A Burden Shared
Updated: Jan 31
“Come, Mr. Frodo!' he cried. 'I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you.”― J.R.R. Tolkien
There is no question about it, running a boarding facility is a 24 hour, 365 days a year job. If you don't want to burn out you will need to find someone to help carry the load. The problem with finding barn help is that caring for horses requires at least some basic horse knowledge and experience, and profit margins in horse businesses are so low that most people can’t afford to pay anything above minimum wage. This narrows the field down considerably, as the only type of person who would consider working very hard, for very long hours, and very little money is someone who is either crazy about horses or just plain crazy!
When employing help, there are two routes you can choose to follow. The first is to pay a part time or full-time groom or barn manager, the second is to hire a working student. If you are fortunate enough to find a student with the knowledge and experience you need - someone who is reliable and hardworking, and is prepared to work in exchange for lessons or board - you have found a treasure, treat them well!
Either way, it is important to set clearly defined expectations. Barn chores tend to be fluid and change with the seasons, however there are a basic list of responsibilities which remain constant year-round. Included in this list might be feeding, watering, mucking out stalls, blanketing in winter and putting on fly masks in summer, turning out, and keeping the barn tidy. Every barn owner has their own way of doing things. If you want your help to do work that meets your standards, you must be intentional about teaching them your methods and setting the bar high from week one.
I have employed a number of working students over the years and have found the process both rewarding and frustrating. I tend to be very particular about cleanliness (my stalls are cleaned twice a day), neatness (nothing is allowed to be left lying around, either in the barn aisle or in the paddocks), and sticking to a schedule (lunch at 12 means lunch at 12!). I have over 20 years of experience running a barn. There is a reason behind everything I do. I find it helps to explain those reasons as I am training a new student. If they understand the why, they are more likely to follow the how (and in case you were wondering about the why - I clean stalls twice a day to control flies; I don’t allow anything to be left lying around because horses don’t need an invitation to injure themselves - if they can they will; and I follow a strict schedule because horses thrive on routine).
I work full time and am away from the barn from 7am to 3pm. When I get home, I am usually busy either teaching lessons or training young horses. My schedule means that I must employ barn help to take care of lunch time and evening chores. A typical working (winter) day for us looks something like this:
· 5am I feed the horses.
· 6 to 7am I complete morning chores: Turning out the horses with appropriate attire (fly masks/turn out sheets, etc), filling outside water buckets, cleaning stalls, and tidying the barn aisles.
· 11am My barn help brings in the horses, feeds lunch, fills water buckets, and picks paddocks.
· 3 to 4pm – I teach lessons or work horses in training.
· 4:30pm My barn help begins evening chores: Picking out stalls, adding fresh shavings, checking and refilling water if necessary.
· 5pm – I feed horses and do a final check to make sure everyone is comfortable.
Make no mistake, working with a young person can be challenging. They are often easily distracted (think social media), and can procrastinate and take way longer to accomplish a task than they should (or forget to do it entirely). They are also prone to taking short cuts. With horses the small details matter, and sloppiness can have dire consequences. Forgetting to fill a water bucket, for example, can result in colic, which can result in losing a horse. No one wants that type of tragedy on their conscience!
Despite the challenges, the rewards and benefits to having a working student make it all worthwhile. My students have always been a huge blessing and I am fortunate to have never had a negative experience. Since I don’t have time to take care of the numerous farm chores that come up, part of my students’ responsibilities is to help my husband take care of facility maintenance. We assign these tasks as they come up and they might include anything - from working on fencing, or painting, to mowing and dragging the arenas. The barter system means that I don’t have to make a cash outlay which is good for my bottom line. An added benefit is that I get to mentor the next generation of young equestrians and teach them valuable horsemanship and life skills (organization, responsibility, work ethic, leadership, and attention to detail to name a few). In my book a win/win from wherever you stand!