The judgement-free zone

There’s a popular chain of health clubs called Planet Fitness. Their marketing slogan is that they are the “judgement free zone of gyms.” As we all know, health clubs are often filled with discrimination.  This could easily be an analogy for barns that board horses as they are usually full of judgement.

The clients range from all levels of knowledge, experience and attitude about their chosen breed of horse/style of riding/opinion of care and upkeep. They have lots of money or they are scarcely getting by; they ride the fiercely competitive show circuit or trail ride bareback through the woods. From the time I was old enough to sit astride a horse alone, I have been a barn client of one sort or another. At one point, I had my own barn and though it was private, there were a few friends who kept their horses with me on and off during those years.

The overriding demographic of boarders is women. Equestrian sports at the highest levels include many professional men but the norm is women who own horses. I don’t know why this is, perhaps women just relate better to the large creatures. Put a bunch of women together in a competitive environment and you will have snarking, bitchiness and hurt feelings. Even young girls at horseback-oriented summer camps have too much drama to chronicle in one blog post. The only barn I worked at that had no drama was the race track in Trinidad. I was the only woman among the grooms and riders.

To have found a barn where not only the care of the equines is exactly as I would have it; but the level of calm and comradery is high, is a little slice of heaven on earth. Hanni and I moved three horses to Mountain Lane farm in 2008 as Heather opened her doors to outsiders. Through the years, I have watched her grow a business, observed her daughters become astounding trainers and seen the number of her customers increase one hundred-fold. Somehow, with all the changes and expansion, the attitude has remained one of bliss. The animals, regardless of how unruly they arrive, settle into a groove of contentment. Some women have come and gone; not finding the fit they sought or perhaps they couldn’t find a welcome ear for their unhappy baggage, they never lasted long. Everyone respects the careful balance of competition vs. coöperation. We cheer each other on regardless of our chosen riding discipline. Dressage riders school alongside western pleasure aficionados. Impromptu bushwhacking trail rides or painting jump rails – everyone is welcomed, encouraged to join in and share.


I wrote about Lisa’s Ride last summer. Lisa was a boarder who died of a brain tumor and her last trail ride was a celebration. When it is time for a horse to “cross the rainbow bridge” there is a support system for the owner and a final resting place for their friend. Are there occasions when I wonder if Heather ever knew what she was getting into? Of course, it is a barn full of women and horses after all. From my perspective, these are few and short-lived.  This is truly a judgement free zone.



11 thoughts on “The judgement-free zone

  1. Amazing oxymoron…. a judgement free barn! Heather gets HUGE points for maintaining that atmosphere. Having spent a great deal of my professional life running large equestrian boarding facilities… it ain’t easy to keep the peace! Good for her! It should always be a place to escape, a sanctuary not only for the four leggedy beasties but for the humans as well. A place for the like minded to come together with other tribe members. Sounds like she has done it swimmingly…

  2. Any time you put more than one person (read woman) in a place, you have the opportunity for “snarking, bitchiness and hurt feelings” This is a universal truth from the dinner table to the gym to the barn. It can stem from feelings of entitlement or insecurity. I’m glad MLF doesn’t tend to draw or keep malcontents. It truly makes it a special place for the people (read ladies) and the horses.

  3. I took riding lessons for a year and a half in my early 50s. I was one of those who ‘didn’t last long’ but I was there long enough to have an inkling of recognition of what you’ve described here. Part of the reason I gave it up was because of the rude, bitchy, haughty attitude of both my instructor and her mother who owned the place. Was I a fast learner like the majority of her clients – those young, TINY, little girls who are (usually) so supple, lithe and limber and FEARLESS? In a word, no. Now I may be small and petite but that’s where the similarities ended.

    In any case, I’m glad I did it. Chalk that off my bucket list! And now on to the next challenge… 🙂

    Great photos, BTW, Martha!

  4. Great post! I love the picture of the horses! They look like they were put in those positions for the occasion. I don’t know much about horses, but I know fitness centers all too well, and a judgement free zone anywhere is welcome in my book!

  5. A place where all horse-types are welcomed? That’s so rare. Horses would definitely pick up and respond to the vines of their humans happy and getting along.
    (And that hill polka dotted with horse – all warm and sunning themselves peacefully. Quite a picture!)

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