Helping Hand: Finding a Farm Sitter

If you have horses at home, making travel plans can be complicated. If you have ties to a local boarding operation that you trust, some people will decide to board their horses while they are gone. If you lack that option, or your number of horses makes that cost prohibitive, your best option is usually hiring a farm sitter.

farm-sitterFarm sitters come in about every size and shape just like horses. You need to evaluate the level of care you need for your equine buddies. If your horses live outside, only need one feeding per day with no stall cleaning, and no special care, you may have need for a very different sort of farm sitter than someone with multiple stalled horses, multiple feedings a day, and/or have a special needs horse requiring special attention.

Finding farm sitters can be challenging – because while pet sitters are very common, most of them are not familiar with horses. The best way to find one is often word of mouth – because those sitters come with built-in references. Ask other horse people, vets, farriers, and local horse businesses. If you can't get a word of mouth recommendation, you can consider contacting local 4-H and Pony Clubs (they may have names of local graduates) or check the bulletin boards at the local tack and feed stores. You can also ask the staff at these stores – I found an excellent farm sitter working behind the counter at my local shop.

When you have a candidate or two lined up, invite them to come out and do a round of chores with you. Ask them to clean a stall, catch and lead a horse and help mix and distribute feed to determine their comfort level around your horses. This should be an educational experience for the potential sitter, where they learn how to do it your way, but it should also serve as an interview. Ask questions about their experience, what they would do in a given scenario and watch how they operate with the animals and what questions they asked.

I was once interviewing a farm sitter to watch over our three horses, all of whom get a few supplements in their dinner. The farm sitter said to me, "Why you giving them all that medicine, are they sick? I don't want to take care of horses that are sick. Can I not give them medicine if they aren't sick when I'm here?" This person was clearly comfortable and familiar with horses, but not with horses operating on the level of mine. I elected to go with a different sitter, one who was more familiar with horses that require a little more specialized care.

Good questions to ask a potential sitter include: What they would do if they found a horse with a big cut? What are the signs of a horse colic? What they would do if they had trouble catching a horse? What do they do (or did, if they are no longer personally involved) with their own horses? Obviously, if you have other animals such as dogs and cats they will be responsible for, be sure they are comfortable with those animals as well.

The final question to decide is whether you want the farm sitter to stay at your house/property, or to simply come once or twice a day to do chores and check on the animals. The choice is pretty much up to you and your comfort level and the availability of your sitter. I personally prefer to have them stay, unless the trip is only a day or two.

When you get ready to leave your property under the care of your sitter, make sure that you leave them "fully informed." I leave my sitters written feeding and care information, phone numbers for neighbors, vet, farrier, trainer, plumber and electrician, as well as numbers where I will be reachable while away. If your horses and farm are insured, make sure you leave all that information, as well as instructions on how to contact the insurance company should something go wrong.

I also like to have "consent to treat forms" on file with all my vets, as well as consent to euthanasia. Because my job means sometimes I'm in remote locations with limited cell service, or on lengthy plane flights, I want to make sure that my animals can be treated, and heaven forbid, put out of their suffering, should they be catastrophically injured, rather than have to wait and potentially suffer because I can't be reached. Discuss with your vet what they would require to ensure treatment and care in the event you can't be reached.

Make sure there are authorized payment terms in place with your feed supplier, vet, farrier or anyone else that might be of service in the event of an unplanned situation. Inform them there will be sitter responsible for the care of your animals for any extended amount of time so they are not surprised by the circumstances.

Finally, I would say that once you have a good farm sitter, make sure you treat them like pure gold – stock your fridge for them before you leave and pay them promptly. Make sure the compensation details are straightened out before you leave. Farm sitters are a wonderful resource and should be treated as such.