by Katherine O. Rizzo (first published in the July 2020 Equiery)
As Governor Hogan continues to lift various COVID-19 restrictions across Maryland, the horse industry is opening its barn doors… slowly, but surely. Over the past few weeks, the Maryland Horse Council and The Equiery have been updating members and readers on what activities are allowed and what activities are still closed based on the most current executive orders coming from the Governor’s office.
As of press time, lesson and boarding barns have been allowed to re-open, as has the state’s trails system. As is the “new normal” during this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, these activities are to follow state, county and CDC guidelines for social distancing and other COVID-19 safety procedures.
Also as of press time, the Governor has not specifically opened most sports competitions (horse racing without spectators has reopened), however county health departments have been allowed to evaluate these sorts of activities on a case-by-case basis. By the time this issue is printed, several venues in Maryland will have already held schooling shows as well as USEF-sanctioned events.
As the competition sector begins to open again, The Equiery asked its readers, “do you have any concerns about competing, hosting competitions and volunteering at competitions during COVID-19?”
The US Equestrian Federation has issued a COVID-19 Action Plan for Licensed Competitions that any USEF-licensed competition must follow. Many feel USEF’s plan is solid while others think the plan may be going overboard. However, no matter what your opinion of the new rules may be, if you are hosting a USEF-licensed competition, you must abide by them.
As more and more shows occur across the country, the USEF has been updating these policies almost daily. Various disciplines have also been requesting temporary rule changes to help keep competitions contactless and socially distant. “The USEF has been very responsive and very supportive,” show organizer Carolyn Del Grosso of the Potomac Valley Dressage Association stated. “They have been very flexible about changing dates and such too.”
Gretchen Butts, co-owner of Waredaca in Laytonsville, has also found the USEF helpful in transitioning back to hosting competitions. “They really stepped up to the plate early on and have been very proactive,” she said. “The webinars they produced were very helpful.”
More locally, the Maryland Department of Agriculture put out a “best practices” guide to assist organizers when hosting livestock competitions. Here in Maryland, horses, and thus horse showing, are considered livestock under state law. The majority of these guidelines and tips address the unmounted portion of horse shows with suggestions on how to limit access to competition secretaries, scoring, etc., and how to keep volunteers distant from each other and competitors. These MDA guidelines also address the entry numbers per class and suggest how to limit class size in order to keep riders more distant from each other.
Butts used the guidelines from USEF and some guidance from MHC to make a Waredaca COVID-19 Action Plan to present to the Montgomery County Health Department in order to petition for permission to hold an event in June. “MDA and the state have been great, as have MHC and MHIB,” she said. “Once we got the new date approval from the USEA, we reached out to the [county] health department with a plea for consideration.”
Butts did not hear anything for a few weeks and had several state and county officials speaking up on her behalf as well. “I fully support Montgomery County’s decision to be slower to reopen but we knew we could hold the event with minimal risks.”
Butts received approval one week before the scheduled event and The Equiery has been receiving word of other competitions within various counties earning approval from their local health departments as well.
For links to the USEF and MDA rules and guidelines, visit equiery.com.
With so many restrictions and new rules to consider, we asked competition organizers, is it worth it? Will you be hosting shows during COVID-19? The answers we received were mostly “yes”… but with caution.
Del Grosso reported that PVDA had to cancel all shows thus far for 2020 including the always-popular PVDA Ride For Life. But now that the state is opening up again, PVDA is looking to hold a schooling show to test new protocols before its summer US Dressage Federation competitions. “We have a whole new system in place to bring our volunteer numbers down and do all scoring electronically,” she said. “We will also have plexiglass between the show secretary and the public and have insisted that all paperwork and fees be submitted online before the show day.”
Del Grosso is not worried about holding dressage shows during COVID-19 with these, and other protocols in place. “Riding is a naturally socially distant sport, especially in dressage where there is only one person in the ring at a time,” she added.
Loch Moy Farm owner Carolyn Mackintosh agrees with Del Grosso about horseback riding in general being a socially distant, contactless sport already. Mackintosh hosts several horse trials at her farm in Adamstown. “Eventing is already a socially distant sport,” she commented. Mackintosh also had to cancel all of her spring starter events this year and is looking for county approval for her July FEI event. “It is all about safety first and we plan to hold the event without spectators this year,” she explained.
Mackintosh has also worked with course designer Ian Stark of Great Britain to modify the courses this year knowing that many event riders and horses will still be rusty come mid-July. “We will not be running the cross-country courses through the rings like we usually do and are spreading out dressage rings to keep fewer people in each warm up area,” she added. Mackintosh is also creating a series of travel lanes from ring to ring to keep the flow of traffic moving in one direction.
While the sports of Dressage and Eventing might have an easier time keeping competitors at a safe distance from each other, the Hunter discipline and various breed specific shows are facing greater challenges.
Streett Moore, Director of Riding at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, said he is “taking a more conservative approach” to opening the facility back up to horse shows. McDonogh typically hosts competitions at the local and national levels throughout the spring, summer and fall and have not held any shows thus far for 2020.
“Many of the big shows like Wellington are going above and beyond to be able to host 700+ horses in a weekend but those shows have to approach things from a business stance,” he said. “We are a school riding program and are playing it safe. I want to watch the other shows for a bit longer and see what unfolds.”
Once the state opened lesson and boarding facilities, Moore and the staff at McDonogh put various new practices in place in order to start lessons back up for its in-house clients. “We even started a lease program so our kids could ride more often,” he said. “Separation is the hardest part to figure out in general but we have come up with some things that seem to be working.” McDonogh has separate bathrooms for staff, riders and horse health care workers. They also have set up separate tack trunks in front of each stall so that riders do not need to enter the communal tack room for any reason.
