December 18, 2017

Honesty’s The Best Policy?

“Honesty is the most single most important factor having a direct bearing on the final success of an individual, corporation, or product.” Ed McMahon

    A few years ago I had a client named Delores who owned a horse named Rebel. Rebel was a nice enough horse but he was a small, very flashy palomino tobiano paint. Delores had purchased him as a yearling and she loved him dearly. Rebel had numerous trainers before he came to my place as a 3-year-old.  He was started, but had never loped or even trotted under saddle much. I worked with him for awhile and had him going pretty well. We even started him in a few local shows, where he held his own.

     His owner was quite happy with his progress and things were fine until one day when Delores asked me when Rebel would be ready to go on to the APHA shows. I informed her that Rebel was a great horse with lots of potential, but that he would not be competitive on the APHA Show circuit. He was not a good enough mover and at only 14.3 hands Rebel was just too small.  This was also during the time when tobianos had a hard time placing as well. She was not happy to hear the truth about her horse, but as her trainer I felt obligated to let her know where Rebel’s potential lie.

     Delores seemed ok, but I don’t think she really believed me. Like any “parent”, most horse owners don’t want to hear that their “child” has limits. Every horse has a limit. No amount of money, training, care, riding or supplements can change those limits.  You might be able to stretch them out a little, but they are still there. Sooner or later that limit will be reached.

     Things with Rebel and Delores continued on the same path until my accident.  It was early May and an accident put me in the hospital for 2 weeks. I would not be able to ride for many months. The doctors weren’t sure if I would ever ride again. Because of this, Delores began looking for someone else to take over Rebel’s training.

     When I got home from the hospital, Delores gave her notice. When I asked, she told me about her new trainer – “Ms. B”.  “Ms. B” showed exclusively at the APHA shows. “Ms. B” didn’t go to local shows and considered them a waste of time. “Ms. B” had viewed a video of Rebel taken at a show and told Delores that he would do wonderfully at APHA shows due to his flashy coat and excellent conformation.  It wouldn’t matter that he was small, he would do just fine. “Ms. B” had assured Delores that with some additional training Rebel would be winning at APHA shows by summer. I wished her the best as she packed Rebel up and sent him off.

     I didn’t think much about Delores or Rebel after that. I was busy working on my recovery and trying to get my life back in order. A very demanding schedule of Doctor’s appointments and physical therapy along with keeping up with my business kept me pretty busy. It wasn’t until around December of that same year, that I heard from Delores again. Rebel was for sale. Delores sent me a flyer picturing Rebel being shown in a Halter class, not under saddle. The description told of all his accomplishments at the local shows, how many PAC credits he had earned and how many years of training he had. It said nothing about any APHA points or wins at APHA shows.

     What had happened with Rebel? Why would she sell the horse she was so devoted to? I was intrigued so I gave Delores a call. Delores went on and on about how great “Ms. B” was. How she had put so much work into Rebel and how great he had done at the new barn. Then Delores said- “Rebel just doesn’t have what it takes to make it at the APHA shows. He’s too flashy and small, so I’m selling him and buying a new horse. “Ms B” has a great horse for sale so I’m going to buy him once I sell Rebel.”

     Hmmmm…Sounds familiar. Kind of like what I told Delores over a year ago. Well of course I didn’t say anything about that to Delores. I just wished her well once again and hung up the phone.

     I knew from the beginning that “Ms. B” knew Rebel didn’t have what it takes to make it at APHA. She just told Delores what she wanted to hear so she could reel her in hook, line and sinker. After she collected many months of training, show, board and whatever other fees she could get out of Delores she finally dropped the bomb. Rebel couldn’t do it. Well the bomb probably dropped all by its self when Rebel didn’t do well at the APHA shows. But hey, it’s not a problem! “Ms. B” had another horse that would work just fine. Not only did “Ms B” collect all those training fees, she would also get sales commissions on both Rebel and the new horse! Not a bad payday!  

     Maybe it’s just me, but I think “Ms. B” lied to Delores just to make money. Of course, given my situation at the time, I couldn’t keep Rebel in training anyway. But this has happened with other clients as well. I give them an honest assessment of their horse/child/riding ability and they don’t like it. They take their business elsewhere. They go to someone who will tell them what they want to hear. It is never too long after they move that I hear they have sold their horse and purchased a new one, but they never admit it when it turns out that I was right. Am I mistaken in thinking that this seems wrong? Or am I just deluding myself?  Has honesty in business gone the way of the Dodo? Do you need to tell clients only what they want to hear or should they be told the truth?

     As frustrating as it can sometimes be, this is what I have decided to live by. If I have to lie to get or keep business then it’s time for me to shut the barn door and call it a day. I believe if a client prefers to hear lies instead of the truth, that isn’t the type of client I want at my barn. If a person accepts lies they will probably tell them also. I don’t want clients who lie, period. Plus, lies are just too dang hard to keep track of. Lying will trip you up sooner or later so, for me, it’s just not worth it.

