During what is typically one of the busiest parts of the competitive calendar, horse sports of all kinds have completely shut down around the globe to attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus. While this has many implications for competitors, there is a whole world of people who surround the horse shows but don’t compete—many may not even ride. They’re concessions stand operators, braiders, jump crew, stewards, show photographers, vendors, florists and more. They are ordinary people whose jobs happen to take place at horse shows, and if those horse shows don’t happen, they don’t have any income.
We talked to some of them to find out how the shutdown will affect them, how they’re coping, and what others can do to help.
Andrew and Stacy Ryback, owners of Andrew Ryback Photography, Carpentersville, Illinois
Right now, horse show photographer Andrew Ryback and his wife and business partner Stacy should be at the Great Southwest Equestrian Center in Katy, Texas, getting set up for the 75th anniversary edition of the Pin Oak Charity Horse Show. They also would have had photographers at the World Equestrian Center in Ohio and at Ledges in Illinois.
Their photographers are contract employees and number between 30 and 40, Andrew said. Some might work only a few shows a year, while others work almost every weekend. The Rybacks also employ office staff.
“Stacy and I are pretty good at saving, so I think we’ve put away enough that we can weather the storm without any issues, but my concern is the people who work for us,” said Andrew. “Some of them work a lot for us, multiple weeks out of the year. We’re trying to generate additional income so we can continue to help support those that work a lot for us and don’t have the ability to generate income at this point.”
“Our business model is not geared to online sales,” said Stacy. “At ARP we are really geared toward customer service; our whole goal is to provide an experience to the exhibitor. So they come in, we can discuss with them the options, we can give them feedback. We follow these people through their whole career.”
But without being able to sell photos at shows, the Rybacks have adjusted and are now offering photos online. “We do have the flexibility to adjust our business model slightly, just so we can help work throughout this crisis,” said Andrew. “We put up posts on social media platforms letting people know that, hey, if you haven’t looked at your photos from the shows that you’ve been to—whether it’s this year, last year, many years ago, whatever shows we’ve covered—if you want to see your photos and purchase them online, let us know. We’ll put them online for you and hopefully at least generate some income from that.
“We are still trying to promote other products and services that we can handle in a safe manner,” he continued. “If people want to put together books of their show experiences over the years, or if they want to buy enlargements to fill up their walls that they’re currently staring at, we will certainly help them with that as well!”
He also plans to work portrait sessions in, since he shoots with a telephoto lens and would always be a safe distance away from a subject.
“We’re going to be posting on social media frequently to try to at least stay on the forefront of people’s minds, to remind them: ‘Hey, we’re still here; we’ve still got opportunities for you, whether it’s decorating your walls or taking portraits of your horses and things like that.’ We’ve still got the ability to do that as of right now,” said Andrew.
Unfortunately, putting photos online also brings additional risk—many people simply screenshot the photos instead of purchasing prints, Stacy said. “Although most people understand these situations, we just say: Be respectful, understand everyone’s situation.”
And if you’ve ever skipped buying a print in the past and just taken a screenshot, now is the perfect time to remedy that error!
Renee Spurge, owner of LA Saddlery, Los Angeles
Renee Spurge has been with LA Saddlery for 12 years and moved from a brick-and-mortar store to an all-mobile business model in 2017. She sells high-end riding apparel out of three mobile trailers and generally attends about 40 shows a year.
With no shows running, her business is grounded. She doesn’t have a physical store location, and the mainstays of her business are custom items, which aren’t easy to sell online.
“I’ve been frantically trying to think of other ways to get people to shop online, even though they’re not at a show, and they’re probably also worried about money,” she said. “So we did almost a full storewide 20% off sale, even for stuff that we literally just got in, which we never do, which technically we’re not supposed to do. But I’m assuming the companies are going to be understanding if I have to offer people a small discount to buy it; otherwise it’s just going to sit in my trailer for 30 days.”
She’s also planning to create store memberships for $250, which would offer a 10% storewide discount and other perks. “I’m offering it to 100 people, because I really can’t afford to give that many people a discount, but 100 people would generate me $25,000, which, if I did my math correctly, will kind of get me through the next two months,” Spurge said. She plans to send a newsletter to her top 200 customers with the membership offer.
“There’s definitely a portion of our industry that, regardless of this, is not going to hurt from it. So I know I do have certain customers that $250 is nothing to them, and they’ll get their $250 back in their first couple purchases with us: You know, they buy a hunt coat and a pair of boots, and they’ve got their $250 back,” she said. “Honestly, anything helps. I have really sweet customers who shop with me all the time, and they went and bought another shirt online, or they bought a pair of socks. Honestly, I don’t care how small the order is; it helps. Anything helps.”
Spurge said many of her suppliers have been helpful and understanding (they’re small businesses too) by offering longer terms for payments or delaying shipments. “They’re all going to be hurting too,” she said. “They’re at least doing their part now to show solidarity because they don’t want us to go out of business.”
