Thursday, July 9, 2015

constructive criticism v. public shaming

Ok. This is a tirade-ish post. Just warning ya. And as always, my opinions are based on my experiences in the horse world. Your mileage may vary (please feel free to chime in!).

Also - the scenario I'm about to describe is unrelated to this blog. I am so grateful for everyone who reads and takes time to comment - really thank you! I've felt nothing but support and encouragement from this little community, and I hope that never changes.

Tho it's my understanding that other social forums aren't always like this. Like, say.... facebook. Apparently some drama can happen there. Who woulda thunk?

So here's a situation: 

  • A friend posts a jumping picture from a recent lesson and is proud of her progress. A local trainer (who she's ridden under as a judge) comments negatively about her leg position, ultimately suggesting she isn't benefiting the horse at all. The friend is mortified and deletes the entire post after a little back and forth with other riding friends coming to her defense.
  • Trainer then continues the conversation on her business's facebook page. Please keep in mind that this comment is based off a single photograph screen shot she saw, of a rider she's met in person maybe 2-3 times max:

And my reaction? Seething frothing indignation. Who the fuck does this lady think she is?

But... that's a little rough around the edges so let me try to break it down a little bit. There are a couple different categories in which I think the trainer misses the point.

A very good first response to this situation (IMO) is to read the SprinklerBandit's Ammy Manifesto. Maybe a couple times, actually (and yes I totally sent the link to the friend in question as an empowering pick-me-up). So yea, if you haven't read that yet go do it. 

So what points do I think this trainer is missing?? 

The big picture.
George Morris has been quoted as saying 'you're either schooling or unschooling the horse.' That's all well and good and all. But I think there's a big gray area.

Really the best way to ruin a horse is to send it to slaughter. No chance of recovery there.

The best way to develop a horse? Well, probably sending it off to a world class professional. You can insert whatever name you like. Phillip Dutton, Charlotte Dujardin, McLain Ward, whatever. Any of those individuals will undoubtedly do a better job faster than I can. 

But certainly there's somewhere in between the two extremes? Certainly there's room in there for those of us who occasionally get left behind at fences? Or inadvertently jump out of the dressage court? Or fall off when our horses roll in the water crossing??


The trainer made her comments based on a single photo of the rider jumping an oxer in the middle of a grid. One moment in an hour long lesson. And she concludes that it must be an instance of 'sub par instruction.'

Does she know who the friend was lessoning with? Perhaps she has beef with that trainer? Or perhaps she didn't know and didn't care? I don't know the details. 

Does she know the history of the horse? The history of the rider? Anything that might paint a fuller picture of what led to the flaws she saw in that photo? Or does she believe that there isn't room in riding for anything less than perfection? 

This one is a little vague. But it's one of my favorites so I tend to find ways to fit it in. Generally, a life philosophy of mine is to "optimize not maximize."

What does it mean? To me, it means that I strive to make the best of any given situation - but the term 'best' is fluid. If I seek perfection and nothing less, disappointment is guaranteed. But if I seek an optimal solution, wherein I've achieved a balance such that things are as good or better than what might be reasonably expected - well, that makes me pretty happy.

Sometimes the optimal solution is making it to the other side in one piece. And sometimes I want more. "Expect better," as the trainer says, is a fine philosophy - but context matters.

Common Sense Communication.
Really this is kind of the biggie here, and the source of this post's title. What is the appropriate way to talk to someone (a stranger? a client? a close friend?) about perceived flaws?

I believe constructive criticism is a real and valuable tool. But when does it cross the line? What is constructive in calling out this rider who proudly posted a picture of what felt like a big accomplishment? What on earth is gained from shaming that adult amateur? 

Sure, she says it comes from a place of believing the rider could have more potential - but what exactly do you think she was working on in that very lesson from which the photo originated?

The Bottom Line.
My friend was pretty upset by the comments. I am clearly a bit riled up. Why? Why care? 

It probably comes down to the insane investment we pour into this ridiculous hobby. An investment measured beyond money, time and energy. And it is so critical for me to be able to derive pure joy and glee on a semi-regular basis from this investment.

If that joy comes in the form of a picture of us doing something we've never done before - and maybe even doing better than just surviving? Well the person who tries to rob me of that joy better back the fuck off because it's mine and you can't have it.


  1. I can definitely relate to this, I recently had a work colleague private message me on facebook to tell me that my jumping position is awful and I can improve it by x, y and z. Needless to say this person is no longer on my facebook but this had a massive impact on my confidence to the point that I was scared to jump for about a month because I figured she was right and I was just hurting horses by jumping them. People say things over the keyboard that they wouldn't say in person because typing something doesn't feel as serious as saying it to their face.

