I had a lengthy chat a few weeks with Debbie Hanson, creator of ratemyhorsepro.com, because I was working on a commentary about the equestrian ratings website for the March issue of the Horse Journal, the issue that's out now. Debbie explained to me why she established the slick website a year ago, with the goal of consumer education for horse owners, and I expressed to her my concerns, as both a professional horseman and as a journalist.
Many of the details of our conversation simply couldn?t fit on the single page allotted for my Horse Journal commentary, so I'm going to talk more about ratemyhorsepro.com?what it, or future similar sites, could mean to horse professionals and equine legal issues?in this week?s blog.
I'll begin by saying that I think their ?Equine Court? section is the best part of the site. Debbie told me that she wanted to provide horse people with a single place to go to read legal decisions from around the country involving horses, and it's a fabulous resource. I used it two weeks ago to write my Feb. 7 blog ?Judge?s Ruling In Eventing Lawsuit Affirms Personal Responsibility.?
You might think, because of this section, that Debbie is a lawyer, but sHe's not. She told me that she has a ?varied background? and has mostly worked in film and TV (but not as an actress). She does have first-hand equine legal experience, though, because she and her riding daughter were reprehensively defrauded by two ?trainers,? whom she then pursued legally for years. The case climaxed in 2006 with the ?trainers?? imprisonment.
?I've become a voice for the horse industry. I want to help protect horses, horse owners and horse professionals. And one of the things I've found is lack of knowledge by owners and trainers of the legal system,? she told me.
?The horse industry runs differently than any other, and it shouldn't have to fall under another category,? but there simply are few legal precedents for equine issues under standard contract law, she said. Equine cases usually don't fall easily under precedents for livestock or dealings between, say, lawyers or building contractors and consumers.
?that's how I got involved?I started lobbying for horse owners and pros, to protect both sides. You go before a judge, and the case often doesn't make sense to him or her, and they have to find a place to put it in the state?s statutes. There should be something that addresses that. I'm fighting for those types of things,? Debbie said.
Debbie insisted, ?One of our goals is educating consumers and facilitating the promotion of horse professionals who conduct business with integrity.?
But I have very serious concerns about any Internet rating system like this for, really, any type of professional. And my concern includes Angie?s List and Yelp. The ratings can be so easily skewed by one person who didn't get along with a professional, because of personality, who then embarks on a vendetta. While Debbie declined to tell me exactly how many professionals have profiles on ratemyhorsepro.com, she later told me that it was ?a few thousand.? When I looked at the section for trainers in Northern California, I found a relatively small sample of several dozen. And when I looked at the profiles of two colleagues I know well, a single person had rated each extremely negatively. In both cases, the only rating for each was a single, very negative rating, and the comments didn't describe the professionals I know.
Debbie assured me that their system prevents individuals from ?stacking? negative ratings against one pro?one person repeatedly filling out the survey. ?it's all built and designed around a revolutionary new tracking technology to eliminate ratings stacking and competitor espionage,? she said.
Consumers have to fill out an identification form and pay $5 to rate a pro or barn, and many people object to paying. But Debbie told me that it's not an identity check?it doesn't certify that you're the person you claim to be or make any other evaluation of you. It just tracks how you use the site, and it won?t let one person rate a pro multiple times or let pros rate other pros.
I asked Debbie what a professional, like my colleagues, could do if someone gave them a horrible review that they considered erroneous or unfounded or was the result of a personal conflict that had little or anything to do with horses. ?What especially struck me was that there was no phone number listed on the website?no way to pick up the phone and get someone to help you. She couldn?t explain the lack of phone number, but she said that if you filled out the ?Contact Us? page, someone would respond quickly, ?usually within 24 hours.?
Debbie added that they offer professionals a ?challenge review.? She said that if you contact them about a review, ?We will see what issues you have with a particular rating, and if it's unfairly done we will see what we can do to help you, especially if it's a legal case. We take it on a case by case basis.?
I then told her that I thought the tone of ratemyhorsepro.com was anti-professional, that the attitude seemed to be that we were all crooks and they were trying to stop us. For instance, I found no mention of the ?challenge review? on the site.
?We don't think we are anti-professional. That was not the concept of ratemyhorsepro.com,? Debbie said. ?I don't personally think that is how it's set up. We've put a lot of time into the ratings and the questions. It was very thought out. We're always open to suggestions as to how we can help promote the good folks of the industry.?
She added, ?Our goal is to be more pro-professional, to really promote the good folks in the industry, to give them some exposure.?
I would like to hope that this site can accomplish that goal, but I'm dubious about any online system based on people rating other people?s abilities or conduct, especially in the extremely passionate world of horses.