I’m a self confessed workaholic. We all know that – I spend my days off pressure washing the drive, or gardening, or any of the plethora of household tasks that need doing. I rarely sit down for more than an hour, and invariably get bored doing so. Unfortunately I think many other equestrians are guilty of the same trait.
After all, working with horses is a passion. You have to want to do it to ensure the early mornings, cold winter weather, weekend work and heartache. All of which invariably leads to us rarely taking days off, not having time to ourselves, and getting worn thin and losing enthusiasm for the job. Sometimes we beven resent the horses, which is the saddest part of all.
Last week I developed a cold. No biggie, didn’t even think about cancelling or taking the day off. Until Monday evening when I sneezed and coughed all evening. I didn’t feel any better on Tuesday morning so decided to juggle my Tuesday around; this meant that I lunged two horses instead of riding them, gave Otis the day off, and cancelled my evening lessons. It’s hard, but I’m learning as I grow older that it is better to have an easy day or two and knock any bugs on the head, instead of forging on and getting run down. I prioritised my evenings to consist of early nights and lots of rest and felt better by Wednesday, although I still have a lingering cough.
That’s the joy of being self-employed. You can juggle your workload if you’re under the weather. But when you’re sick you don’t get paid, which leads most of us to struggle on. Likewise, we have our reputation to uphold. No one wants an instructor who lets them down every other week. I felt guilty for a couple of days about cancelling those lessons on Tuesday, but I know it was the right thing to do because I wouldn’t be on top of my game, and my clients wouldn’t get value for money. Hopefully by now I’ve got a reputation of being very reliable so clients know there is something very wrong when I cancel.
Horse riding is a leisure activity, which means that horse owners expect to be able to have lessons out of work hours. Which can lead to us instructors working all the anti-social hours available. Things are changing though: more and more people are working shifts, flexi-time, working from home, or part time, which means that it is possible for us instructors to work more normal hours. It’s still important when you’re managing your diary to fix your working days; whether it’s five days a week or six, or one weekend day and one weekday off. By sticking to a set week pattern clients soon learn when you work so don’t request lessons on your days off – so you don’t have to have the awkward conversation about you not being available that day. You can also set the evenings that you work late, and the days that you finish early. Then you don’t get overloaded with work.
Personally, I think it’s important to have one weekend day off, so you don’t miss out on family get togethers, nights out etc. At the moment I’m in the lucky position that I don’t need to work weekends, being able to fill five days of the week with work, but I can change to work Saturdays if need be.
With the whole self-employed thing comes the holiday. Or lack of. We don’t have a holiday allowance like the employed, and it’s really hard to justify taking time off! I try to get around it by taking bank holidays off as normal. Then clients don’t expect me to be working. Over a year I get another half a dozen days off this way. The other way to justify taking time off is to actually do something, be it a long weekend away or a full week’s holiday. If I’m not at home I don’t feel guilty for not being at work. A client of mine said a refreshing thing last week when I told him I wasn’t working on Good Friday; “Of course you aren’t. I’m not working so I don’t expect you to work.”
Again, my advice with taking holiday, and I think I’m finally starting to get the balance; is to be firm with your diary and take opportunities to go away, even just to visit your parents, because telling someone you can’t teach them at 6.30pm on a Friday is far easier when you say you’re going to visit your parents and need to finish work by 5pm. They’ll find another free evening, and if they miss a lesson it’s not the end of the world.
Talking of this Easter weekend, I find hard to switch off. On Friday I had two clients doing an ODE. Both had had difficult journeys to get there and I was keen to know how they had got on. So whilst I tried to forget about horses, the girls were still on the back of my mind. Once I’d heard from them though, I didn’t need to hear about horses for the couple of days that we were away. It’s time to soak up some culture, have quality time with family, and forget about all things equine. After a couple of days away, I’m refreshed and have a fresh set of eyes to my work so am full of enthusiasm again.
I know a lot of other self employed people get into the same position. My farrier told me I was his favourite client as I didn’t text him over the weekend to tell him Otis had lost a shoe … I didn’t need to call in that favour this time, so left him alone until Monday morning. If I do need to contact other self employed people, I try to do it by email so they can ignore it until they’re next at work. I definitely wouldn’t expect a response from them until the next working day. This part comes from politely encouraging clients to respect your time off, and to have the willpower to set your phone to do not disturb and turn off your emails. It’s tough, but to get the right work-life balance, you need to have the strength of mind to isolate yourself from work. It’s hard to ignore client texts and emails; but very often they don’t need an immediate response, and clients don’t expect you to reply late in the evening. Just remember to run through all your messages when you’re next at work to reply to all which need a response!
I heard a sad thing a few weeks ago. A friend said she didn’t want to go and do her own horses after caring for other people’s horses all day. Hers were then a chore. The point when I don’t want to see Otis is the point I know my work-life balance is very out of kilta. I may not want to spend hours at the stables on a Sunday morning, but at the moment I still want to see his face! After all, he’s my best friend and the reason I pursued this career.
So yes, getting that work-life balance is so important. Yet so tricky to achieve. But taking frequent time outs, prioritising your time, walking away from work, talking non-horsey topics with non-horsey people (yes, they do exist!), and keeping special time for your special equine all helps balance life. Then you have a fresher approach to work; have more enthusiasm; have more energy, a positive frame of mind and a passion for the job, which means you perform better when riding and teaching. Which leaves happier clients and a greater sense of job satisfaction.