  2. To be honest, I believe these sort of comments either stem from an innate lack of confidence in the trainer's own skills (which leads her to criticize others) or a god complex (that a lot of trainers seem to possess). I've met a fair share of trainers who think they are the sh*t and it drives me insane.

    Preach on, sister.

  4. oh wow, I can't believe the nerve of someone to do that. What a huge ego they must have. That is awful, bullying behavior. It's absurd to expect that only pictures of 100% equitation to be allowed to be posted, and for that matter, that someone riding in a way that someone else may slightly disagree with is cause to go on the attack.
    I think the many people of the world (including outside of riding) has come to cheer on everyone who points out everyone else's infractions, no matter how minor, so I'm sure the trainer thought she would be celebrated for picking on someone. It's sad such nasty people exist, and hopefully your friend wasn't too bummed about it.
    Hopefully it will make her feel better to know that even big name riders/trainers get picked apart by people watching in the sidelines. Someone people can't seem to help themselves and have to put down others, but this is a poor reflection on them, not on the person they are attacking.

  5. Ummmm, so is every student this woman teaches absolutely perfect? Over every jump? Because the whole point of lessons is *learning*! And with our sport, we are always learning and improving. Easier said than done, I know, but your friend needs to walk away and not waste another second on this person's comments!

  6. Hell yes! Back off bitches, this is our joy! >:( Seriously though, really well said. Some people are too lost inside their own little egos to step out and consider other people and the bigger picture.


    That woman should be ashamed to call herself a professional; her behavior is absolutely disgusting, and says a lot more about her than the rider's supposed 'flaws' and her trainer's 'poor instruction'.

    Unfortunately though there ARE ugly people out there who will hurt others to try and make themselves feel better. What I find helps when faced with one of the uglies is to remember that people generally hurt and attack others because they themselves are hurting. Someone who is self-aware, confident, and generally happy with who they are does NOT treat other people in a damaging way! So I try to think of the nasty people with compassion and remember that they don't know my story, and they're probably hurting in some way.

    I love this blogging community for all of the positive encouragement and support everyone doles out in huge amounts! New ideas, understanding, comfort, and celebration abound in the comments section of everyone's blogs and IT'S FANTASTIC!

  8. I really really appreciate your thoughts on this because I can barely stand to read things in the "horse community" on Facebook. People not asking for critique get that and THEN some. You know what I mean? It's also near and dear to me as someone who is overcoming being afraid to hurt her horse because she isn't perfect. That trainer online should be ashamed of herself. The internet is a helpful servant but a horrible master.

  9. Partner in crime, I couldn't have said it better myself! It seems like supporting people is much more accepted than putting them down. Who would have thought?! 😄

  10. Amen. We do not have any room for catty bitches throwing shade online.

  11. Ugh. People like that trainer need to GET OVER THEMSELVES. Most of us do this for fun. We have to balance many, many things in life other than horses. We're amatures, doing our best and celebrating our victories. No shaming needed.

  12. THANK YOU! Seriously I stopped asking questions or posting accomplishments on FB formums and even had to delete a couple friends because of this shit. I'd say hey, what collars do you use to keep your horse from cribbing and I'd get told I was a horrible owner who needed the vet out because clearly my horse was ulcer infested and sick and dying blah blah blah. Or riding pics. Just don't post them. because someone is going to be nasty. One FB friend that I had to block was a trainer locally. She gave me such crap about my routine and training program and how I jumped too much (I was only jumping 2 or 3x a month last summer!) and started criticizing pics I'd post of M who had JUST STARTED learning to ride English and I was so fed up. FB = Drama. I only let friends and bloggers see my stuff now because they're constructive and far from rude. I can't deal with rude.

    Sorry for the novel comment

  13. It really just makes the trainer in question look bad! What goes around come around. Not sure if you remember my post about the awful dressage clinic I took earlier this spring. I toned it down for the blog, but there were things said to me that shouldn't have been. End result? Even though most of the other riders had great lessons and I didn't bad mouth anything out of respect and appreciation for the organizers, only one person signed up for the show in our area she was booked to judge this summer. People do notice bad behaviour and take their business elsewhere.

  14. I'm probably just super passive aggressive, but I'd be really tempted to be like "It's such a shame when trainers are actually good at teaching, but have such poor people skills that you don't ever want to ride with them."

