For hunter/jumper competitors across the country, fall means indoor horse shows, specifically the East Coast run of Capital Challenge (Maryland), the Pennsylvania National, the Washington International (District of Columbia) and the National Horse Show (Kentucky). But the coronavirus pandemic has turned the show world on its head, so what’s going on with four of the biggest championship shows on the calendar? We talked to those working behind the scenes to find out.
Capital Challenge Horse Show
The Capital Challenge Horse Show will take place as scheduled at its home at the Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, Sept. 25-Oct. 4. Oliver Kennedy, the co-manager and general partner of Capital Challenge, has been hard at work ensuring the show’s future since the spring, staying in constant contact with the state and county, especially through the Maryland Horse Industry Board. He helped come up with the protocols to re-open horse shows in the state.
At Capital Challenge this year expect to see no general public, and only essential personnel in the arena, with limited access to the in-gate.
“We moved all of the under saddle classes,” said Kennedy. “[They] will go either in the covered ring, which is the biggest ring on the property and also has the most area around so you can avoid crowds so when the next class is getting ready everyone doesn’t need to be right on top of each other, or they’ll be going in the outside ring. If it’s one hack after a division is over, we’ll go in the outside ring. When we run multiple hacks in a row, we’ll go to the covered ring.
“We shot a bunch of aerial photos on a very busy day of the horse show last year,” he continued. “We looked at how many people are in the warm-up area, how many people are at the in-gate from the outside ring. We were looking at all the things from the indoor ring. It’s not that crazy. So much of our spectator base for us is online. I can easily get to the number [of people in the building the state] wants you to stay within right now.”
This year’s schedule at Capital Challenge will include the North American League’s National Finals, which are usually held at the Pennsylvania National.
Kennedy and his team have been stockpiling touchless thermometers and 250 gallons of hand sanitizer.
“If at some point in time we feel that this is going to be unsafe, we’re going to pull the plug,” said Kennedy. “But right now, talking with the heath department and all those organizations, I think we can we can do a safe show.”
Pennsylvania National Horse Show
The PA Farm Show Complex and Expo Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has been the Pennsylvania National’s home for the last three-quarters of a century, but it’s not fully open, so holding the horse show there wasn’t an option. In May, the board of directors and show management team paired up with those from the Washington International and the National Horse Show to look for a place to host the shows.
“The three of us put our heads together and looked at Wellington [Florida] as a possibility, but with the sponsor conflict between Rolex and Longines [the sponsor of the FEI World Cup classes hosted by the National and Washington International], that wasn’t going to happen,” said Susie Webb, executive director of the Pennsylvania National. “We looked at some other places and considered so many different scenarios.”
In the end, the Pennsylvania National and Washington International opted to move to the 23-acre Bob Thomas Equestrian Center at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa this year. The Pennsylvania National will run Oct. 8-16, one day shorter than usual. The show will use two rings, the covered arena and the grand prix field, and run shortened days, with things wrapping up between 5 and 6 p.m. every day.
“We’re following the protocols of the [U.S. Equestrian Federation], the Florida State Fairgrounds and the Florida state government,” said Webb. “Caitlin Lane will help head up health and safety management.”
With the show now a two-ring event, there will be additional horses accepted in certain divisions. The junior hunters will have 30 in each section, including the 3’3” junior hunters, which previously only accepted 12. There will not be side-saddle classes. Hunt night, the Pennsylvania National Horse Show Foundation Therapeutic Championship and all the other exhibitions will not take place.
This year would have been the 75th year at the PA Farm Show Complex, and Webb is planning a big 75th anniversary celebration at next year’s event.
“It’s been a really good experience to all work together,” said Webb. “We understand that this could go till the last day and something happens, and we have to pull the plug, but we’d like to try to salvage something of this year, and hopefully everybody can end the year on a positive note.”
Washington International Horse Show
The Washington International’s home base, the Capital One Center in Washington, District of Columbia, has been closed since March thanks to COVID-19.