Spurge is also placing an order with one of her vendors because she has the ability to do so right now and wants to keep a partner business afloat.
For now, she can continue paying her one office employee and her bills. “I’m obviously not going to be ordering any more inventory, because that’s my biggest expense,” Spurge said. “And I’m not going to be paying for horse shows, or traveling, or someone to work the trailer, so I’ve cut my expenses to nothing now. I think as long as I can push my website a little bit, I should be OK through most of April, and then after that…”
She’s been heartened by the response from many in the community rallying to bring attention to the plight of local businesses and from customers who are promoting her social media posts. Even writing online reviews can be helpful to a business, for those who are quarantined at home with time on their hands. Spurge just hopes the goodwill translates to more action.
“There is a lot of solidarity in the community, and there’s a lot of talk about what we can do,” she said. “I just don’t know how much action there is. Right now, I’m in a place where I at least have something to sell, where someone who’s a braider or a ring crew guy, they don’t have another service to offer, or they can’t go out and get another part-time job somewhere because everything’s closed.”
But her biggest worry, she said, is for the rest of the year. The prohibition on shows might extend from 30 days to 60 days, and overall anxiety will cause people to start pulling back all their spending.
“I feel like there’s a certain portion of our community that can and should do what they can,” Spurge said. “Everyone has to do their part just to keep it all going. We want to get through the next 60 days, but we also want to get through the next eight months. That’s my fear, that the whole year is now going to collapse, and I feel like if people sort of give up on the industry, that will happen.
“The person who has six horses at Thermal? They can afford to buy a pair of socks online,” she added. “They can afford [to give] a little help here and there.”
Renee Reyes, braider, Canoga Park, California
Renee Reyes learned to braid her own horse when she was 10, and then she started braiding others’ horses as a way to financially support her own showing. She decided to take a year off from school to braid before heading to college, and she also taught her best friend (who didn’t even ride), Tonie Oros, to braid and convinced her to go into business with her.
“Thirty-five years later, we’re still doing it! We’re still business partners and best friends,” Reyes said. Her “year off” turned into a career.
Reyes, 53, had planned to be at Blenheim in San Juan Capistrano, California, this week. The show season had just gotten underway, and she was eager to be back out braiding.
“We [braiders] don’t work from mid-November to mid-January here in California. We save all year to get through the winter; for me personally, that’s how I have to do it,” Reyes explained. “So by the time I start my year off at Thermal, I’m down to the bare bones; it’s time to get back to work.
“I’d only been working for seven weeks when the last week of Thermal was canceled because of the rain, so that was going to be one of the biggest weeks of the circuit for us,” she continued. “Then losing Blenheim was a greater hit, and it just keeps going. You’ve already reached into your savings, you’ve done everything you can, and there’s absolutely no way for me personally to bounce back from this. By the time shows start going again and people are feeling comfortable to get back out there, I’ve lost so much time, come winter there’s not going to be anything.”
Asked what her financial outlook is right now, Reyes sighed: “Very bleak,” she said. She’s currently contemplating selling her house.
“I had two major accidents braiding that almost ended my career, so I’m physically limited—I can’t go work stocking the shelves at the grocery store, which is really the only thing that is hiring right now. I can’t lift that kind of heavy weight,” she said. “I started braiding right out of high school; I didn’t get a college degree. So there’s no regular job I can get because I’m not qualified for it.”
Some of the ideas floating around on social media, like pre-paying braiders for work later in the year, would help get Reyes through this moment, but she’ll still come up short at the end of the year because of all the work she’s lost.
“It might help me today but won’t help me three or four months from now when I’m braiding for free,” she said. “I really am at a loss for what else to do, especially with my physical limitations—I can’t go body clip; I can’t do those kinds of things.”
She can’t even reach out to her clients directly because it’s an arms-length relationship. “We don’t know our clients too well face-to-face—we’re there at night; we leave a bill, and they leave a check. Most of them don’t even see us,” Reyes said. “They think we come out and braid a few hours in the early mornings, and it’s like magic, the horses are just done.
“There’s just a whole world behind the curtain that makes it all happen, and our livelihood is based on these events, and that’s it,” Reyes added. “The people that are [working] at those shows, that’s all they have. There is no backup; this isn’t play for us.”
Asked what she wanted the rest of the horse world to know about the situation for service providers like her, Reyes paused. “That’s hard,” she said, her voice starting to crack.
“I’m sorry, I’m getting emotional,” she said, trying to compose herself before continuing.
“You do something your whole life, and you dedicate everything to it, and in a heartbeat, something that has never affected this world before—yes, we’ve had the fires that have stopped some horse shows and some barns from showing; you might miss out on a couple weeks’ work, but we’ve never had something so globally affect this world. And I don’t think most people realize that there is a whole world of people in the horse industry that only make money if these events go on.”
For people like Reyes, the cancellation of shows isn’t endangering qualifications for medal finals or indoors or going to the Olympics. It’s the loss of her entire livelihood, in an industry that doesn’t have any lifelines or safety nets.