  15. Preach! I have a really hard time taking criticism, I take it very personally. I know I need to develop a thicker skin and I'm working on it. But my rule of thumb is that if a person doesn't ask for my opinion I won't give it. If I am truly ready to hear some constructive criticism I will ask, if not...shhhhh. Recently a friend of mine came to meet my horses and tore apart their conformation. I was pretty upset as it was a friendly visit...not a conformation class.

  16. Jeez, what a bitch! I think the key to constructive criticism is the 'constructive' part- you're offering advice on what you can do that will help you improve, not making a totally unasked for statement on all the things you're doing wrong.

  17. Ugh, I'm sorry for your friend. That really sucks! I have fortunately never been harassed on fb for any pics of me riding, but I'm honestly always worried about it. Believe me, I know my equitation is far from perfect and I really don't need anyone pointing it out in public, thankyouverymuch, but at the same time I think the pride I feel for my small accomplishments outweighs any criticisms that anyone else may feel the need to dish out. I very much agree with other posters that having to point out flaws in others stems from more insecurities that that person must have of themselves.

    What really gets me is the fact that someone who calls them self a trainer (which implies that they are a professional) would criticize someone in such an unconstructive way an even worse, do it publicly. That's the exact opposite of professionalism IMHO. I can picture this happening with middle-school girls, but not with an adult trying to run a business. Come on. Again, sorry for your friend!

  18. I agree with EVERYTHING you have said here. And all the comments. And we are soooooooo the choir.

    There are absolutely hysterical things my horse does that I don't really post on any kind of internet forum because people are going to be like ERMGERD HORZE ABUZE. Hell, he even convinced a judge of that. So I keep it quiet and just share with my friends.

    The one time -- the ONE TIME -- when I think people should step in is if something legitimately dangerous or life-threatening is happening. For example, several months ago I commented on a blog I was reading that I was concerned about the horse's weight. I did so in a comment because I couldn't find the blogger's email, and I tried to express my concern in a manner that conveyed that I was supportive of the blogger and her choices (because I was) and wanted to help. There is a fine line between being constructive and being an asshole, sometimes you cross it by accident but you should be aware and try to convey things better if you do.

    Also, you've given me the most wonderful idea for a blog hop.

  19. Wow, yes. It irritates me beyond belief when things like this happen. First, posting a picture publically is not an invitation for critique (although you always run that risk obviously because there are people wanting to do that). Second, how can you see so much from a picture!? Like you said it was ONE fence in an entire hour of instruction. And even though it is none of her business, how does the obnoxious trainer not know that the instructor was working on that very issue during that lesson? It takes time to change bad habits.

    It gets me too because I had an incident earlier this year where a trainer yelled instructions to my student at a show. We had a plan in warm up to ride the horse a bit extra low/round because the horse stands up a bit more in the court and will become inverted if he isn't warmed up properly. So stupid trainer walks by yelling at my kid to bring the horse's poll up and I had to stop the warm up and explain again to my kid why that was not the right thing for her horse. It's like yeah he needs his poll up but I'd rather her go in a little deep and keep the horse on the aids than go in hoping to maintain poll-the-highest-point when the horse is likely to go hollow the second it steps in the show ring.

    Basically not everything is exactly what it looks like in photographs or even in person. Why anyone criticizes/critiques photographs on facebook is beyond me. Just let people enjoy their horses, it's way too expensive of a sport to do anything else.

    1. Everyone I've lessened with recently has had me keep Pig much lower and rounded than I'm used to, and you know? It actually engaged his topline like nothing else, AND he stayed on the aids. So, that lower and deeper crap isn't always so bad. It's not like we were cranking his head in or doing anything remotely looking like rollkur, but his poll was totally not the highest point. Whatever works for the horse at the moment, eh?

    2. It was so obnoxious! I definitely default to a little lower and round vs poll the highest point with a risk of going hollow. I'd rather pick a horse up than put a horse down (okay that sounds bad but you know what I mean!). And certainly no outsider should comment... sometimes you have a horse who is so high headed that we're so happy when the horse goes low only to hear some dumb trainer complaining about it with no idea what the rider went through to get the horse down there! Dumb.

  20. LOVE this post! I feel absolutely awful for your friend, and would have a hard time holding back on this trainer if I knew their Facebook info. How unprofessional and unkind. I agree with several other commenters that this likely stems from the trainer's own insecurities, however oddly they've manifested themselves.

    I keep my horsey posting to a minimum on FB as there are a lot of opinions, most of which I don't care to hear. A friend of mine had a horse come up severely lame, and while talking about it in a FB post I offered to let her ride my guy, Gavin, if she just wanted to get on a horse. MY trainer (who this girl had briefly trained with) texted me telling me to absolutely NOT let her on my horse. I was shocked and appalled that the thread was being monitored so closely that I was now being told how to behave towards a friend of mine. People need to mind their own business.

