You'd really like to go away for a weekend like "normal" people do, but who will take care of your perfect horses? If we lived in a perfect world, your perfect clone would do it. But since the world isn't perfect, you have to hire a horse-sitter.
Hiring a horse-sitter is not an easy process. You want to find the best person to watch your horse while you're away, but where do you start? Your horse-sitter should be familiar with horses, and know their way around the horse barn.
Before You Go
• Detail the tasks you normally do and the time it takes you to do them.
• Write down important information-don't depend on verbal instructions.
• Ask a sitter for references, and pay your sitter for a trial run.
• Prepare your barn, and label stalls and equipment, so things run smoothly.
• Ask a friend to stop by or be on call, just in case the sitter needs help.
Defining the Details
The best place to start is with your routine. For two or three days, write out your schedule, including miscellaneous tasks. What do you do, in what order, and how long does it take you? You don't have to time each task, but notice that you headed out to the barn at 4:30 in the afternoon, and at 6:15 you closed the barn doors.
Next, note the little quirks about your farm and your animals. Think about the light switches that are hard to find, or the sprinklers that work on a timer. You'll want to alert your sitter that part of the driveway floods if you get a big rain, and that four deer live in the stand of trees by the big pasture. Don't forget that the neighbor's Rottweiler visits each afternoon and gets territorial about who enters the barn.
List the people who are likely to come onto the property, and what they are authorized to do. Who is allowed to ride, and can they take a horse off the property? Is anyone allowed to borrow a vehicle or trailer?
Write down the names and phone numbers of neighbors, helpful friends, the vet and farrier, along with a comment that the sitter might find important in case of emergency. Note that Martha doesn't get home until 7 most evenings, or that Bill will trailer a horse to the vet, if need be.
Next, write the information particular to each horse. It's probably easiest to give each horse his own sheet of paper. That way you can keep adding notes as you think about them. Begin with each horse's markings, so there's no getting confused about which bay horse you're referring to.
Written Info for the Horse Sitter
• Your name, home phone, cell phone, phone where you'll be staying.
• Dates that you want the horses cared for.
• Physical address and directions to the barn (in case they have to call for help).
• Names, phone numbers for vet, farrier, helpful friends and neighbors. Designate one as an alternate emergency number if you can't be reached.
• Who has an extra key, or where is it tucked away?
• Barn/property information. Where do you turn the water off if a pipe breaks, and who do you call?
• Codes for any gates or combination locks.
• Who is authorized to be on the property, use equipment, etc.
• Info about each animal on the property: where he sleeps, feeding instructions, feeding and turnout schedule, behavior quirks, etc.
• Blankets, rain sheets or fly sheets, and at what temperature do you want them off or on? Do you want the horses wearing them in the barn or just when turned out?
• Relevant neighborhood information (coyotes, kids on motorcycles, etc.).
Then note which stall belongs to each horse, and any individual quirks. Does it matter if Moose is first or last out of the pasture? Will he beat up on the other horses if you pay attention to them? Or will he get beaten up if you throw hay into the field? How do you normally get one horse out of the pasture without the others crowding the gate? You know whether you can lead two horses at the same time, and which two, but your sitter doesn't. So write down the specifics so that someone won't be hurt or stressed by learning the hard way.
You'll want to tell your sitter about any preferences regarding how your horses are handled or clothed-for instance, if Thumbelina gets aggressive when you're blanketing her, Terry goes bonkers if you put the fly mask with ears on him, or that Momo wants to be haltered from the side.
Of course, the feeding schedule is important. What do you feed each horse, in what order, and at what time? For instance, if you have a particular way that you want the feed soaked, explain it. One person's version of wetting down hay is to spray water into the bale, while another lets it soak in a muck bucket for an hour. Particularly note any feed limitations or allergies. Feeding grain to the foundered horse "by mistake" can be pretty serious.
Feeding order becomes extremely important if you'll be asking someone to feed horses that are turned out together. Even if the horses are individually stalled, if you always feed Stretch first so he doesn't kick down the barn, let your sitter know. If it's normal for Pokey to take all evening to eat his beet pulp, you'd better note it, or the sitter will worry that Pokey is off his feed.