     What do you think? Is it OK to “be creative” (i.e. lie) to a client if that is what they wanted to hear? Is honesty always the best policy? Or does the answer lie somewhere in between?

     Cheryl Rohnke Kronsberg is a Certified Horsemanship Association Master Instructor and Clinic Instructor. She is also a registered AQHA Professional Horseman. Cheryl has been teaching riding and horsemanship for over 30 years. Currently she and her husband own and operate CRK Training Stable in Yorba Linda, CA. We welcome your comments and questions. Please feel free to share this article with your friends, but rights to publish this article are restricted.





  1. Monique, You are also absolutely right! You do have to put things gently. If someone wants to spend the money and try anyway, you should stand behind that and still teach them to the best of your ability. Most schooling shows allow for an exhibitor to go to the show steward and ask to speak to the judge. It is wonderful if you can get your horse to some USEF rated shows and participate in what are called “opportunity” classes. Often times it is a way to test the waters without paying all the USEF fees, but still having the benefit of “A”, “AA” and “AAA” rated judges evaluate your mount and your riding. If you want to be judged on merit alone, do eventing! :o) You either knock those rails down or you don’t! Dressage, by large is much less subjective to your horse than western and hunter seat equitation. Can it do the movements required or not? Unfortunately, this is not so in other disciplines. Any really good trainer should be explaining these things tactfully to their students. There is always the option for people to find a large multi-dicipline facility and try other things to find what the horse and rider team is best suited for.

    Be tactful – YES, absolutely! However, tell the truth!

  2. Honesty is ALWAYS the best policy! I think this story sounds a little familiar to most trainers. I also believe that some people want the lie. However, no matter how much they want it, if you tell them what they want to hear, if you do it you compromise your integrity as a trainer and instructor when you are anything less but honest with your clients.

    Over the years, I have had times where noting but brutal, cold, hard honesty would do. At least Cheryl’s situation was only a money issue and not a safety issue! I have had to put ultimatums to my students and parents at times. An example would be having to tell parents that their child has to go back to jumping a lower height or back to cross rails after previously schooling over 2-3 ft courses. Sometimes students go through growth spurts and develop serious equitation issues or balance issues. I know sometimes that it it may seem to a parent that I am holding a child back, but safety is of the utmost importance to me. I prioritize equitation issues based on the safety of my students. It may seem crazy to other trainers to not be fixing those horribly bouncy hands, or that lower leg that swings away at the canter…. but usually there is something more serious to me than the issue that could cause a balance or safety problem.

    I have had students move on to other trainers because of situations like the above-described. I am sad to see them go, definitely miss the income, but retain my reputation. It usually is not long before you see a Facebook post or hear through the grapevine about a fall or injury. The same goes for horses. There are times when an issue comes up and you have to be honest with your students and parents about those issues. There are just some breeds and types that don’t make the cut at the bigger rated shows. While we wish that weren’t the case for the sake of a talented and dedicated team like Cheryl describes, there is not often anything we can do to change it.

    As a trainer and professional in an often times shady industry, I don’t want anyone to be able to say that I pushed them beyond their ability and got them seriously injured. I don’t want anyone to be able to say I was less than truthful with them about their horse or its potential and cost them money. My integrity is worth more to me in the long run. I think there is just no pleasing some people, and there will always be predatory trainers out there to which honesty and integrity fall much lower on the priority list than the almighty dollar. Sad but true! I firmly believe that if you maintain your integrity and hold yourself to a higher standard that, not only will your clients will appreciate it, but it will create a better quality of client that seeks out your establishment.

  3. Margaret Dick says:

    I believe the honesty is the best policy. She should have also checked websites and had visits with breeders on what it takes to be a winner in the ring. I can not believe she would sell a wonderful horse she was happy with just to have some one say in a ring he is a winner! There is much more to horses than ribbons and points. In todays world there are so many options and events to do with your horse and have a lot of fun.

  4. Hi Cheryl,

    It is a very fine balance what you can tell a horse owner and what not. Not that I am saying you should lie, but you need to phrase things carefully. I am an owner in a different discipline. I once had an instructor who told me he didn’t like my horse. I quickly had a new trainer. Not that I was offended, we all have different tastes and like different horses, but I needed someone who would believe we could progress, who liked training us. It may be different in the class this lady was interested in. There are those people who are gullible and unfortunately they will pay more money than needed as some trainers have an excellent nose for that. She will pay her price as she did.
    And the truth is subjective, so it should not be avoided, yet sometimes brought very gently. Such as: he is a great beautiful horse. I think he is too small, but if you wish to try, I will help and lets hope I have got it wrong. But don’t blame me if they find him too small.
    Nice article I really enjoyed reading it.

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