Recently, I’ve seen a whole swath of think pieces across many different horse related websites extolling the virtues of not going to the barn during this pandemic situation. The reasons are solid: We need to all stay home, help flatten the curve, keep our barn owners safe, and keep ourselves out of harm’s way by not overloading the hospital system for non-COVID related injuries. I understand that. While I’ll admit to being a bit amazed by just how well the authors of these articles seem to handle suddenly being told they won’t see their horses for weeks or months, I get it.
Reading these pieces, it’s hard not to feel that they’re unrealistic, both for myself and for many others in similar situations to mine. It seems that the authors of these articles have one of two specific scenarios they’re coming from:
1. Their horses are located in a place where they can simply live out for weeks or months, and it doesn’t affect their well being. If you live in Kentucky, or upstate New York, or heck, just about anywhere but Southern California, your horses likely have access to pasture or decent options for extended turnout, where they can get adequate exercise on their own.
2. They are fortunate enough to be financially able to maintain their horse in full care or training. Even though they can’t go to the barn, they know their horse is going to be in the same program they are accustomed to, or at least be in the care of those who regularly care for the horse and are trained and equipped to handle them.
Then we have my situation. I board my horses in southern California, where most of us do not have access to irrigated pasture. Or pasture of any kind. My horses live at an open boarding barn, in 12’ x24’ pipe corrals, or “at pasture,” which for us means a 48’ x 48’ dirt lot. Board includes hay twice a day and stall cleaning once a day. That’s it.
I’m an amateur. A long time ago I realized I could afford to have one nice horse and keep it in full training at a fancy high rent hunter barn, or I could take on a few rescued off-track Thoroughbreds at a time, rehab them, do the retraining work myself, and do something to help the plight of retiring race horses. I chose Door No. 2, and I have taken more than a dozen Thoroughbreds that retired injured off the track and successfully rehabbed them and found homes for them. Then coronapocalypse happened.
Let me get the obvious stuff out of the way. I believe in #stayingathome, #flatteningthecurve and #supportingourbarnowners. But, I also believe that when I took on my horses, I made a commitment to meet their needs: food, water, care, exercise, rehabilitation and enrichment. Instead of staying home as I’ve watched the pandemic decimate my once solid business and industry and put me out of work for the foreseeable future, I’ve taken on side work in an essential industry so that I can continue to provide for my horses and pay my board.
That is how I’m supporting my barn owner: by making sure I’m able to pay her.
Because my board only includes the most basic things, all other aspects of their care including supplemental feed (which, as Thoroughbreds, they get a lot of), turnout, longeing, riding, hand walking, grooming, etc., is all me. I am my own groom, trainer and rehabber. If I don’t go to the barn, my horses sit in their stalls. Period.
It’s unhealthy and potentially borderline abusive to ask a bunch of young Thoroughbreds to stand in stalls for an unspecified period of time until this all blows over. It’s also dangerous, for them (injuring themselves going stir crazy, developing ulcers or colic over being cooped up and stressed), the barn staff (acting rowdy during stall cleaning) and, eventually, me (when I have to get them back out of the stall after months of being cooped up).
These articles and conversations we’re having around going to the barn or not and riding or not seem to paint me and those in the same situation as monsters without morals who don’t care about humanity because I don’t think it’s reasonable to stay away from the barn for the next two weeks or two months (or who knows how much longer) in order to flatten the curve. I reject that. Vehemently.
My horses need to get out of their stalls. They need to continue their rehabilitation programs for the fractured sesamoid and the bowed tendon. Or they simply need to get out of the barn stall for 30 minutes to stand in the sun while finishing their stall rest. I love our stall cleaner, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to assume he’s suddenly able to provide extra care for my and the other boarders’ horses, on top of his full-time cleaning and feeding duties.
Granted, California has stated that taking care of horses is considered essential. So I’m completely within my rights to go to the barn. I will continue going and, yes, riding when appropriate, while also practicing habits that make going to the barn daily as safe as possible for me and the other people there. But if that changed—if the California governor changed the rules or if my barn owner suddenly decided she wanted to close to boarders—I’m afraid my reaction would not mimic the zen of these think piece authors. I would be too busy making arrangements to move my horses elsewhere, so I could continue to care for them.
I realize this stance is going to get pushback. But my point here isn’t that I think everyone else is wrong, and my approach is right. My approach is right, to me, in my very specific situation, with my specific horses.
I just ask that as this nightmare moves forward, we not continue with this, “Well if I am doing this, then you should too” mentality of caring for our horses and shaming those who take a different approach. If I was selfish, I’d stay home, sit on my couch, and shrug when it came time to pay my board rather than taking on side work in a job I never wanted to have to go back to.
I’m braving the world to make sure my horses are cared for, financially, mentally and physically. That does not make me a monster or mean that I care less about the humans affected by this illness. It just means I’m equally committed to making sure my horses survive this situation as well.
We all want to get to the end of this and go back to the barn in peace. What that means, and what that looks like, now and later, is different for everyone. In the meantime, this is all stressful enough. The horse world already has enough disparity in it. Let’s not make this one more thing that separates us from each other.
M. Sharpe lives in Los Angeles with six off-track Thoroughbreds in various stages of rehabilitation, two retired Quarter Horse mares, three poodles and a partridge in a pear tree. In normal times she works as a liaison between actors and large-scale media events as co-owner of a boutique personal appearance management company. In Coronapocalypse times when large-scale events no longer exist, she’s returned to her roots, working as a veterinary technician for a small animal emergency surgical center to continue to support her horse habit. You can follow the exploits of her equine gang on Instagram at @Meridian_Farms.