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Saturday, 28 March 2020

OPINION: Equestrian Life During Covid-19

First up, this is my opinion. I do not expect everyone to agree, wholly or partly, with it, and I do not criticise, berate, thinking negative, or anything similar, to those who have a different opinion to my own. Secondly, this was written between 26th & 28th March, so any reference to restrictions, advice or recommendations, be will reflective of what was correct at that point in time. I don’t intend to keep the post up to date retrospectively. Finally, this is my thoughts of Covid-19 in the equestrian world – it is not my opinion on the way in which any authority has acted, decisions that have been taken at a national level, nor does it represent my professional views or views of my employer. That’s critical to consider, given I work in a very heavily affected travel sector…

So, with a deep breath, here we go…
Towards the middle of January, I heard rumbling of a flu-like virus sweeping China, causing high numbers of people to take ill and with a low percentage sadly losing their life. It was a relatively low level of public concern, and there were a few memes kicking about that reference the popular beer, Corona… Soon after, travel in & around the epicentre of the outbreak (Wuhan) was “locked down” – not transport in or out of the city. It sounded outrageous to some. Next came the quarantines of those travelling from affected areas, and very quickly after came airline commercial decisions to suspend flights to/from China, with rescue flights reported at scale in the press.

Flash forward four or five weeks later. That same story was unfolding in Italy, and slowly seeping out into other countries across Europe, including the UK. In what seemed like a matter of moment, there were severe travel restrictions and social distancing measures became a thing of how to go about life. On the 17th March, our UK Prime Minister gave his recommendation to stay home to save lives, and soon after came the lockdown of pretty much everything.

And that’s when the equestrian world began to really feel the effects. Most affiliated and governing bodies had already postponed competitions and group training events, but the reality for many was starting to become clear – looking after livestock (including horses) was an essential action & riding is to be a carefully considered individual choice.

A quick scan of social media showed varying degrees of how this was being interpreted. There are some yards that are completely shut down, with a small group of staff looking after all horses, others remain open, operating strict social distancing and a timetabled approach to people coming to the yard. The yard when I stable Louie is the latter – open with essential visits and strict social distancing & sanitising in place.

I am very fortunate that the yard is still open – horses give most of us a little oasis in a world of chaos (& that’s before Covid-19 came to visit). I am under no misillusion that horses are a luxury and that some key essential workers aren’t even able to see their families right now, in fact, none of us are when we live separately. However, it would be unrealistic to ask two people, one of which who is 70+ years old to look after 20 horses, daily & indefinitely. I’m not stabled at a professional yard with staff on-hand to help manage it and look after horses. I’m on a lovely family-based farm, where the farmer lives on site, and where they are able to help out when you’re stuck (usually when I’m away with work).

Right away, social distancing measures were put in place – keep at least 2 meters away from each other. Not more than one person at the hay & straw, no more than 1 person in the feed and tack room, horses not to be tied up outside to keep the aisles and yard a roomy as possible, and you must not share tools. All things that are totally within the guideline. They’re also provide disinfectant sprays for wheelbarrow handle, gates and anything else that you touch, as well as soap by each of the taps.

While some people see the measures that are in place as a bit of a pain and inconvenience, they aren’t. Firstly, they are what we are told to do to save lives. And secondly, they are so we can still attend to our horses, not to inconvenience us or to be over the top. I’m personally very appreciative of the measure our yards owners have taken. I’m really hoping that everyone sticks to the rules outlined, not only for the health of everyone right now, but also out of respect when being essentially in someone’s private land during a time like this.

In terms of a timetable, I feel it naturally works quite well without too much enforcement, simply due to people’s lives all being different.

Monday to Sunday, I am at the yard at 6.30am. Week days I have to be away by 7am so I can be ready to work at 8am, as even though I’m working from home, I still often have sessions in as early as 8am. Weekends are a little different as I go for a ride as soon as I get there, arriving back on the yard for 8.15am/8.30am, so miss most who have just set off, or haven’t yet arrived. If the yard is busy when I get back, I put Louie in the field and leave, saving my yard jobs for the evening.

Weekend nights, I often just bring Louie in, do a quick rug change, feed and leave, but during the week, I ride after work. I’ve been trying to leave home at 4pm/4.30pm so as not to get in the way of those coming earlier. I suspect this will get harder as summer comes, but all I can do is stay consistent, so everyone knows what I’m doing. I don’t mean that arrogantly, but I mean so people won’t wonder when I turn up. Of course, there’s been times with work over the last 4-5 weeks that I’ve not got there until 7pm/7.30pm, but hopefully that won’t happen too often. I usually leave the yard about 6.30pm/7pm, and there’s usually only 1, maybe 2, others left.

I’m sure there will be times, especially as we head into summer that people come out of routine, meaning that stricter timetabling will be needed. It will be frustrating to disrupt those who are consistent with their times and stick to them, so hopefully it won’t happen, and everyone will remember to be considerate, no matter what the temptation.

