Going out of town for the holidays? Leaving your horse(s) in the hands of someone else’s care can be a bit daunting, after all NO-ONE looks after your horses quite like you do! With a bit of forethought and planning, you can be sure you’ve covered all your bases.
1) Have a user-friendly set-up
Over the years I have seen some of the most complicated facility designs, and elaborate feeding and management protocols. If you are enlisting the help of someone to come in to take care of your horse(s) in your absence (Hint: if you’re going out of town, you need to!), keep it as simple as possible for them. This greatly reduces a potential disaster from leaving a gate open or feeding the wrong feed to the wrong horse. This is especially important for any horses that may be on medications such as antibiotics, pain meds, Cushing’s meds, etc. The wrong meds, at the wrong time, to the wrong horse will not make for a happy Christmas!
2) Choose your caretaker wisely
Horses can get into the biggest pickle, quicker than a sneaky snog under the mistletoe, so it’s advisable to have someone out at least once, preferably twice, DAILY to check on them. Ideally, if they can house sit too, they can keep an eye out around the clock. Make sure you enlist a knowledgeable horse person, who knows the signs of good health, and can pick up on developing problem, such as colic. There are specialized pet sitting agencies that deal with horses, just be sure to get in quick as Christmas is a high demand season.
3) Feeding Schedule
Again, try to simplify this as much as possible. For horses that are fed concentrate feeds (grains/pellets/sweet feed/coarse mixes etc.), this will need to be reduced during periods of inactivity. Horses that are generally fed twice a day, that can only be fed once, should not have their feed ‘just doubled up”…if your vet sees this written on the feed room door, it is likely to result in a spike in blood pressure, and little sympathy on your emergency colic callout vet bill (based on a true story!).
Begin to reduce concentrate feed and increase forage about a week or so before you leave. Ideally horses should be on a predominantly forage based diet anyhow. If you are feeding supplemental concentrates, take a leaf out of the Pony Clubbers book….bag up each feed +/- medications for each horse. One Ziploc bag per horse, per feed, CLEARLY labelled, is a simple, foolproof way to ensure feed times are kept error free.
4) Feed Supply
Ensure there is enough hay in the barn +/- feed to get through holiday periods. NOW is the time to ensure you have enough feed to get you past New Year. As much as your feed/hay person appreciates your business, he/she doesn’t work the same shifts as Santa, & is likely to be using your hay money to fund his/her festive frivolities. As it is important to gradually change any feed sources, a last minute purchase of a ‘make-do’ feed or forage is not conducive to a Merry Christmas for your horse’s gut micro flora…. anyone ever spent the holidays with their vet :)?
5) Daily Routine
Horses are creatures of habit so try to keep their ‘holiday’ daily routine as close as possible to their normal day. The field is the ideal place for your horse(s) to be, particularly if they are not being ridden in your absence. (Remember, forage, movement and hanging out with their field buddies is for life, not just for Christmas!)
6) Ensure fresh water is available at all times.
Make sure there are plenty of clean water sources available….the creek running through the bottom of your property is not one of them! A daily check of water is as critical as someone putting their eyes and hands over your horse once a day. There have been numerous cases of wildlife getting stuck and drowning in water sources. Like us, decaying organic debris and resident amoebae are not a preferred beverage of the horse. Follow the rule: if you wouldn’t drink it, then don’t expect your horse to either!
Also, some horses love to play in water. As infuriating as it is to us (re: keeping the tub clean and full!) it’s part of their play ethogram (i.e. normal behavior), so be sure to considerate and aware of their playtime too, especially in the hot weather.
Don’t rely completely on automatic waters…they fubb up at the most inopportune moments…usually when your dressed up and ready to head out of the door…and they are not available in a ‘self-clean’ model!
7) Get the all clear
Make sure your horses have a clean bill of health before you leave. Perform any pending health procedures e.g. de-worming and vaccinations, a week or so before you go. This will ensure enough time to monitor for any possible reactions, and also allow your vet to give a clean bill of health for the holiday period.
8) Emergency/contact details
Clearly display contact and emergency details in an easily accessible place, preferably the barn aisle. Make sure you have the name and contact number of your vet and farrier (in case of emergency shoe removal, for example) and let the vet office know you will be out of town.
Your vet is entitled to holidays too, however, they are professionally (and legally) obligated to have someone on call for them in their absence, FOR THEIR EXISTING CLIENTS ONLY. If you ever get a message along the lines of “I’m currently out of town, if you have a veterinary emergency, please call back next Monday” …change your vet…seriously! (based on a true story!)
PLEASE make sure you have established a relationship with a vet BEFORE you need them, especially in an emergency situation. A cold emergency call over the holidays is not a conducive way of getting a vet out to see your horses.
9) Emergency plan
Planning for all eventualities is a responsible part of horse ownership, particularly if you live in areas prone to ‘festive’ weather, or in remote rural areas. Know your potential disasters e.g. floods, cyclones, tornados, etc, & make sure you have plan in place.
I strongly recommend ALL horse owners have an emergency treatment/euthanasia plan in place. Your vet should be aware of this, as should your designated caretaker. An example form can be seen here. Your vet office may also have their own forms too. Be sure to check and update before you leave.
10) Do a check of facilities week before and before leaving
Santa and his reindeers are likely to give the horses a bit of a start, so make sure all fences & facilities are secure and in good repair. Lock any external gates (the keys should be kept somewhere safe but accessible in case of emergency).
Now you’re all prepared, it’s time to enjoy the festivities with your family and friends!
Be sure to leave any more suggestions in the comments below and feel free to share with your fellow horsey holiday makers.