horses they produce align more closely with my riding style or ability. Maybe I choose to buy a saddle, trailer, or truck from one dealer over another because they have in stock what I’m looking for. Or maybe their list price is lower and I get stressed about negotiating price. Or maybe it’s a matter of convenience — this supplement distributor is closer than that one, so it’s easier to incorporate pick ups into my routine. Sometimes it’s just a matter of scheduling. This trainer has an opening sooner than the other. This contractor can start building my fence a month before that one.
In none of these instances am I writing that I’m choosing one professional over another because of friendship. Of course we all would prefer to give our friends our business, but at the end of the day, it’s about what works for us and our horses at that moment in time. Sometimes that means choosing one friend or associate over another. Sometimes it means going with someone with whom we have no prior relationship at all. And this is where it gets hard.
Switching from the viewpoint of a consumer to that of a service provider, how do we maintain those friendships and relationships when the people we know do choose to go with someone else?
First and foremost, we can’t take it personally. Most of the time, it isn’t personal. People make choices for all the reasons listed above, plus any multitude of others.
Second, if we really do think it’s personal, we can professionally and politely ask for feedback. But then we need to handle that feedback with maturity and grace. We can make strides to improve or, if it’s something that fundamentally can’t be changed, accept that and move on. The flip side of this, of course, is that consumers need to provide honest feedback when asked.
Finally, we can’t hold grudges (at least not outwardly). The fastest way to keep people from patronizing our businesses is to make an issue when they choose to go elsewhere. That’s also a pretty quick way to ruin a friendship or a friendly association.
The truth is, navigating business and friendship has always been hard — whether or not you’re in the equine industry. The best that we can do is try to keep our emotions out of it and let business be business and friendship be friendship … even if that means some uncomfortable feelings along the way.