“At first we even had a guard stationed on the driveway checking people in. But you can’t really do that for a horse show,” Moore stated. Instead of jumping right back into hosting shows, Moore said they are hosting a schooling show mid-July to test different COVID-19 protocols. “There will not be any undersaddle classes and no leadline classes either,” he explained. “We are starting with jumps at 2’ and going up from there to avoid the type of classes that attract people gathering in the ring or outside watching. Basically, riders will come, show and leave.”
If all goes well, McDonogh will then hold a larger Maryland Horse Shows Association show before deciding what to do about their later summer USEF shows. “We have confidence in what we plan to do but want to keep it on a much smaller scale at first.”
Beckie Peregoy of the Maryland Western Horse Association reported that the club had been holding virtual shows during the COVID-19 shut down. “They seemed to be a really fun way to keep everyone in the group engaged while shows were shut down,” she explained. MWHA hosted its first live show of the season on June 21. Held at the Howard County Fair Grounds, Peregoy stated, “we are lucky that a lot of our classes are naturally small in size and the ring there is really big.”
MWHA hosted both mounted and in-hand classes making sure that if entries for any one class got too big, they split the class into two sections. “Most of our classes are individual anyway with patterns similar to dressage and the speed classes,” she said. “Everyone is really excited to show show again.”
With plexiglass in place at the entry booth and riders working out of their individual trailers, Peregoy’s only worry was the warm up areas. “Those can get crowded so we re-worked things to spread out the warm up into the grassy areas and offered warm up classes in the big ring too.”
Even with lots of great ideas and protocols in place, some organizers are choosing just to scrap the 2020 season altogether. Valerie Willis, who organizes the 4-H shows at the Montgomery County Fair each summer, is looking into virtual horse shows in the event that the fair is canceled. “There are some good programs out there for virtual horse shows but now I’m asking my judges if they are even willing to judge that way,” Willis said.
“There are very specific patterns and tests being asked and each entry must be filmed in a very strict way. It’s complicated.”
Alissa Norman of the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation reported that spectator-less competitions might work just fine for shows and events but in the sport of steeplechase racing, it poses bigger discussions. “If race meets have to run without spectators, it will be VERY difficult to attract sponsors to cover costs of purse money,” she stated, adding, “Entry fees from horses don’t cover that cost. It’s all sponsor and spectator dollars.”
The Competitor Experience
Now the real question becomes… if you host it, will they come? It seems the answer from competitors is a resounding YES! Every Equiery Facebook follower that commented posted that as a competitor, they are ready and eager to start competing again.
Karen Altieri of Linden Farm in La Plata wrote, “We have nine riders on our equestrian team who are ready and willing to compete as soon as Mounted Wanderers and BEST are holding shows again.” She added, “There is ample space around each trailer with the horses tied to it to allow a healthy separation. We never borrow equipment and once our riders are up and mounted, they are more than six feet away from anyone else. So our protocol as competitors will not change.”
Debbie Worrell of The Pony Place wrote, “I’ve been to a few shows, [there are] signs about social distancing, etc. Everyone kept their distance, and all went beautifully.”
Alesse Coover posted, “As a competitor? Yes. I generally didn’t hang too close to others to begin with.” Erica Gregg agreed stating, “I competed at Plantation Field HT. Everyone kept to social distancing protocols and wore masks when not riding and around other people. Everyone was super cheerful and respectful, and it was really a comforting atmosphere.”
Del Grosso, who is a dressage competitor as well as an organizer is also eager to get back into the sand box. “I travel by myself and am my own little unit. I am rarely on the show grounds for more than two hours anyway!”
Moore reported that the McDonogh show team also looks forward to competing again but will be staying local this season. “Normally we’d be going to Lexington, Virginia, and other overnight shows but no one wants to stay in a hotel right now,” he said.
Judge and trainer Nancy Dawn Ashway of Country Comfort Farm said, “I feel comfortable going to shows as long as certain safety policies are practiced. I feel managers must keep strict regulations in practice at all times.” She added, “I plan on judging and taking clients [to shows] as long as there is not another outbreak in our area. I have purchased a camper and will be staying in that rather than hotels.”
Protecting the Volunteers
Yes, in order for a horse show or event to be successful, it needs organizers and it needs competitors, but more importantly, it needs volunteers. Often working silently behind the scenes, volunteers are essential; equestrian competitions simply cannot take place without a team of volunteers keeping the gears running. Thus we also asked our readers, “is anyone concerned about volunteering during COVID-19?”
“Our volunteers want to come, which is wonderful!” Mackintosh reported. She is working on putting together volunteer bags that include a face shield and hand sanitizer. She also plans to have volunteers from the Red Cross stationed to monitor temperatures of all officials and volunteers, per USEF protocol.
Butts also will have a team of EMTs in place at two key checkpoints on the property during Waredaca’s events. “They will be handling temperature checks for everyone who comes onto the property and doing any necessary contact tracing,” she explained. Because Waredaca is located in Montgomery County, which is one of the COVID-19 “hotspots” in the state, Butts is proceeding with extreme caution. “Even though the USEF says competitors can be [temperature] checked at random, we are testing every person.”
Even with face shields, hand sanitizer and plexiglass, some volunteers are more hesitant to step up during COVID-19. “I’m not sure how comfortable I’d feel as a volunteer,” Gaudet Equis posted on our Facebook page. While others such as Adel Richardson and Wendy Watson posted that they are “very” comfortable volunteering during COVID-19.
Then there is Janice Binkley who seemed to sum up the general consensus on competitions during COVID-19 when she posted, “as a rider, coach and volunteer, I feel totally comfortable.”