Working a timetable, even a natural one like I think ours will be, is the most natural way to support minimising contact and number of people at the yard. If everyone sticks to their routine, even if there are off work or furloughed, adjustments that others have to make will be minimum.

Now onto riding, and there’s been a real divide of opinion as to whether to ride during Covid-19 due to the risks that it holds and whether it results in a trip to doctors or hospital. Not only does this increase the spread factor, but also places extra strain on the NHS during a time when they are already stretched.

The BHS guideline is to make an individual considered choice with regards to riding. I’ve considered all sorted of scenarios before arriving at continuing to ride.

I considered asking whether we can turn out 24/7 as a way to minimise handling Louie and thus minimising the risk of injury, and while the spring grass isn’t in full flush, it would be fine with his weight and actually even help him to lose a bit extra by being out overnight. I sort of already knew this wouldn’t be an option, so I never asked, but also come to a few weeks down the line in April when the grass starts to become more lush, he’d need some sort of good exercise to manage his weight, so it only offered a very short term solution.

I considered what I could do without actually getting in the saddle – lunging. I’ve never long reined and although over the last few days, I’ve seen many videos on Facebook about how to long rein and exercises to do when long reining, again it’s something totally new, and to me that carries risk. Standing behind a horse doing something new and trying to get to grips with it carries a higher risk to me. Lunging was an option. But I did this last May when my saddle was away for reflocking for a huge SIX WEEKS. Louie got very bored, very naughty and very fat! Like so fat when the vets saw him, I was given a good telling off! Lunging wasn’t therefore the only option for us over the long term.

So, riding it was. However, I won’t be taking any unnecessary risks – on the days Louie is afraid of his own body, I won’t ride. I won’t ride when it’s crazy windy. I won’t ride unless it’s for Louie’s exercise for weight and temperament management. When Louie has a few weeks off, he becomes a bit forgetful and often knocks into me, pulls me, and is a bit clumsy staying out of my space. When he is consistent, even just steady, work, he is much easier. Plus, since coming back from Morris at the end of January, I wanted to get him a bit fitter and get some weight off him, so I’ve spent the best part of 6 weeks getting him fit. I don’t mind that going to waste so to speak, but it does mean he’s needs a bit more to stimulate him than normal.

I’ll continue to work on our flatwork in the arena, continue to keep his fitness up on hacks, will use lunging in the arena as a non-riding day a week, will use polework to help him work a bit harder, and will jump very basic uprights every 2-3 weeks just to keep him ticking over.

I know that my view on riding might not be the same as yours as you read this, but I don’t think differently of anyone making their own decisions around it. Everyone has to make their own decision for their own reasons and be comfortable living through that decision. I’m never going to sit and say it is essential to ride, because I don’t believe at all that it is, but if it is about weighing up the risk of injury, I believe my horse will be less of a risk with sensible exercise levels.

Moving away from that and onto shopping…the bit that all of us equestrians enjoy indulging in! Well, many feed stores and other equestrian retailers with a physical presence have acted remarkably I think and are enabling us to get our fix for all things new when it comes to our four-legged friends.

I’ve needed a couple of bags of feed, a new sweeping brush, and a solo comb. All of which I’ve picked up from my regular local store, using their new phone, pay and collect. Others with established websites are offering click & collect style approaches too.

All the online retailers also look to be continuing their services – I know Laura at Boudica Equestrian is still in action. However, you need to check with the individual retailer as some aren’t offering refunds/returns during this time, simply due to contact with others on items. I’m sure most will be appreciative and allow you to extend to when things return to normal, but it is worth checking, especially with items such as clothing that you’re more likely to need those services.

There’s also adjustments with those professionals we come into contact with frequently in our daily equestrian life – coaches, farriers, vets, dentists, saddle fitters, physios, etc… Most of these have also been restricted to work unless it is an emergency or essential. It’s good to see farriers have been included on that list as prolonging the periods before shoeing or trimming some horses’ feet can really have an impact on their overall wellbeing, with some showing discomfort and mild lameness if they go beyond a usual 4/5/6 week cycle.

Only a few days before the stricter government restrictions, we had our yard saddle fitting, which actually Louie needed nothing doing, but at least I now know his saddle fits for the coming months. However, as soon as things begin to return to normal and the restrictions to support stopping the spread of Coronavirus are removed, Louie will be due a visit from the physio. I’ve not booked anything in, and although I know it will be a mad scramble when things go back to normal, there’s no point even trying to predict when we can get booked in right now.

Overall, everyone is in a very restricted situation. You are not alone. We must listen to the advice being given to us from those experts in the know. We need to make the decision we do based on our own individual factors & not be influenced by others so that we are comfortable with our own resulting actions.

Most of all…stay safe and stay strong. We will have happy times to enjoy again in the not too distant future.

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