My father used to be of the opinion that one could either own horses or one could travel, but never both. My mother, on the other hand, had a spirit of adventure, and was unlikely to give up her travel goals just because we owned horses. I fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. I am of the opinion that in order to be a responsible horse owner, it's important to make some sacrifices in order to be present and active in your horses' lives and daily care. However, I don't think that horse ownership should automatically mean that you have to give up entirely every other passion you have. When possible, I am a big advocate of combining one's hobbies to make them even more fulfilling, but that is a topic for another day.
Obviously, not every trip you take will be one that you can take your horses on, too. So, how can you leave your beloved equines for more than a night or two without letting worry completely ruining your vacation? To answer that question, I have compiled the following tips about what preparations you should make in order to ensure that your horses will be well-cared for during your absence, allowing you to fully enjoy your time away.
1. The first and most important thing to have in place before you leave is a trusted and knowledgeable person who can provide your horses with their basic needs while you are away. Depending on your situation, this could be very easy or quite difficult. For example, if you board your horse at a full-care facility that has an attentive and expert barn management with someone keeping an eye on your horse day and night already, it will be fairly easy to get away without worrying that your horse's routine will be interrupted too severely.
If you keep your horse at home or at a self-care facility where you provide for all of your horse's daily needs, you will have to find someone who is willing and able to feed, water, muck, and exercise your animal in your absence. Ideally, this will be someone who is already familiar with your standard of care and your horse's routine who can step in and take over horsekeeping for you without much instruction. This person may be a horse-savvy friend or family member, another boarder at your facility, a neighbor, your trainer or instructor or another trusted professional.
In the event that no one who already knows your horse is available to step in for you, you may need to hire a professional specifically for this purpose. Of course, be diligent in your selection process--check reviews, ask questions, talk to previous clients of the professional or find out who other acquaintances that share your standard of care have used in the past.
Expect to pay your horse-care person appropriately, even if it is just a friend or a fellow boarder. You don't want to leave them feeling shorted in case you need their services again in the future. It's much easier to ask someone who's already handled your horse's care before to step in again than to have to train a new person to do it every time you leave.
No matter whom you entrust your horse to, make sure that you arrange everything as far in advance as possible, including the exact dates that you'll be gone and how much you will pay them for their service. Make sure that it is clear who will take care of the horses on your actual days of travel. For example, will you be able to feed the morning of your departure or the evening of your return, or are they expected to do so? Also, make sure that they can come at least once (but preferably more) while you are still there so that they can not only observe, but actually perform the job they will need to do when you are gone. This will ensure that they are comfortable doing everything that you'll need them to do and that you are available to answer any questions they may have. These early visits are the time to let your horse-care person know any quirks your horses may have or any particular way they need to be handled for everyone's comfort and safety, and also to make sure that they know where everything is and that they have the keys or lock-codes to access everything.
2. Write up detailed and clear instructions well in advance of your departure, and to make sure you didn't miss anything, try to follow your own instructions once as if you didn't know anything of your horses or barn. Present these written instructions to your horse-care person during their visit(s) prior to your absence and read through them. Make sure that your horse-care person understands everything you've written and gets all of their questions answered. Make sure you provide them with your written instructions in several different locations and formats, e.g. email, a printed-out version in your feed or tack room, and leave one copy with a third party as back-up. While this may seem redundant, you don't want to leave anything with your horse's care to chance, and having everything in writing is a good way to make sure everyone has the same understanding of how things will work in your absence.
On this same document, be sure to include all of the ways to contact you should a question arise or a problem occur. If you're traveling domestically, keeping in touch should be as easy as providing your cell number, with instructions on whether phone calls or texts are the most convenient. If you are leaving the country and your phone doesn't have international capabilities, then you may have to leave an email address and just pledge to check your email at least once daily during your absence. If you will be traveling with someone it may be a good idea to provide that person's number as well, in case your phone happens to die or get lost or stolen. Just make sure you have more than one method to get in touch in case of an emergency while you're away.
3. Set up a back-up horse-care person, even one who is maybe not as comfortable doing everything needed, but can throw hay or fill a water bucket in a pinch. Make sure that both of your horse-care people have each other's contact information and are aware of one another's limitations and schedules, and make sure that they both have consistent and accurate information regarding your horse's needs.
4. Compile a list of contact information of the professionals in your horse's life in case of an unexpected need or emergency. This will include your farrier, your vet or vets, your chiropractor or body worker, your equine dentist, your trainer, your horse's insurance company (if he is insured), and anyone else you deem necessary for your horse's care.
Make sure that all of these professionals know that you will be gone and that your horse-care person is authorized to request services on your behalf. Set up billing arrangements and delineate budget restrictions in advance so that your horse-care person isn't expected to pay at the time of the service. You don't want their budget to determine what emergency care your horse can receive while you're gone, nor do you want an unexpectedly large bill upon your return.
When setting these arrangements up with your vet, he or she will also want to know if your horse is a surgical candidate in case of a colic that requires it. This is decision that you should have already at least pondered as a horse owner, and the answer is very subjective, so discuss it with your vet in advance if you haven't already.
As uncomfortable as this discussion may be, it's important to authorize someone to make a decision on euthanasia in the event that it is required to prevent suffering and you cannot be reached. As unlikely as it may be to need someone to make this decision on your behalf, it's still extremely important to set it up; you don't want your horse suffering in extreme pain with a twisted gut, for example, without someone being authorized to end his pain. Most vets will require such authorization in writing, although an email may suffice.
5. The day before your departure, be sure to touch base with your horse-care person in case they have any last minute questions and to ensure that they have all the necessary contact information, instructions, and that they are clear on your dates of travel. Even if I have given my horse-sitter the date of my return, I always instruct them to assume that they are to continue taking care of my horses until I contact them to let them know I have returned and will be taking over again. This is to ensure that there is no lapse in my horses' care should there be a delay in my return travel and I am not able to reach my horse-sitter in a timely fashion.
Lastly, make sure your horse-care person has the contact information of your next of kin or whoever will be responsible for your estate should the unthinkable happen and you never make it home from your trip.
Once you are on your way, you will be able to rest easy and enjoy your vacation knowing that you have arranged for the very best care for your horse and covered all of your bases. Don't forget to call your horse-sitter once or twice during your absence just to check in, and most important, don't forget a gift for the one disrupting their life to take the best care of your equine buddy. Bon voyage!