When you own a farm or are the primary care taker at a horse facility, one of the toughest things to do is to leave. I’m not talking selling the place, I’m talking a vacation or even a celebration day or two with family. Unless you have reliable staff that’s supporting day-to-day operations, finding someone you can trust to show up, do what you ask, and not create a problem is challenging. This is particularly difficult when you live in a remote area.
I spent 20 years running a horse farm at my residence. During that time, I’d be on pins and needles any time I took a trek out of state for holidays or business. It seemed whenever I returned, something was amiss. This included everything from water left on that flooded the barn – not easy to do as this was a BIG barn – to hired help that simply decided not to show up. It boggles the mind.
Things happen when you don’t expect it, so it pays to be ready with qualified help when you need it.
My biggest eye-opener was when I broke my leg. It was a bad break that had me hopping for three months. Less than a week into my recovery, the hired help came knocking on the door. One of my mares was being stubborn, she said. I hobbled out to the barn to find a nail lodged three inches into her hoof. It had been there for days. Apparently, a head bob to the floor didn’t cue her in something was off. It took the horse refusing to move to get her attention.
The mare survived. I figured out how to get down to the barn twice daily to and treat and wrap the wound. That incident, though, made me determined to never put me or my horses in that situation again.
So many of us who care for horses skip vacations, shun travel and assume we’ll always be there to manage the herd. Sometimes, life throws us things we don’t expect and can’t predict. It took almost losing a horse for me to realize I needed a better plan.
So how do you prepare for the unexpected? Better yet, can you create a situation that lets you enjoy holidays and other events without spending every moment away worried? Yes and no. You can never be certain things won’t go wrong while you’re gone. You’ll probably always wonder if your horses are ok in your absence. What you can do, though, is try to set things up ahead of time to reduce issues and stress.
Test drive horse help
The worst time to audition horse care support staff is when you’re not there or are incapacitated. Wondering what you’ll come back to makes any time away filled with angst. You can’t predict everything they may face, but you sure can get a read on whether your intended coverage has any horse sense. You can also get clear on what responsible means to them. This interpretation varies widely, especially with younger adults. It’s almost never what you’d expect.
Instead, consider paying someone at least weekly to first shadow you for training then do chores independently. There’s no guarantee here either, but at least they’ll know the horses, and visa versa, learned how you like to do things and demonstrated they can show up for more than one day in a row.
It can be really difficult to find help when you’re a distance from populated areas. Although my farm was only a ½ drive from a dense horse area, people seemed to feel 10 minutes was a haul. That made it tough to attract knowledgeable equestrians, no matter how much I was willing to pay. I eventually realized if I wanted reliable and happy help, I’d have to train them. Sometimes that’s better. It takes more time.
Consider the benefits of giving yourself a day off a week. Right, that never happens, but if your goal is to pay someone to handle most of the horse chores even just one day a week, you’ll be a lot better off when you need emergency coverage. The time and money you spend training them and keeping them loyal will be worth it. You’ll have more hours to handle neglected farm activities and reduced stress when you must leave the property.
Watch how they handle things when they think you’re not looking. That will tell you a lot about how they’ll perform when you’re away. If they have a good work ethic, some common sense, and a desire to do the right thing by the horse, this bodes well.
I had a window in my office where all the paddocks and pastures were visible to me but others couldn’t see inside. It was the second story of a garage. This helped a lot in assessing problem-solving skills and an employee’s nature. If you have a spot you can watch from that’s not visible to your help, you’ll be amazed at what you learn.
Listen to your horses
Horses are great at telling you when something doesn’t feel right. It’s funny, I used to walk into barns at the racetrack and could assess a trainer’s style immediately. That was a good thing because I was getting tossed onto a lot of horses I didn’t know. You could tell which barns pumped up the horses with hormones, which trainers were nervous and afraid of their equines, which shedrows had violent grooms and where the horse was included in the exercise decisions.
You have the advantage of knowing what’s normal for the horses at your barn. If they get anxious, aggressive or agitated when someone walks into the barn, listen. That’s not a good sign. Reconsider if the person you’ve chosen for help is a good fit for your stable care needs.
Guide with flexibility
No one’s ever going to be able to do things exactly the way you do. Sometimes, that’s an opportunity for you to learn too. People with experience have ideas and processes that may offer better approaches you hadn’t considered. Of course, people with experience also like to do things their way.
Training help with little or no horse experience gives you the opportunity to mold someone to do things the way you like them done. It takes a lot more time to work with a novice, but often the results are better.
Either way, it’s unlikely your barn and horses will look the same as when you do the work. That’s OK if horses are comfortable, happy and safe. If you get too focused on everyone doing things just like you, you’ll lose a lot of help and sleep. Realize people need some freedom to do a job the best way they see it.
Try to focus on and encourage the strengths of the staff you engage. You can comment on the items that frustrate you, but if you put heavy focus on this, you’ll discourage your help. Let them have some freedom to come up with solutions that work for them. You might be surprised at how impressive their effort becomes.
Finding help in remote areas
I’ve engaged everyone from neighbors to my vet in horse care coverage. Some worked out better than others.
I was very fortune to have an equine vet buy a property nearby after years of challenges with the local “go-to” vet for every kind of animal – jack of all trades, master or none – or needing to truck horses to facilities where knowledgeable professionals worked. That’s a rare stroke of luck, I realize, but sometimes there are opportunities to engage the very best available for affordable horse care. I was on the ready to help with her farm emergencies or care needs too.
You might be surprised, though, who is willing to be available if you only ask. Vets, blacksmiths, chiropractors and all sorts of other horse professionals you pay to help you keep your horses healthy and happy might be open to giving you coverage. If they’re horse lovers and owners, chances are they’ve had the same challenges finding someone they trust to jump in when they need help. That kind of quid pro quo can be priceless.
If your tact is to depend on neighbors, make sure you spend a good deal of time “educating” them before you call on their help for solo coverage. That mare with the nail in her hoof – that was missed by a neighbor who had owned horses and claimed to be an experienced caretaker.
Enjoy some time off
Finding the right help to give you comfort and ease while you’re away is invaluable. If you spend some time paying and preparing help to properly care for your while you’re away, you’ll find it’s worth it.
You really do need that occasional relief from farm chores. Whether that’s someone covering morning feeding and turnout or a week while you take that vacation you’ve been putting off for a decade or more, coming back refreshed will serve both you and your horses better.
Consider taking the time now to get someone in place that’s ready, willing and able to give you coverage before you need it. Whether it’s an emergency, family vacation, holiday retreat or just a day a week where you have an extra few hours to devote to things you’ve been neglecting, you’ll appreciate the break.
It takes some planning to be able to do this without angst. Done right, though, even if you’re in a remote area, it’s possible. Think about how much easier your life could be with someone on the ready you trust when you need horse coverage. Get ready before you need the help. Believe me, I’ve learned the hard way what happens when it’s done frantically. You don’t want to do that.