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“We love horses, we like people, and we love what we do…”
Annet Becker Summerhill SudI recently came across this article written by Dan Rosenberg (ex Manager and President of Three Chimneys Farm near Midway, Ky). What was so interesting to me is how someone thousands of kilometers away from us, in a different environment, can put down exactly the thoughts and aspirations of any farm manager anywhere in the world.
It reads :
When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I told my riding coach that I was going to make my living with horses. She responded : “You have to be at least half crazy to do that, and it helps to be all the way crazy.
So, I became a farm manager, and to steal a lyric from an old Paul Simon song, I’m still crazy after all these years.
The title of farm manager covers a wide range of job duties. Many, if not most, farm managers are hands-on. I started out as manager of Three Chimneys Farm mucking stalls, grooming horses, wiping out snotty noses, and mowing in the evenings. Eventually, my job evolved into a desk job with stacks of paper, a keyboard at my fingertips, and a telephone headset at my ear. Whether you are a hands-on manager, a desk-bound manager, or all the job descriptions of farm manager that fall in between those two, it is literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for years and years and years.
Though we get to live in a gorgeous, calendar-perfect setting with scenes of gut-wrenching beauty, the job is anything but idyllic. It is a stressful job filled with frustration and pressure, disappointment and heartache. But we love it and would not do anything else. There is no question about it. We’re all at least half crazy. Here’s what we have to deal with.
Love of horses
The love of horses is what draws us to this career in the first place. As we all know, they are magnificent animals manifesting the qualities we so admire: courage, nobility, grace, and beauty. It has often been said that “there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
But we also know that horses are determined to self-destruct. Especially the good ones. And so it has also been said that no one with more than ten horses ever had a good day. They come into the barn three-legged lame with a foot abscess on the morning the owner or an agent is coming to see them. They colic during your child’s birthday party. They run through a fence in the middle of the night. They abort on Christmas morning. All in a day’s work for the manager.
As I went to my first management position, my mentor Lars la Cour told me on my last day working for him : “You’ll find out the horses are the easy part, and the people are the hard part.” Truer words were never spoken. Good communication skills and good people skills are essential.
Coach and teacher
A manager must be a coach, a teacher, a psychologist, a parent, and a policeman. We have to find good people to hire, teach them, motivate them, help them through personal crisis, counsel them, discipline them, and mold them into a team. Sometimes we drive each other crazy.
We have people who don’t show up for work, people who can’t follow simple instructions, people who can’t get along. We also have dedicated horsemen who show up when the roads are icy, who stay late waiting for the veterinarian to look at a sick foal, who work their tails off on those days when everything goes wrong. Working together under trying conditions, sharing the good and the bad, often leads to deep respect and close relationships.
It’s fun to call a client with good news. “Your mare is pregnant!” “Your mare has a beautiful new foal!” “Your mare’s two-year-old just broke his maiden first time out by ten lengths!” Calling a client with bad news is another part of the job. It happens more frequently, and it is never easy. We are never happy about the news ourselves. We care about these horses as much, or even more than the owner does.
We feel the loss of a pregnancy, an injury to a yearling, or the death of a horse as a personal loss, both emotionally and often financially. It is pretty tough to make that phone call, only to be beat up for something we already feel badly about and for something over which we had no control. But we feel even worse for the owner who is sympathetic for our loss and grateful for our efforts.
Over the course of years, we make many such calls, to share the joy and the sorrow. There are always some jerks, and another part of our job is to try and educate them. But we develop deep and lasting friendships with many. It’s one of the best parts of the job.
Talk about teamwork! Talk about sharing tough times and long hours! You’ve got to love your veterinarian.
Some decisions are clearly management decisions. Some decisions are clearly veterinary decisions. The gray areas in between can be contentious. We have a partnership and a “give and take” in making those hard calls that determine our success or failure and also lead to strong relationships.
The farrier also deserves a tip of the hat. A good farrier makes us look good, and a bad farrier can ruin us. We spend hours together in the heat and the cold discussing each foal and yearling. We need utmost confidence in each other.
The feed mill, the hay man, and the shipping company all work closely with us and can help make our jobs and our lives easier. So do the sales companies, agents, and trainers as well as contractors and vendors. Nurturing and managing those relationships is a big part of the job.
And of course we interact regularly with our colleagues and their staff. We live in a fishbowl. We compete against our friends, and everyone knows everyone’s business. But we work together to get our mares in foal. We celebrate each other’s triumphs and sympathize with each other’s bad luck. We commiserate about how tired and worn out we are and about our common problems. We work together in a crisis.
We endure oppressive heat, freezing cold, snow, ice, drought, and flooding, and we have those indescribably perfect days in April, May, September, October. We regularly experience accident, disease, and death. We also witness the hopes and dreams of a newborn foal or a first-time starter, and we have the thrill of seeing a group of yearlings race across a field.
We are used to the vagaries of nature from a lost pregnancy whether due to placentitis or mare reproductive loss syndrome, the disappointing foal from our best mare, the OCD lesion in the stifle found weeks before the sale.
From owners to grooms, we deal with unreasonable people, dishonest and unreliable people. Yet, from top to bottom, we find some of the most caring people and best friends in the world.
We practice “animal husbandry,” a term that unfortunately is not used much anymore. But I think it is a good term. We know our horses better than most people know their family members. We care not only for them, but we care deeply about them. We share in a thing of beauty. We share disappointments, and we share hopes and dreams with our friends.
The essence of a farm manager may be that we love horses, we like people, and we love what we do. Maybe we are not so crazy after all.