A Way Forward in the Horse World

One of the popular memes going around right now for horse people is that daily life does not look much different pre or post COVID-19. It is just the norm that some professional and amateur riders spend most of their days alone with their horses riding and training anyway. Some have had a breather in their work schedules allowing extra time to spend with their horses and riding. With the Stay-at-Home order lifted this month, what does that mean for horse people? What do any kind of horse gatherings look like—in the near future at least? How do we do all that we can to promote the best possible outcome for continuing to have the “freedom” to take our horses to competitions and the other gatherings that we would typically be enjoying by now?

It doesn’t matter if we agree or not with all of the restrictions and protocols that we have been living with and the new ones that will be added. In order to do all we can to move forward and be able to start and sustain trail rides, competitions, rodeos, horse shows, gymkhanas, events and more, we just have to do our absolute best to follow the protocols.

Equestrian Sports Productions President Michael Stone stated, “The most important thing we have to realize is we just have one chance to get it right,” he said. “When we kick off, we have to do it correctly.”

The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) is the major governing body over many disciplines including Olympic disciplines and will have mandatory and recommended best practices outlined in the USEF COVID-19 action plan. While many of our local competitions are not at this level, the USEF has put a lot of thought into the plan and it is a way for many of us to move forward within our disciplines, even if it is trail riding, as there is excellent protocol to follow. Some of the key elements of the plan include risk assessment, temperature monitoring of volunteers, officials and staff (upon arrival), social distancing, banning spectators from competitions, limiting the number of entrances and exits, requiring all entries to be completed online, and using posted orders of go and published ride times to prevent groups from accumulating at the arenas. Participants will have to sign a revised waiver and release of liability and assumption of risk and indemnity agreement. Not to mention, individuals can be removed from the grounds for failing to adhere to the requirements by the organization or officials.

Some other ideas for competitions are text messaging apps to send out a mass text in case of a storm, where it could be recommended that people shelter in their cars rather than the barns or public areas. In addition, final scores, placings and scoresheets could also be delivered via text or email. Larger horse events plan to build in buffers, like an empty stall, between participants, not to mention foregoing any kind of parties or gatherings.

USEF team physician Dr. Mark Hart addressed the most basic question of all: Is it even safe to consider going back to competitions? His answer: yes and no. “Equestrian sports are inherently safer than some other sports because we don’t have contact with other people,” he said. “In equestrian sports—barring a couple of our disciplines such as vaulting and para—we can maintain social distancing. Do we overwhelm a local medical system with our sport? We’re not showing that we’re impacting the local medical providers that way.”

It boils down to personal responsibility and remembering the big picture. We are blessed and fortunate to be spending time with our horses and friends by now. We may be enjoying a beautiful sunny day in Colorado, while other parts of the world are under tremendous stress. We need to be sensitive to that so that we are not a burden or we don’t hurt our “new freedoms.” Horse people are already used to putting others first as we strive to put our horses needs above our own. On a practical level, good practices should begin at home, at the barn, and continue at the horse event of whatever kind.

As John Madden stated about his own barn at the onset of COVID-19, “We’re already wearing masks, social distancing, cleaning things,” he said. “It’s important to develop good habits of disinfecting. Go through your day and think about what happens. Who’s going to feed the horses? Who’s opening the stall door? Where will I put disinfecting devices? Are we going to keep the air moving in different places? Do I need to buy extra equipment so I can keep everything separate?”

A life of solitude and horses sounds pretty ideal most of the time, but every now and then, it is good to get together with our horse friends or work on our riding and competition goals to make us better for our horses. So, strap on those masks, hand sanitizer in tow, 6 feet apart and stay home if you are sick, horse folks, and help escort this renegade virus out of town. Of course, don’t forget to wash your hands!

COVID-19 action plan and waiver is available on the USEF website, as well as many other resources: usef.org/media/coronavirus-resources.

Heather McWilliams ©2020