Everyone is making hard decisions right now about whether to compete, where to compete, and how to stay safe while doing so. Some top equestrians have opted to take the season off, and others are showing less. We talked to three leading trainers to hear about their experiences showing and at home.
Horse Show, Interrupted
Peter Pletcher, who runs PJP Farm in Magnolia, Texas, headed back to the show ring soon after U.S. Equestrian Federation officials lifted the showing moratorium on June 1. He took 30 horses to the Blue Ribbon Festival I in Katy, Texas, June 10-14, which is about 45 minutes from his base. But things started poorly when one of his students received a phone call saying the coronavirus test she’d taken a few days before—required by her college riding team—wasn’t negative as she’d been informed, but positive. She immediately left the horse show and went back to college to get re-tested as they recommended. Pletcher informed horse show management, who were grateful for his honesty, and told them he’d await the results of her next test.
Then Pletcher’s team found out that a trainer with horses in his aisle had a customer with the virus. While the trainer claimed he hadn’t seen said customer in weeks, the PJP team tracked down a photo on Instagram that proved they’d been together at the barn recently. Pletcher informed show officials, and the trainer was asked to leave.
“Then we get the phone call that one of our fathers who is at the horse show around our barn has COVID,” said Pletcher, who once again went back to show management with the information. “I thought, ‘You know what? I need to call [the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association].’ I called [USHJA President] Mary Babick, told her the whole story. She said, ‘You know you’re doing the right thing by notifying everybody.’ I just said, ‘I just want to know what the protocol is. Do we pack up and leave? He’s got it, and we’ve all been around him, and obviously we should leave.’ She’s like, ‘It’s the ethical thing to do.’ ”
So at 9 p.m. that evening he called all his clients, explained the situation and told them they were leaving the show. A few were upset, protesting that they hadn’t been around the positive parent, but Pletcher pointed out that he had, as had all the staff.
Pletcher suggested that all participants should have to get tested a few days before competition to ensure no one at the show is sick, though he admits that might not be feasible, as he’s heard about testing shortages and long wait times for results.
He also noted that horse show management didn’t set up a station to take temperatures upon entry to the showgrounds, and mask compliance was mediocre at best.
Susie Schoellkopf, of SBS Farms in Buffalo, New York, hasn’t been in favor of the show circuit starting up in full force. She canceled the A-rated horse show she hosts every September—the Buffalo International, which is a USEF Heritage Competition—at the beginning of May. She believes that if people choose to show, they should stay close to home, and the shows shouldn’t count toward USEF Horse of the Year awards or qualifying for championship shows.
Schoellkopf traveled about six hours to the World Equestrian Center Summer #1 show in Wilmington, Ohio, on July 8-12.
“It was good,” she said. “Everybody had masks on, and they had someone driving around and checking that. They did say you had to hand in your affidavit at the driveway, but that didn’t happen. Someone turned everything in at the office, but that wasn’t the same. They did not check temperatures on the way in, so that was a little disappointing.”
The team arrived back from the horse show on a Sunday, and the next day New York governor Andrew Cuomo added Ohio to the travel advisory list, meaning those who came from Ohio to New York after July 13 would have to quarantine for two weeks.
Schoellkopf reopened her lesson program on June 1 with strict protocols in place. Riders show up in masks and get their temperatures taken. Most aren’t allowed to come in the barn to tack up their own horses. They wash their hands, ride, dismount, hand off their horses, and wash their hands again. There’s a similar routine with her therapeutic riding program. She’s had to cut back from four lessons at once, and some of the students haven’t been able to come.
“We’ve made huge changes,” she said. “I think if you follow the guidelines you can make it work. If you want to say it’s no big deal then you’re not going to make it work. Just staff and boarders [are allowed in the barn]. Most of my boarders are in the heath care business, and they’ve been part of our plan for how we’re going to do things.”
Strict Protocols Equal Smooth Sailing
Nick Haness of Hunterbrook Farms in Temecula, California, said he believed Blenheim Equisports, the team behind the Showpark Summer Festival At Blenheim, had some of the strictest protocols in the country. The show, held in San Juan Capistrano, California, from July 15-19, required people to fill out paperwork online before the competition and show their confirmation code at the gate when entering the park to receive a daily wristband. Entrance was limited, with only riders, grooms, trainers, essential personnel and staff allowed, with one parent for minors.
“There were no spectators, no friends or family or owners, which I know was a little challenging and disappointing for some owners who wanted to come and watch their horses compete,” said Haness. “Throughout the grounds there were a lot of hand sanitizer stations, so you could ‘gel in, gel out,’ that is, sanitize before you go to the schooling ring and after you leave, and the same in general all around the showgrounds.”
The show used Showgrounds Live for entries, adds and scratches. Checking in and out was done online. Haness said if you were competing, you could be at the ring, but afterward, staff instructed you to head back to the barn or your car. The back gate area was roped off so no one could get too close.
“There was a mixture of COVID cops with orange vests on and some in disguise; some were walking around the horse show and monitoring people and making sure they were wearing their masks at all times,” said Haness. “At one point I got yelled at [for having his mask down while] eating a handful of Sour Patch kids between rounds.”
Haness enjoyed not having to jog after rated classes, (a USEF Presidential Modification stated that riders simply had to trot after their round was over to show soundness for the time being) and hopes that trend will continue for non-COVID times.
“I think it ran really smoothly,” he said. “Do your round, jump your horses, then go get unbraided and go have their treats and be done and not have to come back out. Some of the bigger shows, sometimes the 3’3” performance has 80 horses jogging; if it’s split via California Split, there can be 40 horses out there. It can be difficult. This was a good idea from USEF to do this this way, looking out for welfare.”
Blenheim put out a release saying braiding was optional, however Haness opted to braid.
“I wanted to support my braider; she’s been a part of our team for many years, and I wanted her to have ability to have income and braid,” said Haness. “And of course we love having our horses look beautiful and [be] presented beautifully. I would say most people braided. I saw probably more tails not braided than normal, especially being a WCHR show. But most people’s manes were braided.”
Vendors didn’t let customers in their trailers; they procured items for them instead. The regular restaurant on the showgrounds was closed, but several food trucks were there.
“I’m grateful that the horse show world is able to come together and proving we can stick together and do this correctly,” he said. “By following the new rules we can continue to have some of our lifestyle back, and it’s a great way for our horse world to keep going. I’m all for it.”