How To Reopen Safely

May 6, 2020 - 8:00 AM

It might be June, or it might be July, or it might be 2021, but eventually, horse shows are going to become a thing that we all can resume doing. But how to do so safely, in this new world order? Some day a vaccine will become available to the masses, but it won’t be anytime soon. So we’ve got a while between when the world starts to reopen, and when the world’s citizens are rendered safe from this virus by science. 

“How to reopen” is a question the whole world is asking, not just horse folks. Bowling alleys, football stadiums, clothing boutiques; everyone and everything has a set of challenges ahead. We’re lucky, we in the horse world, that much of our lives, both in practice and in competition, are spent outside.

elvisr1ssun
We will return to showing someday soon, and we need to be prepared to do so as safely as possible.

But not all of it. The U.S. Equestrian Federation’s recent town hall meeting addressed some of the concerns on how to reopen shows, but there’s more ground to cover, as USEF officials pointed out, and they’re crafting rule changes and lists of best practices to guide all of us as we emerge into the world again. I can only speak from the dressage show perspective, but here are a few ways we could address those indoor and close-proximity challenges, to bring horse shows back to the world in as safe a way as possible.

The first thing I do when I pull onto a showgrounds is look for my stabling, and so that’s the first challenge we’ll tackle. Under normal circumstances, my stable group is immediately next to someone else’s stable group, and on and on, which puts me in close proximity to others. In our post-coronavirus, pre-vaccine world, one option might be to space out the stable groups, such that there’s an empty stall or two between each group. And there should be at least three days between when everyone clears out of a venue from one show and when the next group of horses arrive for the next show. In dressage land, where our shows are rarely longer than three days, that shouldn’t present a challenge, though other disciplines might need to get creative in their scheduling, or facilities might need to do a more diligent job disinfecting stall fronts and walls that humans might touch. And it goes without saying that, for shows that are very local, trailering in for the day would be the safer option.

Once we’re settled into our stabling, the next place I go is the show office. For a while, I imagine, this will be the time that I pop on a face mask, if I have to get close to show management to sort out an issue with an entry, but it’s just not that hard to enter a horse show correctly. “Perfect” entry pickup could be unmanned, with a bottle of hand sanitizer next to the box of packets. And the “show office” could, in many parts of the country and in many types of weather, be set up outside, under a tent or in a pavilion, as well.

Next up is the warm-up arena. While I’d like to live in a world where everyone could figure out how to share a warm-up space peacefully, and with sufficient social distancing, sometimes horses make chumps of us. So perhaps it would behoove shows to open additional warm-up arena space, when possible, to allow for folks to keep sufficient distance between horses and riders. Coaches on the rail will need to space themselves sufficiently farther apart. And certainly any of my students who are especially vulnerable are going to consider warming up in a face mask, just in case. (On the subject of masks, a shout-out to fellow rider and writer Kristin Carpenter for making the most comfortable masks I’ve tried, also designed with super research. By the way, I hear that Kristin is getting rolling on designing a mask to be worn either over a helmet or under “show hair” such that it could easily be removed on your way out of the warm-up and into the show ring. Stay tuned to her website!)

Spriesermask
We’re going to be seeing a lot of these for the foreseeable future, so get yourself a mask that’s comfortable and effective!

There’s no better place on the showgrounds to be socially distant, here in dressage-land, than the show ring! It’s a 20 by 60-meter space all to one’s self. But that’s not true of judges and scribes, who are normally occupying the same wee box or gazebo at C. For a little while, scribes may need to sit farther away from the judge, who may need to speak up. Or we could turn to technology; maybe the judge is at C and the scribe is elsewhere, and they’re connected by a cell phone or radio. If we really wanted to get wild, a shower curtain or a piece of plexiglass between the judge and scribe could solve this problem as well, just like my post office is doing at the moment.

Once I’m done riding, I’ll head to the next common area to tackle: the wash stall. Grooming and tacking is done in stalls, but bathing is usually done in a dedicated area accessed by all. Fortunately, easy access to running water and soap/shampoo in such a space would make it easy for the riders and grooms to wash their hands after touching things like hose nozzles or crossties, and to suds those surfaces up as well.

This brings us to a few challenges I don’t personally see an easy answer to. One is the bathroom. Some of our venues are so lucky as to have beautiful permanent bathrooms, but many showgrounds rely on portable loos with no running water, so no handwashing and lots of use. Portable handwashing stations exist, and could be deployed, along with diligent use of disinfectants on a regular schedule to clean the surfaces of the loo. 

Another tricky situation is the transportation and housing of judges. Many of the shows we attend, even at the national level, have judges who fly in from out of state. No one is going to feel amazing about getting on an airplane anytime soon. Hotels, both for judges and for participants, are going to require extra cleaning measures, and we as hotel guests are going to need to exercise caution and cleanliness while staying in them, which will be tiresome and probably a bit scary. So those are waters we’re going to have to navigate. 

Food service will also just be tricky. While the CDC and other health organizations have made clear that this virus is respiratory in nature, which means that eating carry out is a safe behavior, having food preparation on the showgrounds will require extra planning and care. 

But this feels doable to me. I’m eager to see what the USEF and what my state and local governments do as far as a timeline reopening because I think we can do it, with good planning, good judgment, and as a team. We horse folks are thoughtful, diligent and considerate, right? When the time is right, and with the right protocols in place, we can make this happen together.

What ideas do you have, to tackle showing in this brave new world? Share in the comments!


Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis, Beverley Thomas and her Ellington, and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.

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