Vacation? Yes, You Can!

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It’s 11p.m. on a Sunday night, and you’re still working. After a full week of training and lessons, followed by a weekend on the road showing, you’re now back at the home barn dealing with a colic emergency. Your muscles groan, your head aches, your nerves scream—and suddenly you find yourself yearning for a big stretch of uninhabited sand, where the biggest crisis in your life is deciding whether to dip into the surf or stay on your beach blanket. Then you snap back to reality, thinking, “A vacation? Me? No way. There’s just too much to do.”

Hold your horses—that’s not a smart thought pattern, says National Reining Horse Association trainer Roberta McCarty of Murrieta, Calif. Yes, you have responsibilities around the barn. (And McCarty knows all about them, with roughly 50 head of horses on her property, plus a full training, instruction and showing schedule.) But you are not indispensable. While that fact may sting your pride a bit, it also frees you up, because it means that, yes, you can take a vacation.

In fact, if you ask McCarty, it’s something you really need to do. “It’s not an easy job to get away from, but it’s important to do it,” she says. “The responsibility can get overwhelming, and if you don’t get away, you can just burn yourself out.”

Besides, you’re a hard-working professional who simply deserves some time off, adds hunter/jumper trainer and instructor Laurie Grayson, who works out of Table Mountain Ranch in Golden, Colorado. “Any regular job gives you two weeks of paid vacation.”

Here, McCarty and Grayson, plus boarding-barn owner Cheryl Breslin of St. Helens, Oregon, offer their been-there, done-that advice for taking your own vacation without letting your business unravel while you’re gone.

Helping Hands

First and foremost, says McCarty, “You can only take vacations if you have good help.” After all, these are the people who will be in charge of your barn while you’re gone—caring for the horses and grounds, dealing with emergencies and other problems, and working with your customers. That means you want reliable, responsible people who have hopefully worked with you for a substantial period of time. For instance, McCarty’s barn manager has been with her for 13 years, while her assistant has been there four years. “These are people who know my system, know the customers and know the horses,” she adds.

Breslin, whose facility houses nearly 30 horses, agrees that you have to employ trustworthy help if you want to take a worry-free vacation. While she has some regular staff, she’ll often turn to long-time boarders for extra help to cover chores when she’s away. In particular, she frequently selects boarders who belong to the local high school equestrian teams. Not only does she trust their horse knowledge, but, she adds, “They’re also backed up by parents that are very serious about this” and can give added assistance when necessary.

Another strategy that helps Breslin keep the work load under control is requiring all boarders (or a friend/family member) to visit their horse at least once a day, whether Breslin is vacationing or not.

Grayson has even fewer concerns when it comes to feeding, watering and mucking stalls, because her training and lesson horses are boarded at Table Mountain Ranch, where they’re cared for by the barn’s “fabulous crew,” she says. However, when Grayson is away, “The horses still need to get out of their stalls and get some exercise.” So she hires someone—usually one of her working students—to handle those tasks. Plus, her students often come out a few extra days during the week to ensure that their horses get the attention they need.

Just Schedule It

Even with the essential chores delegated, you may wonder how you could possibly carve time out from your schedule for something as seemingly frivolous as a vacation. For Breslin, who has no training, instruction or showing demands, it’s fairly easy to just pick a date and go. But McCarty and Grayson have more demanding timetables, so they plan well in advance.

Both women create schedules in January plotting out the shows they and their students expect to attend in the coming year. After that, figuring out where to ink-in some vacation time is fairly easy: “I just don’t go when we have a show,” sums up Grayson. Agrees McCarty, “I try to schedule it during the off season, which is after the NRHA Futurity [in late November] and before the spring shows—so, basically, in January!”

The holidays, in general, tend to be a good time of year for vacations, she continues, because so many clients are absorbed with other activities then and typically don’t spend as much time with their horses, anyway.

McCarty doesn’t restrict herself to winter breaks, though. She’s been known to schedule time off even during the height of show season—particularly for shorter getaways—if the timing is right. “I might schedule it after we’ve been to a couple of big shows, when everyone is burnt out and needs a break, and as long as we have at least five weeks before our next show,” she says.

Even with these scheduling guidelines, Grayson understands that, for an equine professional, “there is never a convenient time to be gone.” So she doesn’t rely solely on her own schedule, but also on those of her husband and two children. “It’s important that I spend time with them, so I do it when my family can,” she says.

Healthy Habits

Undoubtedly the welfare of the animals in your care is a major concern when you consider heading off for a retreat. Having good relationships with a competent veterinarian and farrier can go a long way toward ensuring your peace of mind, says Breslin. In addition, it’s always a good idea to follow the ages-old business advice and “get it in writing.”

Specifically, make sure your staff has access to written health-care information for every horse at your barn. This should include any ongoing health concerns and health care needs (i.e., daily medications, allergies, etc.). The instructions should also include updated insurance information (where applicable). And, the health form should note how much the owner (whether that’s you or a client) is willing to spend on veterinary care to save their horse’s life in an emergency. (Remember, if you’re on vacation, chances are you won’t be close enough to help out in person, so your employees and vet need enough information on-hand to quickly make the most appropriate decisions in case the owner can’t be reached in time.)

Beyond the basics of health care, you’ll also want to make sure the staff knows what to do with the horses, as far as training and exercise, while you’re gone. “I leave a very detailed list to let my assistants know what each horse needs,” says McCarty. “So when I get back to work, the horses are pretty much how I expect them.”

Finally, leave notes to ensure that creature comforts are also attended to. For instance, Grayson typically does her own blanketing. But when she’s going to be away, she temporarily adds her horses to the barn list, so the staff will handle the task, instead.

All the Details

Staff, schedules and horse care are the most important bases to cover when you’re planning a vacation. But there are lots of little details you’ll want to consider, too, like the following:

• Supplies. Make sure you have sufficient feed, supplements and bedding, so there’s no chance of running out of anything while you’re away. (McCarty also leaves some blank, signed checks with her assistant, just in case something extra is needed.)

• Payroll. If your staff will hit a payday while you’re on vacation, make sure you handle payroll tasks before you leave.

• Paperwork. Likewise, make sure other paperwork—show entries, utility bills, etc.—are taken care of before you head off.

• Phone numbers. You’ll gain immense peace of mind knowing your staff can contact you in an emergency. So leave your hotel and cell phone numbers behind, and keep your cell phone handy during your vacation, as McCarty and Grayson do. Breslin also makes sure that all boarders have each others’ phone numbers, increasing the network of helpers and facilitating the ability to find owners in an emergency.

Last but not least, be sure to give your clients advance notice of your vacation dates, so they can adapt their plans accordingly. Some of McCarty’s long-time lesson clients, for instance, plan to take their own breaks while she’s gone. Besides including your vacation time in the annual schedule, remind clients again about two months before you actually leave, recommend Grayson and McCarty.

You Deserve It!

It may seem like it takes a lot of work just to get away from work for a little while. And, says Grayson, that’s true. But if you follow her lead and tackle bits and pieces of the prep list over a two-month timeframe, it won’t feel so overwhelming. And you’ll be well on your way to taking the break you deserve—knowing that your barn and your business are well cared for while you’re gone.