Warning: I am going to answer this in full so that you (and whoever is willing to read this) can understand my struggle with riding and how it has affected me today. Also, because it’s super important to learn to recognize signs of psychological abuse. Coaches/trainers are a huge part of our lives and they imprint on us.
AAES in Northern VA was my first real barn. I had learned to w/t and some canter on a friends pony in their backyard, previously, but it was very on and off, and I wanted consistency. I just started middle school and I wanted to get serious about riding.
When we went to check the AAES out, it was so beautifully deceptive: tons of stalls filled with all sorts of horses, a huge indoor arena, a fancy viewing room for parents, pictures of the trainer on the wall, etc. It’s supposed to be a dressage barn, and my mom thought that would be a good foundation for me, but we never really did dressage there.
It was required for new riders of AAES to go on the lunge line for 3 months (no matter if you just started or you you’ve been riding all your life. EVERYBODY. Mind you we never did no-stirrup or other balance exercises. Just regular riding in a tight circle) before being moved into a group lesson. For 2 whole years, I did w/t around the arena in a “follow the leader” type line assembly (except that we were told to be in a certain order, and that we could not pass each other. Sometimes we would have ponies in the front and big warmbloods in the back. Never made sense). Cantering was a privilege. We were in dressage saddles with long stirrups, not the best for beginners, and we always had to hold the reins at the buckle. If we even slightly picked up the reins, we would get a huge lecture about pulling on the horses face, being unfair to the horse, and being awful, careless riders. If you did it again after the lecture, you were immediately taken off the horse, no refund. Now imagine how spoiled and bratty these horses were, because we had no control over them as beginners. I had to ride this little mare that would lunge to bite other horses and I would get yelled at for letting her attack them or for pulling on the reins to prevent her from doing so. Also crops were completely out of the question, no matter what, and honestly some of those lesson horses needed them. They got away with everything. Spoiled rotten.
My mom had asked for jumping lessons because she wanted me to do something other than endless circles of w/t , so the trainer had her and other parents pay extra $, and all we ended up doing was trotting over poles. I trotted over a cross-rail twice out of 6 ”jumping” lessons (and mind you, all the horses have side-reins that the trainer would never take off. I hated those damn things. We had to tie them ourselves and she would check them before we mounted. I never got them right. Looking back, I think she always redid them to make us feel inferior).
Marina, the owner/head trainer, used to compete prix saint george. She’s from Germany, which is why we used to call her “the nazi” outside of the barn (and also because I had a sneaky feeling she was racist. She didn’t treat anybody well, but I always felt she was particularly harsh with me. I’m half indian btw). She taught most of our lessons, especially since she kept hiring and firing assistant trainers left and right. She never kept any employee for more than a month; she would fire them or they would quit. She was all about money and didn’t care about us. Sometimes we would have the odd lesson with a random assistant and their style of riding would be completely different, so we would get yelled at for using the inside rein to turn with the head trainer, even though it was perfectly fine with the assistant. Very confusing, and it was always our fault for not knowing better.
Us lesson kids were terrified of Marina…if we had problems tacking up (can’t find something, horse won’t take the bit, etc.) we would team up and help each other, because we knew that Marina would berate them if they asked her for help or if she found something wrong with the grooming/tack (which she always did anyways). She was demeaning and condescending. She was always composed. It was never “you stupid fuckin idiot why the hell do you even try?”, but just this cold, disappointed, “you will never be as good as me, or anything for that matter” attitude towards us. l don’t ever remember her complimenting me. The only positive thing I remember is that during a lesson, I told her I was going to miss my next lesson because my family was going skiing. She smiled and told me that skiing would make me a better rider. Thats it. Everything else was constant negativity, which was ironic since we were barely doing anything but w/t around the arena with loose reins. I especially remember her slogan, which was her saying “You’ll never be an olympic rider” with disdain every time I made a mistake. It was embarrassing when I went to France and my cousin who started riding later than me was a much better rider and mocked me. Trainers at the French camp thought it was ridiculous how little I could ride. I felt attacked on all fronts, nothing I did was right, and I never improved.
We were forced to attend weekly theory lessons, where we sat in this room and learned about anatomy/feed/dressage/etc. Marina, I swear she had a six sense, would always call on people when they clearly didn’t know the answer. The few times I raised my hand, I was never called. The many times I tried to avoid eye-contact because I didn’t know the answer, I was called on and humiliated.
