5 Hints for Hiring a Horse Sitter

Give careful consideration to your candidates to increase the odds of having a satisfactory outcome.

"Just because someone has been in horses a long time and has done lots of things with horses doesn't necessarily mean they will recognize a problem. I do self-care at a barn down the road. The barn owners bred and showed Morgans for well over 30 years, so you'd think they would know what they were doing with horses.

"Once I was out of town for a week, and the two barn owners took care of my two Thoroughbreds (Lucie and Levi). I came home to find my gelding with not one, but two bowed tendons, both fronts. He could barely walk. The people had no idea there was anything wrong, even though they led both horses in and out of the barn twice a day for grain. It appeared he'd been in that condition for quite some time because his hind legs were stocked up, which only happens if he hasn't been moving around for several days.

"Despite very descriptive notes printed out with bullets and important words bolded, things were left undone or done incorrectly or unsafely--gates closed but not locked, the feed door left wide open, Lucie getting Levi's grain and Levi getting Lucie's grain."

You don't have to search hard to find horror tales about horse sitters. Ask around at your boarding barn or on an Internet discussion board, and you'll hear about the sitter who didn't show up or quit midway through, who wouldn't walk into the stall or out into the pasture, who didn't muck the stall, groom the horse, or address the scratched leg, among other offenses.

Although you can never truly know how well a sitter will work out until they've completed the job, here are a few tips you can employ that can increase your chances of finding a responsible, reliable caretaker for your charges.

Screening Candidates

Seek someone with hands-on horse experience, whether it's for the care of a single backyard pasture ornament or for a string of show horses. Ask potential sitters about their horse experience. Do they own and care for their own horses? If so, for how long? What injuries or illnesses have they dealt with? If they currently own horses, visit their barn to see how their horses are doing and how the premises looks.

"It is very important that the people we hire have knowledge of horses and a good head on their shoulders," says Dwayne Knowles, owner of Broadmoor, a large breeding and training facility in Kutztown, Pa. "We really want the person to be a self-starter and self-thinker, to make decisions."

Can the candidate handle feeding and watering chores, turnout, grooming, hoof-picking, medicating? Can they halter and lead a horse safely in and out of the stall, bring a horse in from the pasture, and order feed and hay?

Most importantly, could they recognize and cope with an injured or ill horse, deal with emergency repairs, or handle some other crisis that might arise at the barn or property?

"Our horse sitter once had to deal with a downed cow in very inclement weather," recalls Virginia Preston of Blackthorne Farm in Nicholasville, Ky., and a member of the Board of Directors of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre. "She called a neighbor to help her, then the veterinarian, then covered the animal from the rain, sitting in the mud with it until help arrived."

Have candidates handle your horses, observing the things they'll be doing in your absence, such as feeding, haltering, leading, grooming, hoof-picking, retrieving from pasture, medicating, etc. The sitter should feel comfortable and display confidence, not be nervous or timid.

Advises Stacy Segal, equine protection specialist for the Humane Society of the United States, "Have them come over and spend a couple of hours handling the horse before you decide to hire them. It's important to see how the horse interacts with the person who's going to be caring for him. Horses are sensitive and definitely have preferences about who they like and don't like."

Inquire about the candidate's daily schedule. Will the person be able to invest the amount of time at your barn that you want? Is it an issue for you if they have a day job elsewhere that limits when they can be at your barn? Could they leave work or school, come back to the farm more often, or stay there longer in order to deal with the unexpected?

For Knowles, it's critical that a sitter is able to spend long hours at his busy barn. For others whose horses are normally left alone during the day, spending long stretches at the barn is not an issue.

"What's important is what the horse is used to," Segal says. "Horses thrive on routine--the times they are fed, how they're fed, going in and out. A horse used to seeing people walk through the barn a few times an hour would do better with somebody present on the property as much as possible. A horse that's used to only seeing someone show up twice a day to care for them would probably be fine without someone around most of the day."

Regardless, the sitter should check on the horses at least every eight hours, Segal states. "Most problems can be adequately addressed within that time frame. Beyond that, the risk is greater for not having a window in which to successfully treat an injury or medical issue."

Will the sitter perform tasks the way you want them to, or are they more interested in doing things the way it suits them? "Avoid those who, at the initial interview, suggest 'better' ways of managing your routine," warns Preston. "Or even worse, who cut you off with tales of how they handle their own animals."

Segal agrees: "Think twice about someone who challenges your judgment and protocol without any legitimate information to back it up."

Confirm your choice--if you can--by checking references. A neighbor, friend, or relative who looks after your horse might not do enough horse sitting to have references. But professional sitters or those who horse sit on the side should be able to provide some sources of independent feedback--clients, their own veterinarian, farrier, etc. "Call people whose animals they cared for," Segal suggests.

Did the sitter follow instructions, provide appropriate care, and handle problems responsibly? Was there anything the sitter did that the horse owner didn't care for?

Take-Home Message

Besides screening and carefully reviewing your candidates, pay attention to your instincts: "Our guts really do know when something is wrong," says Segal. "A person who has wonderful references and a lot of experience and knowledge still might not be the right person for your horse."

By giving careful consideration to your candidates, you'll increase the odds of taking a trip and having everything at home be cared for as if you were right there.

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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