Since stall cleaning is such an important part of knowing what's going on with a horse, write notes about your horse's habits. If the sitter finds Daisy's stall a mess and she knows that Daisy normally poops in one spot only, she'll be alerted that Daisy spent a restless night. Though your sitter should automatically check water buckets, better let her in on the secret that Rusty poops in his, so she doesn't just top it off.
Then there are the other animals. Few of us have only horses for a horse-sitter to care for. Write out feeding schedules and care instructions for your dogs, cats and any other animals your sitter may be responsible for. Be sure to note if any of them normally wander from the farm. You don't want her spending hours looking for a kitty who is often gone for days at a time.
Now that you have a detailed view of your operation, figure out what part is really important and where you're willing to compromise. Unless you're paying someone to stay at your place and be there full time, they won't be able to check on the horses as often as you do. For instance, maybe you'll forego them doing the 11 p.m. check. Figure what that may mean in terms of tasks you'll want the sitter to do at 6 p.m. Maybe you'll want each horse to have an extra bucket of water in his stall, since you normally top up buckets at 11.
Finally, determine how much time you expect someone to be at your farm. Take your schedule and nearly double it. It will take someone else longer to do your tasks, at least at the beginning. You have a feeding routine down pat, but she'll have to take the time to double check the names on each bucket-especially if there are distractions, like a dog dropping his ball at her feet.
Your To-Do List
• Write down your sitter's phone numbers, and also the numbers of others who know her and could reach her, such as her mom at home or her husband at work.
• Post your phone numbers, and those of the vet, farrier, fire department, helpful friend, prominently in the barn.
• Get in enough feed, supplements and medications, or leave specific instructions with the feed store and/or sitter.
• Label each feed. Put the appropriate "scoop" inside each feed bin.
• Set out a sample "flake," if you are feeding hay, and mark it as such. One man's flake might be another horse's feast.
• Get an extra key for the feed room/tack room made, just in case the sitter loses the original.
• Draw a map of the farm, so your sitter knows exactly where you mean when you say that the geldings get turned out in the "back" pasture.
• Label the stalls with the horse's name and description, and perhaps the feeding instructions. Write on duct tape or staple a 3" x 5" card to each door, if you don't have stall cards.
• Replace worn lead ropes that could break if put under tension, and be sure that every horse has a halter and lead.
• Put a copy of your instructions on the wall, and another copy in a notebook in the feed area (along with a pen). Ask the sitter to jot down anything that you should know about each day.
• Make a copy of your horse's Coggins or insurance papers-anything the sitter might need in an emergency.
• Tape over any switches that shouldn't be turned off or on, such as for a well pump.
• Assemble a few tools-hammer, pliers, fence cutters, and shovel-just in case.
• While you're at it, replace that burned-out light bulb in the feed room, since you want your sitter to see what she's doing.
Though you may think that all this detail is too much work, the sitters we've spoken with say their main frustration is the lack of detail provided. Owners often say, "Treat the horses like they're your own," but that's too ambiguous, leading to misunderstandings and hard feelings-even if the horses end up fine.
By now you know what you're going to ask someone to do, and you know how long it will take. Figure what you're willing to pay-something high enough that someone will take the job seriously, but that won't break your bank. Next, it's on to looking for the right sitter.
We can't tell you about the legalities involved-who is responsible if the sitter gets hurt or one of your horses hurts someone else on the sitter's watch. That's where hiring an insured or bonded pet sitter might be a good idea. You'll have to talk with your insurance company or attorney about those matters, so we'll stick to guidelines about the person and the activities.
In addition to thinking about friends, neighbors or professional sitters, you might consider the Pony Clubber down the road. Ask your vet, farrier or local trainer for recommendations. Vet techs or shoeing students often need extra money and might be good candidates. If you decide on having a teen feed for you, be sure to get her parent's permission, and an assurance that an adult is available to back her up.
Choose someone whom your instincts tell you is responsible. You'll want to know that person will show up and put their full attention on the job, and won't be talking nonstop on a cell phone while she feeds. You want someone with good powers of observation, because little changes in your horses or your farm are meaningful, especially if the person is only there a few minutes twice a day.