We had these half-year assessments that she would make a big deal of. We started of with a color based on riding ability, and if you passed your assessment, you went up a color in ability. Those assessments were hell in 3 parts. 1st part was oral. You had to groom and tack up a horse while somebody asked questions about anatomy/breed. 2nd part was written, based on the theory classes. 3rd part was a dressage test. That was a joke, because none of us knew more than going around the arena and the occasional serpentine (and most of it was follow the leader). 60% was passing. Myself, and most others, would receive something just around 60-63%. AKA it was implied that we were useless shit and that we should be grateful/feel lucky that Marina pitied us enough to advance us.
The car ride home after a lesson was awful. All our parents carpooled, and it was awkward, because there was always someone who would cry on the way home. We all would comfort her or just stay silent, because quite frankly it was a usual occurrence. There was one girl, who was a bit on the chubby side but not extremely heavy, that Marina used to harass all the time. She would tell her that she couldn’t ride because she was hurting the horses’ backs. She would discuss a diet and exercise plan…all of this was said out loud in the middle of a group lesson. She would also tell parents how to raise there kids and point out flaws that weren’t even relevant to riding. Marina was an awful human being.
It came to the point where I was becoming very emotionally fragile. I hated being scolded. I just couldn’t answer her anymore, I didn’t know what to say. Instead of constantly apologizing, I just nodded my head or gave no response. Even during our rides, I would zone out (which was not hard to do since I was never line leader). It was to the point where she would be criticizing me and I wouldn’t notice for awhile until she asked a question and then I’d snap back to reality. Almost like a Dissociative disorder. Except that’s not what Marina thought of it. This woman had the nerve to go to my mother and tell her that she thought I should get “checked out,” because she believed that I was mentally retarded.
I have always been an honors/AP student, top of my class. And I consistently got the best scores on the theory part of her dumb assessments. That was when my mother and I planned on leaving. Except we couldn’t, because the contract we had signed at my very first lesson dictated that we stayed for 2 years. If we left early, we would have lost a lot of money. Several painful months later, the very day my contract ran out, I said quiet goodbyes to my fellow riders after my last lesson and left without a word to Marina. My mom emailed her later, saying that we were never returning. I have not encountered her since. I don’t know what I would do in that situation. My biggest fear is seeing her again and crumbling in front of her.
I was at another barn for half a year, but it didn’t work out, and now I’m at my 3rd barn, my forever home. I cried uncontrollably the first time my current trainer critiqued me, but it’s now been 4 years and she hasn’t given up on me.
I still feel very affected by what happened at AAES. I am very hesitant/cautious/passive; It’s hard for me to approach people and ask questions. I still zone out when I’m in uncomfortable situations. My riding stalled for a while, because of confidence issues. I was never scared of horses or falling, but of failure. Competing has been, and still is a process for me. I have yet to come out of the arena/course and feel like I did my best. I have thrown really embarrassing hissy fits and had panic attacks at shows because of my anxiety. But the main effect of my experience is that I am extremely intimidated by authority figures. Teachers, choral directors, coaches…I always want to please them (and my perfectionism will make me go above and beyond regardless of my health) but I feel like I can’t or its not good enough. I don’t know how to act around them. A bad grade destroys me. Getting reprimanded by a teacher, even for something like talking during class, leaves me feeling sick for a week. I can’t look them in the eyes. I’m still a bit weird with my current trainer, but she gets it. I don’t want to go to the Olympics, I never did. I’m happy just riding.
I definitely have gotten better from when I first left AAES, but it is still a process. I know people who still ride there…some sort of sick Stockholm syndrome. I don’t wish for anyone to go through what I did.
Don’t sign binding contracts. Looks are deceiving; fancy means nothing. Obviously this is a trainer’s livelihood, but if they care more about the $, you are wasting your time and resources. Trainers should be direct, but if you end up crying half of the time, it is not worth the pain. Your trainer is not God, they are not perfect, they are not always right, they do not know everything. If you feel stuck in your riding, move on to somewhere else. I could go on.
Sorry this was so long…I even took out bits to shorten it. I just have so much to say about this and so many individual examples as to why Marina Genn and her facility, AAES, is a complete nightmare.
Oh my gosh, I’m so glad you’re away from there.