As most of you know, I have a regular barnsitting gig that is a great little occasional moneymaker for me. Last year, for example, it funded the majority of my horse showing. But besides being a nice extra income generator, I also really do genuinely enjoy it. Having been a working student for years, then a barn manager, I have never really minded stepping in as long as it’s worth my while financially. Plus the place I barnsit for is, in my opinion, a shining example of the perfect gig. Since I always see people looking for barnsitters, or conversely people looking to barnsit, I thought I’d weigh in with my opinion on a) what makes a good barnsitting gig, and b) how to be a good barnsitter.
What makes a good barnsitting gig
Make it as easy as possible
This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised. It’s as simple as making sure that there’s enough hay, shavings, feed, meds, supplements, etc to last through the entire time you’re gone. If it’s blanketing season, make sure the blankets are located in an obvious place for each horse. Make sure water troughs and buckets are clean and filled before you go. Make sure the trash has been taken out recently, etc. It’s a lot easier for someone to walk into an operation that is “up to date” than one that starts out with a lot of extra tasks that need to be done. It’s also really really nice to have a fully stocked fridge so that the barnsitter doesn’t have to think about where they’re going to get food/drinks while they’re there. The less there is to worry about, the more focused they can be on doing a good job.
As with any job, if you want to get and keep good people, you have to pay them what they’re worth. Besides the actual barn work, which can vary a lot depending on how many horses there are, don’t forget that this person will probably be driving a lot more, have to give up whatever else they do in their free time, and possibly even tailor their work schedule to take care of your place. Not to mention you have to take into consideration how much you’d be spending if you had to take all those horses/dogs/cats/etc elsewhere and board them while you were gone. If you want to get and keep a good barnsitter, pay them well. I have re-arranged horse show plans in the past to make myself available for barnsitting at my current gig, because making them a priority has always been worth my while.
Label things. Put things in obvious places. Make some blanketing charts and feed charts. If you have lots of different pastures, draw a little map so that there’s no guess work involved. Make sure there are vet and farrier numbers on hand. It’s better for things to be ridiculously obvious than require someone to guess or try to work from memory.
Don’t be afraid to get specific
I will not be offended if you leave me several pages of notes and instructions. Telling me things like “X horse lays down for long periods during the day. This is normal, don’t be concerned.” is fantastic. Want me to throw the hay in a certain part of the stall? No problem. Want me to put this particular horse’s hay in a net? Consider it done. Most people are more than happy to do things your way, and I personally am never offended to see a lot of notes. Leave an itinerary for your trip, how to reach you, and who else to call in case you can’t be reached. There’s no such thing as too much information.
What makes a good barnsitter
It’s as simple as showing up when you’re supposed to, where you’re supposed to, all the time. If you commit to the gig, you’re committed and that’s that. Unless you’ve got a major emergency or you’re dying, you have to show up. Ultimately what people are really paying you for is peace of mind, and the most important thing for them is to know that they can trust you and count on you. I think the worst thing you can do to a barn owner is to flake out on them and leave them floundering for good help at the last minute. Don’t be the guy that ruins someone’s vacation.
Do what you’re told…
You have to remember that at the end of the day, these aren’t your horses and it’s not your property. Take care of them the way you’re told to take care of them, not the way you want take care of them. If they say to dump the buckets daily, dump the buckets daily. If they say to blanket at a certain temp, blanket at a certain temp. If they say to give these meds, by god please give those meds. You’re there to make sure everyone is taken care of the way the owner wants them taken care of, so do what you’re told.
.. but still be a thinker
Besides just doing what you’re told, you also need to make sure you’re thinking about things and not just being an automaton. If you’re going to be gone all day and the forecast calls for heavy rain in the afternoon, leave the horses in. If there’s a hard freeze make sure that buckets and troughs aren’t frozen over and hoses/spigots are covered. If it’s buggy, make sure everyone is fly sprayed. If it’s muddy, make sure no one is missing shoes when they come in from turnout. If there are some kind of special circumstances (like New Years fireworks or a bad storm) make absolutely sure the horses are okay, even if it means being down in the barn at 1am. Give every horse a quick once-over when they come in from turnout to make sure they’re injury free. If the high temperature is just a hair over the upper limit requiring a blanket and you won’t be able to do a blanket change mid-day, put the horse in the blanket that is most appropriate for what the majority of the day will be like. Don’t turn the body clipped horse out naked on a 30 degree morning just because it’s supposed to reach 57 by 3pm. The barn owner won’t be very happy if her horse is shivering 6 hours a day and has regrown half it’s coat by the time they get back. These are all things that are just common sense if you take the time to think it through, but they’re the things that make the difference between a mediocre barnsitter and a good one.
If something comes up or you have a question, don’t be afraid to ask. As a general rule I try not to interrupt anyone’s vacation unless I think there’s a valid reason, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Also, before you leave the property for the final time, check the owners’ flight to make sure they aren’t delayed, or if they’re driving send a quick text and make sure they’re still on schedule.
Don’t leave a huge mess
While it’s fairly impossible to clean up behind yourself 100%, at least don’t leave a trail of mud through the house or leave blankets tossed haphazardly all over the barn. Try to remember to take your trash out, strip the linens, etc, and put things back to where you found them as closely as you can. Make sure the stalls are clean, shavings bags thrown away, the hose coiled, etc. Just basic “good houseguest” behavior that makes it easier for the barn owner when they get back, and makes them appreciate you a bit more.
Of course, I think the real key to a good barnsitting/barnsitter relationship is that both parties are able to enjoy it. A pleasant experience all around makes for a win-win.