Planning a vacation for horse owners presents unique problems. Unlike cats and dogs that can be boarded at kennels, horses must often be left at home. For horses left at home while the owners are away, having someone to feed them and do the daily chores while you are gone is a must. Likewise, for horses that are kept at a boarding facility or out on pasture, having someone check on them offers peace of mind.
Where do you begin? How do you go about finding this ideal person? Start with existing networking sources in the horse industry: family, friends, trainers, riding schools, veterinarians tack and feed stores, internet, etc. If you know what you are looking for, all of these can be helpful.
The key question is: What should you look for? The answer is someone just like yourself, who will care for your horse as if it were their own. As you begin your search, first jot down what you do on a daily basis, what you feel is especially important and what you can do without.
Once you have established your needs, you are ready to begin your search. Make a list of basic questions to ask over the telephone. The objective is to gather enough information to decide if you should interview the person.
Interview people until you find someone with the required characteristics. Talk to other horse owners; do not hire the first person you interview; always check references. Make an informed decision. Afterward, work with the person for a few days to see if you are truly comfortable with him or her caring for you horse. Observe how the person handles your horse and the various responsibilities. Make special note of tardiness.
On the first day, walk through the routine, giving detailed instructions on exactly what you want done — feeding, watering, turn-out procedure, gates that should remain locked, locations of manure pile, amount of bedding etc. No matter how much you go over instructions verbally, always post written instructions as well. Discuss any special conditions. For example, if your horse is touchy about its ears, making it necessary to move cautiously when haltering, mention this.
In addition to written instructions, post emergency information on the barn bulletin board, feed room door or stall door. Include information on where you can be reached; name, address and telephone number of closest neighbor or friend; name and telephone number of your veterinarian, farrier, fire and police departments; and any other pertinent information. Let a few trusted neighbors know you will be gone, especially those who can view your horse from their home.
Leave plenty of quality feed and bedding. Have enough extra to last two weeks longer than you plan to be gone. Consider opening hay bales before leaving to be certain of the quality. Remember: Label your containers in bold, permanent ink. Clean all feed and water buckets before departing, and leave extras in case your horse decides to master the art of smashing feed pans while you are gone. Fill all water tubs and make sure the hoses are in good repair. This might be the time to consider purchasing an automatic waterer. If your getaway falls during the winter months, be certain your tank heater is working properly and that you have wrapped all pipes.
Before leaving, walk the grounds. Check the gate latches, sturdiness of the fences and make sure the fence charger is working properly. While walking the fence line, keep your eyes open for debris such as glass, wire, plastic or nails. Also, watch for large rocks and low-hanging tree branches.
In the barn, post “no smoking” signs, inspect all electrical cords and check the roof above the feed for any leaks. Stall walls should be smooth, solid, without gaps and nail-free. Check stall door latches. Lock office and tack room doors. Hang your horse’s halter (with name on it), lead line and blanket next to the stall. Request that, for safety reasons, the halter not be left on while your horse is stalled or turned out.
If you have two similar-looking horses, braid a section of mane and band it with a color that matches the horse’s halter. Go a step further and color coordinate everything from the paper used to post individual feeding instructions to buckets, blankets and labels for feed and halters. If you have a horse with special needs, it is extremely important for the caregiver to distinguish one from the other. In addition, horses will feel more comfortable if they are put in their own stalls.
In the event your horse is lost or stolen while away, have a packet prepared to help the police. Along with a few photos, include a complete description of your horse, and information on how you can be reached.
The barn sitter should be the person responsible for daily turn-outs. Make it perfectly clear that no one else is to handle your horse unless you have given permission.
The amount of work you put into finding your horse quality care will ultimately reflect on your peace of mind. You will return home invigorated, ready to ride and ready to face another 50 weeks of personally caring for your horse.