Getting Away

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Turn to a farm sitter so you can take a break from your farm.

If the word vacation sounds funny to you, it's probably because you haven't had one in a while. When you have others’ horses in your care, leaving your farm in another person’s hands can be stressful. Short of cloning yourself, the best way to get away is to find a farm sitter: someone capable, trustworthy and full of experience to take charge of your farm.

Just as finding good employees is difficult, finding a good farm sitter might be even more so. Whereas an employee is most often working under your guidance, a farm sitter will be working in your absence. Think about those traits you look for in your employees: competence handling horses, basic farm-maintenance skills, stall-cleaning gusto, the ability to recognize and deal with emergencies. Now add to the list items essential for running an operation like yours: good communication skills, calm under pressure, the ability to prioritize tasks.

When undergoing a farm-sitter search, be sure your farm sitter knows what he's doing, but don't get hung up on the minute details of his experience. For example, knowing how to handle the horses on your farm is a no-brainer—if you have breeding mares and stallions, you don’t want someone who’s only worked with geldings. But unless you’re asking him to exercise horses, it's not necessary for your farm sitter to be versed in your breed or discipline.

Farm-sitter Hunt

It makes the most sense to hire someone you already know: a current employee, a client, the owner of a nearby farm or a trusted friend. Asking an acquaintance to take care of your place without absolute confidence in him is a mistake—you're not only risking your and your clients' horses but your relationship, as well. With the risk of temporarily hurting feelings, hire someone new to your farm if you don't already have an obvious farm sitter among your circle of friends.

References from fellow farm owners are the best place to start. A farm sitter who comes with high praise from someone in a situation similar to yours is a real find.

A classified ad on CraigsList.org, in the local newspaper or in the penny shopper can attract a lot of attention, but you’ll weed through responses from horse enthusiasts rather than experienced horse caretakers. Better local advertising options are on the feed- or tack-store bulletin board, at the saddle club showgrounds, at a local college with a riding program, or in the classifieds of your regional horse magazine. Use caution with the details in the ad, as you don't want everyone to know when you will be away from your farm.

Farm sitters don’t have to come from your area, either. There are people who make a living of farm sitting while traveling around the world. It offers them a place to stay and a small amount of income while they explore areas. Horses are horses, no matter what continent you’re on, after all. One publication dedicated solely to farm- and house-sitting gigs is The “Caretaker Gazette,” an email distribution list and bi-monthly newsletter.

No matter who you settle on, ask for references in line with your farm's situation. Of course no one is going to let you talk to a dissatisfied customer, but by asking targeted questions (How did farm sitter handle X situation? What was his attitude toward Y?), you can better gauge this farm sitter’s fit.

Set Up for Success

Stellar farm sitters do exist, and when you find one, use these guidelines to make the farm-sitting experience good for you both:

  • Have a trial day: If your potential farm sitter is local, hire him to work with you for a day (or more) so you can get to know his working style and he can get to know the lay of your land.
  • Stock the barn: Unless you’re willing to pay extra for it, don't expect the farm sitter to go to the feed store or accept a 3-ton hay delivery. Prepare the farm with the tools and supplies needed.
  • Make lists: Have one each for emergency numbers and client contacts; daily tasks broken down by morning, noon and night; feed rations; stall and paddock assignments with horse descriptions; your emergency-preparedness plan; and general reminders. Go over each list before you leave.
  • Discuss facilities and equipment: Many a frustration can be avoided by outlining a use policy for tractors, ATVs, farm trucks and other items that could be considered fun toys as well as a policy for visitors.
  • Agree on the details: Put in writing the length of farm-sitting agreement; amount, method and timing of payment; and work expectations. This doesn’t need to be formal, rather a clear communication tool. See sidebar for going rates.
  • Get everyone on board: Inform your clients of your upcoming absence and introduce them to your farm sitter, even if only by email, so they can become comfortable with the idea of you being away.
  • Have a backup plan. If the farm sitter experiences a personal emergency, know who is going to step in to take care of the farm until you get back.
  • Check in with your farm sitter. No one wants to feel like they’re not trusted, but there’s nothing wrong with checking in via email, telephone or Skype every day or two. It’s peace of mind for you and can help guide your farm sitter through the inevitable surprises.
  • Have realistic expectations: Someone new to your farm is not going to work at the same lightning speed that you do and may not use the same methods as you to get a job done. Discuss your priorities and expectations with him ahead of time.

Leaving your farm in the care of anyone else is a daunting prospect, but finding a good farm sitter can go a long way to helping you enjoy your time away.