As restrictions have increased across the country due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, barn owners and managers have faced a tough decision: Do they close to boarders?
The managers at Twinwood Equestrian Center, a large boarding and training facility in Simonton, Texas, were struggling with this question as they tried to figure out the best plan for the nearly 80 horses and 60 boarders at the facility, not to mention staff and the three professional trainers who run their businesses there. The managers were in the process of discussing options with Houston Dressage Society organizers and other dressage barns in the area when the local mayor took the decision out of their hands and required the barn to close.
“I was pleasantly surprised because there was a lot of support [from the boarders],” said facility manager Megan Hutchison. “Some people were upset, but most of the people were understanding and just said, ‘Stay safe. We want you and the guys to be safe.’ ”
Twinwood waived its 30-day notice for the handful of boarders who decided to leave and offered to hold stalls for those who planned to move their horses back within a week of the barn reopening after quarantine. Trainers could exercise the horses, and boarders could opt into a free rainy-day walker program for when pastures were too wet for turnout.
But what happened next may have changed the barn’s culture forever.
“I just felt like I would lose my mind if I couldn’t see my horses every day,” said Hutchison, who keeps her horses and donkeys at home. “So I started taking pictures of all the boarded horses and posting them on Facebook so people could see them and their noses being petted.”
The private Facebook group had never been all that active, but heartfelt comments started appearing under the photos.
“You just made my day!!! Sat here grinning from ear to ear looking at that pretty face! Thank you.”
“Yup, that’s my boy. Hogging the shed. Thanks so much for the pic.”
“I’d know that big cuddly butt anywhere.”
“The world may have stopped but her routine stays on schedule, you are all amazing!!! Love you guys, so thankful for all you are doing.”
With those photos, the nearly 60 boarders started making connections with barnmates they’d met but never gotten to know. Before long, one-on-one Facebook friend requests were sent, and a barn community was on its way to becoming a family.
As the quarantine days continued, owners’ representative Sarah Isham came up with another idea to keep everyone connected.
She sent out a Q&A to the clients, asking for photos along with their answers. Questions ranged from: “How long have you ridden?” and “Describe three of your horse’s personality traits” to “What’s your favorite thing to do outside of the barn?”
Isham compiled the answers and photos into one-page PDFs and distributed the bios by email as well as posting them in the Facebook group. Each day, clients shared personal details about their lives and their beloved horses.
They learned Maureen lugs alfalfa and grooming totes to her retired rescue horse’s pasture every time she comes out, and Gabriela was born in Puerto Rico and once raced a train on horseback. They found out that Lisa shows Rottweilers and wants to earn her bronze USDF medal, that Kathy’s Allegro loves bananas, that Jamie’s youthful-looking Smiley is 19, that Stephanie likes to scuba dive, and that Claire makes an excellent gin and tonic.
Managing a 79-horse barn is time-consuming enough without taking daily photos or compiling and sharing bios, but in the long run Hutchison said the shared sense of experience could make the barn community stronger. And since “managing personalities” is “the biggest part” of her job, the future might be even more harmonious.
“When an owner posts a comment on Facebook, and you can see how much she misses her horse, I think that gives us all a little softer heart for each other,” Hutchison said.
When the barn reopens, it won’t be the same for a while. It may be a long time before social distancing is a thing of the past. But there may be a silver lining to the quarantine, with more barnmates becoming real-world friends.
And at Twinwood at least, no matter how long the restrictions last, the horses have a new friend. Since Hutchison has been going around with treats and giving scratches while taking pictures of each of her charges, she has become increasingly popular.
“At first, when I would go around and see them all, they didn’t pay me much attention,” she said. “Now they do. I’m the only game in town.”
Cheryl Laird is a magazine editor, freelance journalist and former newspaper reporter in Houston. She grew up showing in the hunters and equitation in Texas and morphed into a backyard-barn owner and horse-show mom and, eventually, a dressage competitor in a training stable. She has two 8-year-olds, a Friesian-draft cross mare named Atomic Betty who is schooling fourth level and a Lusitano gelding named Dapper Dan who is schooling second level.