horse during COVID-19

Until Monday, Thousand Hills Riding Stable owner Yvonne Bright said it was “business as usual” at her Delaplane farm. In fact, since COVID-19 closed schools and childcare facilities, leaving still-working parents at a loss for daytime childcare, Thousand Hills had seen an uptick in demand for lessons.

That may end if leisure activities are restricted.

Bright operates one of the few barns in the area offering lessons for young riders, starting at age 2. 

“Many of our families were already (feeling) isolated,” Bright said, noting that young kids enjoy their saddle time and parents relish socializing at the barn while their children ride. With Maryland on lockdown and Virginia possibly not far behind, Bright worries about the ripple effect. 

“It is hardest on the kids,” Bright said. “They don’t understand why they can’t hang out in the barn like they’ve always done. We have had to be strict about how many kids are here at one time.

“Making these adjustments has me reeling. Just like the school teachers, I miss all the kids running around laughing and making up games.”

With strict CDC and government guidelines minimizing or eliminating social contact to curb the pandemic, horse professionals and horse owners have scrambled to adjust. Competitions are on hold, and barns are curtailing activities to mitigate risk. But, as Bright stressed, horses still require care, so that part of her job hasn’t changed at all. “It can’t.”

“I don’t have to worry about a thing,” said New Baltimore horse owner Laurey Branner. In a normal week, she goes to the barn where she boards her horse three or four times a week to ride and socialize with other horse owner friends.

But, now, everything has changed.

“The state of the world is scary, but I know my barn owner has everything she needs to take care of my horse just like everything is normal. She packed in extra feed, and has plenty of hay. She just opened an extra pasture so there’s plenty of grass.

“I appreciate that’s one less thing for me to worry about with all this craziness. I miss the companionship of my barn family, though. Most of us ride as adults because it’s de-stressing. It’s fun to ride with your friends and hang out in the barn afterwards.”

Branner said while her barn hasn’t closed, per se, the manager schedules riders at different times of day. Riders are asked to only touch their own equipment – no more helping each other out. “It’s more fun to ride with my friends, but it would be so stressful not to get to see my horse at all,” Branner said.

Catlett dressage trainer Jennifer Mutchler has seen little change, something she attributes to mostly “teaching private, adult dressage lessons. We’re disappointed that show season is on hold, but honestly, I’m just as happy staying home training.”

Jean French adjusted her offerings at the Marriott trail stable near Hume. She’s open, on a limited basis. Riding provides “a break from the real world,” something French calls critical to mental health, especially important these days.

“I’m doing one-on-one lessons and private trail rides,” French said, using Lysol wipes to clean reins and saddle horns before and after. “Although these practices are cumbersome, they’re necessary to continue to offer our horses to the public.

“Taking out riders is essential to my business survival. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we can remain open for not only the benefit and sanity of our riders, but also for our horses.” 

Around the county

Changes in the foxhunting world are minimal, say industry insiders. “This time of year we sort of slow down anyway,” explained Jennifer Farrin, whose husband Steve took the horn at Old Dominion Hounds last fall. They chiefly operate the kennels alone, anyway, she added. “We started our hound show prep and will keep up with it, unless we hear the (May 17) Junior Hound Show and the (May 24) Virginia Foxhound Club show are called off.”

Windy Hollow Hunt huntsman Chris Burrowswood said “it’s business as usual. My wife and I walk out hounds every day, just us. But that’s normal, this time of year. It’s sort of off-season.”

Dr. Joe Davis has instituted procedures to keep staff, clients and animals safe at his Piedmont Equine, and their small animal clinic.

“Clients call from the parking lot, and we obtain a history from a safe social distance,” Davis said. “Then we bring the animal into the clinic to be examined.

“Emergencies continue to occur, and horses need their spring vaccinations, but most of our clientele are using this (unexpected) competition down time to focus on training.”

Dr. Joyce Harman’s holistic practice has changed, a little. “People are beginning to put off veterinary work that is not deemed critical or lifesaving,” Harman said. “Either from the desire to keep their farm isolated, or because they are losing money from … their jobs (closing).

“In this area, quite a few people are still working, just doing it differently and from home, and … many adults have a bit more time to ride. Competitions are (all) closed, so the pressure on the horses is less, at least for now,” she said.

Another facet of the horse industry that “can’t just stop,” is young horse training, said retired champion steeplechase jockey Jeff Murphy. He runs a breaking operation at historic Long Branch in Millwood. “I have all young thoroughbreds,” he said. “They need (early) education anyway, so my job stays the same. It has to be done – even with racing stopped for now, they need to be ready when it starts again.”

Virginia Point-to-Point Foundation president Don Yovanovich noted that “racing around the world is halted,” not just Virginia’s circuit. Seven of 10 Virginia spring steeplechases were canceled or postponed, said Yovanovich, along with every other type of horse competition. “This thing is bigger than us. This situation is very real and very serious.” The May 2 Kentucky Derby was moved to September, with the Preakness and Belmont Stakes also shifting to make the first autumn Triple Crown.

Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard considers himself lucky, getting practice runs in at the March 14 Warrenton Hunt Point-to-Point, the last public venue for a while, many fear.

“We have a lot of owners who have invested a lot of money that are not seeing any return since there’s no racing,” said Sheppard assistant Keri Brion. They are paying the day rate ($100 and up) on horses who are not racing and won’t race for quite awhile. It’s tough.

“We’re lucky to have a few big owners with the means to keep up on their training bills even now. But plenty struggle to pay, and by not paying, they’ll be hurting trainers, which starts the cycle of not being able to pay staff, and so on.”

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