“We had conversations with [management for the] Capital One arena throughout the spring into summer,” said show president Vicki Lowell. “It wasn’t going to be possible for it to open. All the other events are also canceled or pushed to 2021. Having the show there wasn’t an option. And it wouldn’t have been safe anyway. People have to operate in a congested stabling area even if we had had no spectators.”
After considering many other options, Lowell was thrilled with the opportunities provided by the Bob Thomas Equestrian Center in Tampa, and the show will run there from Oct. 20-25, a few days after the Pennsylvania National wraps up at the same venue. They’re still waiting for the final rubber stamp from the Fédération Equestre Internationale on their classes, including the Longines FEI World Cup Qualifier.
“We will do everything we can to make sure it’s safe, recognizing that Florida is a hot spot right now,” said Lowell. “We are hoping it’s not by the time we get to October—it’s impossible to predict what will happen with the virus, and we are monitoring it on a daily basis. We’ll be taking temperatures of people coming in, making sure there is a lot of opportunity for people to social distance. We’ll have lots of signage, lots of monitoring, lots of reminders, online entries—all of the things shows are doing to provide as contactless an experience as possible. That was another consideration about Tampa: It has large stabling areas, and there’s not a need to have golf carts because as big as the showgrounds is, it’s not really spread out. It’s very open air; there’s one single point of entry. [Washington International show manager] David Distler did a comprehensive inspection of the site and felt that we could put on quite a good horse show there.”
Washington is planning on having vendors, following the best practices procedure of keeping customers out of trailers and having employees bring items outside to customers.
Like the Pennsylvania National, Washington will hold competition in the covered and grand prix rings and will not hold night classes. The puissance is canceled, as it’s a spectator-driven event, and spectators won’t be allowed at the show, so an additional open jumper class will be added. (There will be a live feed.) The popular WIHS Shetland Pony Steeplechase will hopefully take place as part of the WIHS-affiliated Zone 3 regionals, which will still be held at the Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Maryland, Oct. 16-18.
“We’re going to be very smart and have the advantage to coming later in the year that gives us an opportunity to learn from those who have done it well,” said Lowell. “Our plan is to learn from that and put on a safe and special show.
“If we get to the point where we think we cannot put on a safe horse show, we will cancel,” Lowell continued. “We want to do everything we can to have the shows, so we’re following the guidelines of local, state and federal officials and the CDC. We’re looking to the experts for advice.”
The National Horse Show
The National Horse Show will take place as scheduled at its home in the Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park from Oct. 23 to Nov. 1, but for a little while that was in question.
“Our first concern, obviously, was the health and wellbeing of horses, people and involved staff, to work with a facility that had a vetted COVID team to partner with,” said National Horse Show President Jennifer Burger. “With that at the forefront of our thought process, I was contacted by [the Washington International and the Pennsylvania National] to explore the avenue of joint venturing.”
Burger said that the three shows worked well together, brainstorming daily and exploring myriad options.
Scheduling conflicts between the shows meant that the Alltech couldn’t host all three shows in a row. Ultimately the National Horse Show board voted unanimously to stay at its home base.
Burger said she’s hoping to host about the same number of horses, 750 or so, though qualifying criteria has shifted, particularly for the ASPCA Maclay Championship.
“We’re looking forward to hosting the [THIS NHS Adult Medal] and the [Hamill Foundation NHS 3’3” Medal Finals] and the [ASPCA] Maclay Championship and the [Longines FEI World Cup qualifier],” said Burger. “The Saturday night grand prix will be at the same money as last year, and we’ll have the $50,000 hunter classic with the top hunters in all divisions.”
The Taylor Harris VIP club will be missing this year, and right now it looks like vendors will be outdoors.
“This is a year that people will have to make decisions and maybe pick and choose [what shows to attend] and do what’s best for them,” said Burger. “We encourage and support everyone in staying in their own comfort zone for their own reasons.”