On May 6, U.S. Hunter Jumper Association President Mary Babick answered dozens of questions about how the association could help shows get back to normal while keeping participants safe during a virtual town hall meeting. It will take a major effort by everyone in the horse show community to minimize the risk of virus transmission by reducing the number of common touchpoints throughout the showgrounds.
So what about the age-old tradition of braiding in the hunter ring? At the top levels, all hunters are braided, and riders who braid their own horses are vanishingly rare. The overwhelming majority of braiders work for multiple barns, moving themselves, equipment and sometimes dogs between stables in the middle of the night. So at the town hall the question came up: Will the USHJA or any other organization ban braiding? In other words, is braiding safe in the time of a pandemic?
“There are horse show managers who are making it so braiding isn’t allowed,” responded Babick at the time. “They’re doing it because they’re worried about biosecurity issues between braiders going barn to barn and touching one horse, and grooms, riders and trainers touching the same horse. Since there’s no rule in the [U.S. Equestrian Federation] “Rule Book” about braiding for hunters or equitation, the USEF won’t take it up. Show management will make their own choices. The only division that requires braiding in the “Rule Book” is side-saddle, and USEF is considering a presidential modification so side-saddle horses don’t have to be braided.”
When full-time professional braider Stacia Heslar heard this, her heart sank. She and her colleagues had already been beleaguered by a truncated winter season and months without work. She wrote an open letter about why braiding shouldn’t be banned, sent it to the USHJA and posted it on Facebook, where her letter was shared 52 times.
Heslar, Mission Viejo, California, pointed out that braiders aren’t the only ones moving around barns at horse shows: haulers, night watch companies, therapy providers, farriers and veterinarians, among others, are as well. She’s planning to wash her hands between horses and disinfect equipment and stall latches as well as follow whatever guidelines the horse shows and local, county and state authorities mandate.
But shows can’t operate without veterinarians and farriers. Horses can show unbraided.
“Technically they can, but a lot of people don’t want to,” said Heslar. “Most people at this level want their horses braided. Our sport at the [national] and [premier] level is like the NFL of our sport. Braiding is important. You don’t want to send your horse in the conformation line with scraggly mane and tail. Being unbraided doesn’t show proper conformation of the horse and the beauty of the horse. Braiding elevates the beauty of the horse.
“Also, it’s about respect,” she continued. “It’s about respecting that judge who has taken that time to come and judge you and that horse. It’s an old-fashioned tradition, tried and true, so important to the proper turnout as relates to this level of showing.”
Heslar argues that braiders are an important part of the horse show community and do far more than style a horse’s hair. In her 25 years as a professional braider she’s caught colics and cast horses. She even left the show once and drove to a trainer’s hotel to tell her about a problem when the trainer wouldn’t answer the phone.
“This is an issue that we’re all in together equally,” said Heslar. “This isn’t about braiding. Any one of us can walk off the property, go to Walmart, the grocery store, Home Depot and pick up the virus and bring it back to the show. It’s not always obvious. When you go to the grocery store, how many hands have touched that apple, orange, grapefruit or tomato before you took it home? We’re all on a level playing field. All we can do is be aware and try to follow the guidelines as set forth per show.
“The important thing to me, the main reason why I jumped on this, is we really need to halt the conversation of banning braiders or suspending anyone from the horse shows,” she continued. “We all are a family; we work together. To me that was the most important thing I wanted to communicate. It’s good to work together to find a solution. Trying to ban anyone who’s a hardworking individual whose livelihood is depending on this show is not the answer.”