Relationship issues are universal. As a clinical counsellor who works with people from all walks of life, including equestrians, I frequently see individuals struggling in their connection with others. For equestrians, this could be with a barn mate, a trainer or an owner. Regardless, the one thing that barn drama, toxic workplaces and dysfunctional families all have in common is they are filled with personal boundary violations.

I have seen barns that are overflowing with boundary violations of all types, and each one hurts and chips away at the foundation of our relationships. Emotional or Relational Boundaries are the limit that defines us as separate
from someone else (Katherine, A. 1991 Boundaries). Boundaries can be physical, relational or emotional depending on the context. They are the guidelines that a person creates to interact with others in the world in ways that feel emotionally comfortable for them. Boundaries keep us safe and healthy in our relationships. They are not about trying to change other people. They are our emotional bottom line.

For example, going into someone’s tack box without their permission is a physical boundary violation. Making a barn mate feel guilty for not agreeing to ride your horse while you go on vacation is an example of a relational boundary violation. Being yelled at or subtly put down by your coach is an example of an emotional boundary violation. These violations are all intrusive, where one individual breeches another individual’s emotional boundary.

There can also be boundary violations that are mainly “distance” violations. For example, you and your trainer have developed a friendship over the years and you frequently socialize outside of your training. One day you have a minor disagreement and afterward, your trainer stops speaking to you (otherwise known as The Silent Treatment). This is a violation of distance because you had the expectation of a certain amount of intimacy based on the previous relationship. The silent treatment is a particularly brutal form of emotional blackmail, and very damaging to relationships.

As adults we all must learn how to navigate complex relationships with other people in every area of our lives.
In order to do this, we need to be able to define our own boundaries and ask others to respect them. It also means recognizing other people’s and not pushing or manipulating them into doing things for us or making comments that are unwelcome or hurtful.

In counselling, I teach clients the acronym FENCES to help them remember how to set good boundaries with others:

F – Forget
Forget about trying to control other people. Setting boundaries is about yourself and your mental health. It is setting a limit on what you will tolerate and deciding what you will do if your boundary is crossed. It is not trying to make someone do something.

Example: Letting your barn mate know that she is not welcome to use your tack when you are gone is a way
to state what behaviour you will tolerate and doesn’t try to force her to do something. It says what behaviour
you will accept.

E – Expect
Expect discomfort and anger when you first start setting new limits with others. If you haven’t practiced it before, it will feel foreign to you. If others get angry, remember that their anger says more about them than it does you. We all have the right to state how we wish to be treated. Not everyone is going to respect that though. Some people, who have poor boundaries of their own, will get angry when they cannot get what they want from us.

Example: You and your trainer are horse shopping together and you have told her that you have a budget. She continues to push you to try horses that are way out of your price range. You set a boundary by saying “I’m sorry, I just can’t afford that. There’s no point in trying that one.” If your trainer continues to push you, and gets angry, this lets you know she is probably only thinking of her needs at the time. In other words, your trainer has some issues of her own that have nothing to do with you. I frequently tell my clients: Reasonable people accept reasonable boundaries.

N – No
Use the word no and accept the word no. It’s simple and straightforward. If someone doesn’t accept it, then, typically, they have a hidden agenda and want to control you in some way. Whenever people ignore the word no, they are telling us that our feelings don’t matter to them. No should suffice for most reasonable people. Practice listening to other people’s nos. Most people find it hard to say no, so if they do, we really need to respect that.


Barn Mate: “You should use a curb bit
on him.”

You: “No, he goes just fine in this.”

Barn Mate: “Can you ride Fluffy for me this weekend?”

You: “No, sorry. Hope you find someone else.”

C – Clear
Be clear and concise when you set a boundary. Use simple language and don’t feel like you need to justify or explain your reasons.

Example: “I’m sorry. I am not able to drive you to the tack store.” That’s all you have to say. No explanation needed.

E – Escape
Escape from relationships with people who continually violate your boundaries. These types of people will not accept
no and will keep pushing for their own agenda. Limit your contact with these types. There are some types of people
in the world who do not understand or respect boundaries. You probably know a few.

Example: You know you have someone in your life like this when you continually feel fear, obligation or guilt (FOG) when you interact with them. Perhaps you’ve got a barn mate who always pushes you to do things you’re not comfortable with – like raising the jumps in the arena while you ride together in a relentless game of one-upmanship, or entering a show you’re not ready for.

S – Smile
Be polite and civil at all times. You can tell someone no while remaining calm and pleasant. Being rude or angry isn’t going to get your boundaries respected. It will only create nasty barn drama. So be nice. However, if the other person won’t take no for an answer, then you’ll have to get tougher (not meaner).

Example: No matter how insistent a person may be, all you have to say is “No, thanks. I don’t want to attend that show this summer” or “Sorry, I am short on time today and need to get this ride in. Let’s chat another time.” Smile, shrug and get on your horse!

If you didn’t grow up with healthy relationships and you need to learn about setting appropriate relational or emotional boundaries, a qualified therapist can help. Together you can uncover the gaps in your learning and practice better boundary setting with your barn family. You want the barn to be a safe space for you and your horse