Getting the Job Done

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“But she (or he) seemed to be so nice.” These are words that you don’t want to be thinking when you show your former barn manager the barn door. It takes a lot more than being nice to fill this key position in your operation, says Seth Burgess of Alpine, Texas, founder of Equimax, an equine employment service.

The term “barn manager” is one of the broadest in the industry. The job has many parts, and those parts vary from barn to barn. You have to spell them out, for yourself as well as your manager. “The old saying, ‘Those who fail to plan, plan to fail’ applies here,” Burgess says, especially because most horse-industry employers are not experienced personnel managers.

Hide Your Feelings

Burgess has 20 years doing what you may need to do soon, and he doesn’t want you to stumble. First step: keep your emotions out of the decision. “Maybe you don’t like the job candidate’s e-mail address. One of our applicant’s [addresses] was ‘studchain,’” says Burgess, who adds it’s important to look past a superficial thing you might find unappealing. You want to look deeper, so don’t rush it. Talking on the phone to an applicant isn’t enough either, so even if you’re miserably short-handed, take time during the hiring process to meet your applicants.

Attitude is everything in this job, and it’s pretty tough to change attitudes, Burgess says. To uncover a candidate’s true being, he suggests, “assign a task, like sending you a cover letter and resume. You aren’t primarily interested in what it says, but in how they do it: Carefully? Thoughtfully? On time? Well-presented?” The way they treat the task will convey how they’ll perform on the job, he says. You might ask them to visit your Website and provide a written list of four suggestions to improve the site. Do they dash them off just to get it done? Not good.

A job description, Burgess says, ensures that you’re clear in your own mind on what you want your manager to do, and it makes it easy for you and the candidate to discuss the job. After the person is hired, you’ll have some standard by which to measure performance, and you can say, if necessary, without being the heavy: “Remember Item B is part of your job, and you need to work on it.”

Hire well, though, and you won’t have many of those conversations. A good manager sees him or herself as a provider of services, and should ask: “What problem does my employer need solved?” That’s what the candidate should latch on to in the interview—not pay, housing or benefits. “It’s part of being a true professional,” Burgess says.

Part of hiring well is learning as much as possible about the candidates on your short list. First, check references religiously. Ask each reference if there is anyone else you might speak to concerning the potential employee. This may help you delve deeper into a person’s background. Take the time to be sure that each person understands what the job entails, the hard work and the benefits.

Pay attention to your intuition. If you’re getting “red flags,” follow up until you are satisfied that the problems are imaginary or can be solved—or until you decide to avoid the candidate entirely. A few common red flags: the candidate cannot provide references, cannot provide social security number, is more interested in what you can do for him/her than what they can do for you, is defensive, domineering, or very uncomfortable during the interview.

For extra protection, when you select an employee, consider arranging a trial period of three to six weeks.

Many horse industry employers spend endless hours learning about horses, health care, breeding, racing, bloodlines, etc., but spend almost no time on being a good employer. “Knowing how to attract and keep good help is a crucial part of any successful business, and being a good employer does not come naturally to most people,” Burgess says. But you can always improve your hiring skills, as have the two savvy barn owners Burgess wants you to meet.

Lay it Out

It’s critical that your new barn manager “gets” the type of barn you run. If it’s breeding, the operation is “relatively simple, as long as you are in command and then it’s pretty predictable,” says Sue Bassin, owner of Cricket Hill Farm in Ancramdale, N.Y. At other farms, such as Cricket Hill, where dressage and jumping for eventers are the order of the day, the operation may be more complex.

So be clear about just what experience a candidate has had. “Everybody sounds like they have the same experience, i.e., ‘I did horse care, arranged for the vet, purchased supplies and feed.’ It makes a big difference whether you did that in a private breeding facility or a big public training and lesson barn,” says Bassin.

A second major consideration is barn size. A 70-horse breeding barn might be a less complex operation than a 40-horse training barn, and both applicants and owners need to grasp that before saying “I do.” Bassin warns that “a lot of people don’t know what they don’t know.” Will your manager be the “resident expert?” If so, make sure you hire someone with real, appropriate experience, because that person shouldn’t be learning the basics on the job.

That’s especially important if you can’t babysit. Candace Benyei of Whimsy Brook Farm Ltd. in Redding, Conn., says you should assess how much time you’re willing to put in, and whether you have the level of experience needed to train a barn manager if necessary.

That brings us back to the job description. For instance, Benyei’s a stickler for detail. She requires that her applicants know how to feed properly and accurately, and how to analyze protein content. They must comprehend the “ins and outs of tack and shoeing, too,” says Benyei, who’s raised registered American Quarter Horses for 36 years. She wants and needs to delegate tasks “to be completed in the way I want them accomplished.”

A veteran of hiring for her farm, she uses a five-page employment application, including a reference section and release for allowing her to check credit, school credentials and driving record. She’s learned how to identify holes in employment, and she asks that applications be filled out by hand. Also a psychotherapist, she does handwriting analysis to help weed out what she considers less than desirable candidates. “You’re looking for the character trait of honesty,” she says. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have a good working relationship. Listen very carefully to them, and if at any point you discover they’ve lied, that should be the end of it right there—no matter what their credentials are.”

Also high on her list is someone “who can build a team, not a lone ranger.” She also looks for “someone who has natural attention to detail, who keeps appropriate records and charts, and who’s observant if a horse is developing a hot spot or is chewing oddly.

“Horsekeeping is a science; we don’t operate on hunches,” she says. So she also looks for a barn manager who is scientifically savvy. Oh, and he or she should have riding ability, too.

She agrees with Burgess that rushing into a hire is never a good idea. “Two years doing the job yourself is better than having the wrong person,” she says. Hiring the wrong person “puts your facility and your animals, your pastures and you at risk. This is much too expensive a business” to do that, she says.

You can avoid big mistakes, and perhaps even find the ideal candidate, if you follow the simple, thorough, common-sense rules outlined here. “Be positive, expect the best of people, but investigate carefully,” Burgess says. “Hire your best choice, recognizing that there is no way to completely avoid potential problems.” If you’ve done your homework, though, chances are good that problems will be minimal.