Barn Managers Across The Country Provide Care In The Face Of Coronavirus-Related Challenges

Mar 17, 2020 - 2:57 PM

The rapidly spreading effects of the coronavirus epidemic are prompting daily changes in our behavior. Despite discussions of social distancing, lockdowns and closed borders, our horses’ needs remain the same.

We reached out to facility managers across the country to see whether this new reality was affecting their day-to-day programs and how they were persevering to care for both horses and barn staff.

In Washington state, where the first U.S. outbreak of coronavirus was reported, Jennifer Hansen manages the 25-stall Starfire Farm and the 10-stall Woodbrook Hunt Club stable.

“These are interesting times to say the least,” Hansen says from her base in Lakewood, south of Tacoma. “We are doing our best to use common sense and science as our guides.

“I do think those of us who have learned biosecurity at barns and kennels have an advantage in managing germs,” she adds.

Hansen is still readily finding feed and other resources for her horses. “I am thankful to have a good supply of hay in our barn, and so far supplies have been available from the Wilco where I shop,” she says. “I’m able to order online and drive through to pick up. I wish grocery shopping was as safe!”

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Many commercial stables are quieter as they move toward restricting the number of barn visitors and staggering employee schedules. Jennifer Hansen Photo

While the hunt club stable is only open to members, about 30 riders come to Starfire Farm every week. “At the moment we are thankful schools are closed and feel like the barn is a relatively safe situation where social distancing can be done without creating complete isolation,” Hansen says.

She offers practical advice from the state at the epicenter of the first wave of illness in this country. “Be thoughtful to the risk to not only yourself but also others,” she says. “I feel we have a civic responsibility to help reduce the risk faced by first responders and those who work in health care.

“We need to do our best to limit the burden the pandemic puts on our health care system,” Hansen emphasizes. “Be responsible and make sound choices.”

Belinda Colgan is head coach of the women’s riding team at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, where students are transitioning to distance learning. She said it’s a tough decision for all involved, but necessary.

“When the college made the decision to send the students home, it was pretty devastating, especially for the seniors who had worked so hard and had qualified for the IHSA postseason,” she says. “But it’s such a changing situation. I’m getting updates on my phone almost every hour, and they’re closing all the businesses and restaurants at 8 p.m. tonight. There are other closings; it’s understandable.”

Colgan has about 65 horses in the barn now, including 45 college-owned lesson horses. She has a team of five full-time employees assisted by several additional workers to cover all the administrative, training and daily care requirements.

“With so many horses, we stock up way ahead of time on the basics, so we’re doing fine,” she says about their veterinary and feed supplies.

“Of course, we’re not going on any shopping sprees right now,” she adds. “If the grain factories start to shut down, we’ll need to reevaluate our plan.”

In the meantime, they’re maintaining the usual routine as much as possible, with precautions. There are a few students living in apartments in town who still come ride, and there’s a small community lesson program. But those lessons are being scheduled farther apart with attention to the total number of people in the barn at any one time.

“We’re trying to say things like, ‘These five students can come during this two-hour window,’ and we are making sure everyone observes the recommended social distancing while they’re here,” Colgan says.

“It’s really hard,” she adds, “because the barn is most people’s ‘safe place,’ where they go to get away from outside worries, and it’s easy to forget that we really have to observe social distancing here, too.”

Lessons
Lessons continue—with social distancing in effect—at Starfire Farm in Lakewood, Washington, the state that saw the first outbreak of coronavirus in this country. Jennifer Hansen Photo

In Hinckley, Ohio, Horsehaven Stables continues to offer about 25 to 30 lessons a week at its 18-stall facility.

“I might lose lessons at some point,” says owner and trainer Solange Ellis, “but with the school closures I’m picking up extra lessons from kids with more time and adult [school] teachers who are now off work.”

She’s confident that her team can weather the unique challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. “I’ve had my barn 20 years this year,” she says. “I’ve had snowstorms, cold snaps, floods, illnesses on my part—all these things can affect your ability to teach/work/function, and it’s always been fine.”

Ellis is not concerned about supplies or running short on help. She’s purchased hay from the same neighbor for 18 years, received her regular monthly feed delivery before widespread closures began, and has a 20-year relationship with a nearby veterinarian.

She also knows there are trusted barn regulars who are ready to jump in and help with chores if needed. “I have a stable business I run responsibly with supportive clients and good relationships with my fellow professionals,” she explains. “So I know I will have help if I need it.

“But that’s something you should have all the time, not just now,” Ellis adds. “Much like washing your hands. You should be a responsible person all the time, not just now.”

In Loxahatchee Groves, Florida, Morgan Childs is the operations coordinator at Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center.

The 18-horse facility provides instruction to 75 therapeutic and hippotherapy students, 15 participants in a veterans’ program, and 60 children on the autism spectrum from area schools.

“At this time, we are still open and holding classes, and our volunteers are still encouraged to come to the farm,” Childs says. “Our biggest priority is keeping our clients and our volunteers safe, so if the situation changes and we do shut down, they will be the first to know.”

Drawing on their experience with Florida’s annual hurricane season, staff have prepared to hunker down if necessary. “We have leftover bagged shavings from the previous hurricane, which we would use in place of our normal bulk shavings,” Childs says. “We have increased our normal grain order slightly and have our normal amount of hay. We keep equine and human first aid kits stocked on a regular basis, and our medical room is always prepared.”

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Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center in Loxahatchee Groves, Fla., continues to provide lessons and hippotherapy to students while following recommended guidelines. Camila Gonzalez Photo

There was no shortage of products at area feed stores over the weekend. “We have not seen any of the local hay/grain/shavings suppliers closing down,” she says, “so we have not been concerned about those shortages yet.

“Our staff has been taking precautions to stay healthy and continue practicing good hygiene,” Childs says. “We understand that horses depend on us, virus or not.”

Like Skidmore, the independent Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, also sent students home and closed the campus to visitors.

“That’s carried over to us in terms of we’re curtailing everything at the barn,” says Sarah Summers, director of the Karen Stives ’68 Equestrian Center. “No lessons, no hacking with our students.”

Dana Hall is located about 12 miles from Boston, which has been hard hit by the coronavirus. “We have been expecting this for some time,” Summers says. “Being part of an independent school where we have kids traveling from all over the world, we stockpiled hay, shavings, grain, all of our supplies in anticipation. So we’re in pretty good shape on that front.”

There are 45 horses on the property, roughly split between school horses and horses owned by students. The school has a regular staff of full-time employees covering operations.

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In any other circumstance, it would be great to have the ring all to yourself. Staff at Dana Hall School continues to exercise and care for the horses while students and visitors stay home. Photo Courtesy Of Dana Hall School

“We have a small core group of people coming in and riding, just to keep the horses moving,” Summers says. “We’re working with our boarders, with their horses, to work through their training schedules, but also trying to keep our staff and instructors happy and healthy so they can take care of the horses.”

The staff manages schedules to reduce contact and allow time for disinfecting equipment. “We’re staggering the times, so we don’t have people coming in all at once, and then we can wipe down and clean,” Summers says. “Everyone’s been great with that.”

The school’s students are girls in grades 5 through 12. Summers is in regular communication with them.

“We’re telling them that it’s going to be fine,” she says, “and that we’re all going to pull through this together.”

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