    I'm sorry for your friend, but glad that she has you as a friend!

  21. God, that's so unprofessional!

    Your last two paragraphs absolutely NAILED IT for me! I feel like "back the fuck off" needs to become a motto.

  22. You're right about all this. No one should offer an opinion where one wasn't requested, and no one should publicly shame someone or make unfair assumptions. Some professionals use facebook as a way to congratulate their students on their successes, offer encouragement, and get some (free) positive media attention for their business or advertise a quality horse for sale. Other professionals use facebook for... other reasons. Guess which ones are actually successful. :)

  23. I'm with you and all the other commentators. That trainer's response was completely unprofessional and hurtful, especially since your friend was NOT asking for critiques! I hope your friend re-uploads image, deletes that trainer and/or changes the post settings as needed. Life is too short for that kind of BS.

  24. Obviously this is just her advertising that you don't want to train with her. Share in info to your local friends. 😉

  25. 1) That is wildly unprofessional and a ticket to an immediate block in my world.

    I've seen trainers handle facebook/social media well in two ways: either they never make comments/likes on anyone's stuff or they say only positive things on pretty much everyone. Even if you aren't attacking anyone, you don't want to create the illusion of favoritism or hurt feelings.

    I certainly post lots of horse pictures both on my blog and on facebook and I've never yet claimed to be perfect. It's all about sharing the journey. There are plenty of things I don't talk about on the internet because I don't want the opinions of random strangers. That said, I am literally an internet user for the pony pictures and if anyone makes that unpleasant, they get blocked. Period. Ain't nobody got time for that.

    2) Thanks for the post share! Always glad to unite my fellow ammies. :-)

  26. OMG - I haven't read anything this good in a long, long time. THANK YOU!!!!! I have tried really hard to surround myself with people who understand that I will not get my horse to (insert level) as fast as a professional or as far as a professional. Speedy doesn't care what level we get to and neither does Izzy. I love good instruction, and I seek it out as I am able, but frankly, Charlotte Dujardin does not like in Bakersfield. Frankly, my choices for quality instructors is very, very slim. I do the best I can with what I have.

    I absolutely love your philosophy of optimizing. That's an excellent way to describe what most of us AAs are doing. Well said. :0)

  27. Best. Post. Ever. Seriously! I've given up on most social media, particularly facebook when it comes to the horse community. Now matter what you say or do, it seems you are always harming your horse in someone's eyes. And as a trainer it, this person could stand to be a mite more professional. The last time I took lessons (I'm ashamed to admit) was well over 10 years ago and I quit because my trainer would not stop picking apart my horse. I still am incredibly self conscious about how others view me when I ride and rarely post pictures of me on horseback as a result.

  28. Holy guacamole. Like whoa. Can't handle the sass from that one. She needs to get off her high horse (hehe) and be respectful!

  29. Aww that's terrible! That trainer had no right to pick on and demean your friend. If she had posted a picture asking for help, then it would have been okay if the trainer said it politely. But this is just terrible. That was a moment of accomplishment for your friend. It's wrong for the trainer to be mean in a moment of joy. At that point it is criticism. This is a quote I love that is perfect for this situation: Don't be distracted by criticism. Remember ~ the only taste of success some people have is when they take a bite out of you." I hope your friend is feeling better about herself now.

  30. Aww that's terrible! That trainer had no right to pick on and demean your friend. If she had posted a picture asking for help, then it would have been okay if the trainer said it politely. But this is just terrible. That was a moment of accomplishment for your friend. It's wrong for the trainer to be mean in a moment of joy. At that point it is criticism. This is a quote I love that is perfect for this situation: Don't be distracted by criticism. Remember ~ the only taste of success some people have is when they take a bite out of you." I hope your friend is feeling better about herself now.

  31. Any improvement should never be met with any criticism that isn't positive (that's much better and you can still do even better than that once you improve this etc.). It certainly shouldn't become a public humiliation. This judge seems very unprofessional. Her advice was not asked for and, if she insisted on getting her point across, she should have done it through a personal message in a more positive way instead of discouraging an equestrian that probably looks up to her. I think that judges have a responsibility to be a positive example to the industry and this lady most certainly was not in this situation.

  32. :( Big hugs to your friend. People can be so mean :(

  33. Im late to the party, but YES emma!!! These two did not warrant any harsh comments even if they asked for critique. Just unprofessional and rude.

  34. Im late to the party, but YES emma!!! These two did not warrant any harsh comments even if they asked for critique. Just unprofessional and rude.


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