I’ve just come back from a short vacation to Cape Cod. What helped me really enjoy this time away was that I found a horse sitter who has been taking excellent care of my horses when I travel. When you take care of your own horses, going on vacation poses a problem. While dogs can be boarded and cat sitters are relatively easy to find, that’s not always the case with horse sitters. I’ve found it difficult (and expensive) to find people who are reliable, trustworthy and capable.
I’ve had several less-than-ideal experiences during the 8 years that I’ve kept my horses at a co-op barn. When I’m out of town I like to hire someone to give them a good once-over daily and clean their stalls. In a pinch I’ll ask my barn mates or a friend, but I feel more comfortable hiring someone whom I have paid so that caring for my horses is a priority for them.
The first time I had a problem was when I was in Florida, on vacation with my family. I had hired a woman who had worked for me several times before. The vacation hadn’t started well: hours after we arrived, both kids came down with a stomach bug. The kicker came the next morning when I picked up a voice message from my horse sitter saying she wasn’t going to be showing up because I hadn’t confirmed before I left. This puzzled me. I had called her, arranged the dates, and left her a check and a full list of instructions, exactly as I had on all the previous times she’d worked for me. I called her back and groveled. She agreed to come in and feed and I crossed her off my list.
The next person I used enthused to me about her qualifications, her reliability and her horse handling skills. She charged top dollar and said she was worth it. Among other things, she promised that she would groom the horses daily and go over them carefully for scrapes and cuts. She came with a reference from a trainer that I knew and trusted, knew my vet, and she lived in my town so she would be close by.
The first time I used her, I came back and discovered that she had neglected to feed my horses according to my instructions. When I asked her about it, she said something along the lines of, I guess I didn’t read that part. Shame on me — that should have rung a lot of warning bells. My instruction sheet is clear and succinct.
But, I needed someone to watch my horses when my family and I went to England for two weeks, and I figured that if I went over the list carefully, it should be fine.
When the plane landed and I turned on my cell phone, I discovered that assumption was wrong. I had 12 voice messages that led me through the chronology of an injury to one of my geldings that had escalated in severity over the course of the calls. Despite the fact that I had left two contact numbers in England, I had received no call from her. A call to my vet revealed that much of the problem was due to negligence.
Despite her assurance that she would go over my horses daily, it turns out that for several days she had glanced at them in their stalls while she cleaned around them. After several days she discovered that one of my horses didn’t want to walk and when she pulled him out of his stall she found that one hind leg was grossly swollen. Even then, when she called the vet, she told the office that she thought it was just an infected insect bite, so they didn’t come until the next day.
When the vet arrived he found that my horse had been kicked in the stifle. It was a very deep cut that was now extremely infected and could no longer be stitched. The treatment included IV antibiotics, then two weeks of two kinds of IM antiobiotics, then 10 days of oral antibiotics. Yes, my horse recovered fully, and for that I am grateful. However, the $750 vet bill would have been significantly lower had she found the kick the day it happened and gotten treatment promptly. To add insult to injury, she charged me an additional fee for coming back an extra time each day to give the IM shots — and she wanted me to bring her the cash the day after I returned!
Here’s what I’ve learned from my experiences about finding and evaluating a horse sitter.
- Check references carefully and ask for several. Find out if the sitter has had to deal with an injury in the past and how they handled the situation.
- Evaluate how the horse sitter interacts with you. Do they ask good questions? Do they listen to your answers? Or do they spend the time talking about themselves and their experiences. You want someone who feels comfortable asking questions.
- Walk them through your feeding and turnout routine and watch how they handle your horse(s).
- Develop a detailed checklist of instructions and go through them line by line with the horse sitter. Don’t assume that just because you wrote it, they will read it.
- Contact your vet and let them know you will be away. Most vets ask for a letter of authorization to treat your horse in your absence. If you don’t have an account with the vet, it’s a good idea to leave them a credit card number.
- Be explicit about how your horse sitter should contact you and under what circumstances you want them to call. My errant sitter said she didn’t want to me to worry while I was on vacation, so she hadn’t called me. I would have preferred to be involved with my horse’s treatment. I certainly could have reduced the cost by ordering some of the antibiotics from a pharmacy instead of having the vet supply all of them.
- Try to find someone whose judgment you trust. Common sense is sometimes in short supply, but you need a person who can make a good decision when you’re not there.
- Pay a competitive rate. You want someone who feels valued for their time and experience.
- Ideally, you would like to find someone who is bonded and insured, but that is more difficult to find (at least in my area).
Then go and enjoy yourself. Most of the time, everything goes just as it should!