You want someone who is a good horse person, not someone who just needs the money. Riding skills aren't in question here, but horse-handling skills are, as is their horse sense. Not all riders make good horse-sitters.
Once you've zeroed in on someone to interview, your powers of observation have to kick in. Invite the potential sitter to your farm to meet you. Let's call her Liz. This first meeting is just to get acquainted, so don't expect her to learn your whole operation. That would send a signal that you are hiring her, when in fact, you are just considering her for the job.
Leaving Well Behaved Charges
Just like you wouldn't want to leave an unwitting babysitter with unruly children, you also shouldn't leave difficult horses with a horse-sitter. When you interview potential horse-sitters, make sure they have the skills necessary to handle the specific animals in your herd. For example, if you own a stallion or weanlings, you'll want to find someone who has experience handling breeding stock or young horses.
On the same vein, you also want your horses to have good manners and at least a foundation of training, especially if you expect your horse-sitter to do more than just throw hay at them. At the very least, your horses should be:
• Easy to catch
• Polite when a person enters and exits the stall or run
• Trained to lead and tie
• Safe to release into the pasture
• Respectful and non-aggressive toward people
It is not only unreasonable but ill-advised to expect a sitter to deal with horses who are prone to dangerous behaviors, such as nipping or kicking, so resolve any such problems before you leave home. Just remember, you're hiring a sitter, not a trainer. If there are any potential concerns, such as two horses who don't get along and can't be penned or stalled next to one another, give your horse-sitter a heads-up about the situation and outline the best way to avoid problems.
Watch how Liz drives in your driveway and how or where she parks. Did she show up on time? Does she greet your dogs or seem afraid of them? Does she stand in your way as you're trying to lead horses, or does she move around the barn easily, naturally offering to unlatch a gate as you approach it? Do you have the sense that Liz truly likes horses, and how do your horses respond to her?
Don't do all the talking. Instead, ask her open-ended questions, such as, "Tell me about your own horses." Ask for references. They don't have to be for horse-sitting jobs, but people that she's worked for or with in some capacity. After the interview, if you feel that she's someone you'd like to hire, call her references and ask them to tell you about their experience working with Liz.
If all goes well and you're ready to hire Liz, set up a time for her to learn the ropes. You'll need to pay her for this trial run, just as if you weren't there. Go over your instructions, and then step back, and let her do what she can. That will give you a chance to see what you might have forgotten to detail and give Liz a chance to demonstrate what she's comfortable doing. If you have a particular way of doing things, show her, especially when it comes to your preferred way of handling the horses. Be sure you discuss what Liz is allowed to do-what horses she may ride and under what conditions. Have her sign a release of liability form, even though you may not plan to have her ride.
Be sure to ask Liz the "what if" questions. Ask her how she'd recognize a colic situation, what she'd do if one of the horses was limping, and what would she do if there were a big problem with a fence? Ask if there's someone to back her up if she has an emergency. Finally, ask her if she'd be willing to come extra times or wait for the vet if a horse becomes ill.
Realize that no one is going to do things quite the way you do. You've already figured out what is important to you. Certainly matters like safety and carefulness are far more important than style. But at the end of the session, ask yourself if this is someone you can communicate with well and feel good about leaving your horses with.
If the answers are "yes," then program her number into your cell phone. Call her and have her program your number into her phone. Be sure you tell the sitter whether you want her to call for every little thing, or just the big things. She may not want to "bother" you, but you should assure her that you want to be bothered if she has any questions.
If you have a friend nearby, you might introduce her to Liz and mention that your friend will pop in while you're gone and that she's available if the sitter has any questions. Homework done, you can pack your bags.
Many sitters become like part of the family, getting attached to your horses and learning your farm routine. It's a relief to have someone who knows your animals and can help occasionally, even if you're not going away. Your horse-sitter can step in for special events, like graduation, a big football game, or when your family comes to town. You might even want to give yourself a day off once in a while to go shopping without worry about getting back in time to feed. As they say, "You're good to go!"