After the relative ease of running a schooling show at our own farm a few weeks ago, my team and I decided to brave the first recognized dressage show in Virginia: Dressage At Lexington, a big, long and prestigious show that normally marks the end of our summer competition season. This year it was the beginning, and it meant hot weather and a bit of anxiety about competition rust, not to mention, um, COVID.
But with good judgement, fantastic facility and competition management, and a clear plan in place, we had an extraordinary show. Here’s what we learned.
First things first. Let the men and women of the Virginia Horse Center take a bow, because they took their jobs as Safety Enforcers SERIOUSLY. Upon arriving at the show, everyone was temped by a staff of men in masks with forehead thermometers. Every time. Even if you forgot something at the hotel and had to run back to return five minutes later. They were kind, efficient and deadly serious. They also, upon initial check in, had everyone sign USEF’s special COVID waiver, and we were given an armband to show we’d done so, and that we’d also filled out an extensive questionnaire about travel history.
The bathrooms were cleaned regularly; it smelled like disinfectant probably half the time I went into one. They spaced stable groups apart, so it was easier to socially distance. There were also hand washing stations EVERYWHERE, including ringside, so you were never far away from a chance to scrub up. Volunteers, security officers and show management were on us like hawks about masks (more on that in a minute), and virtually all of the facility staff had masks on. So well done, VHC. (And not for nothing but HUGE congratulations and gratitude for the footing improvements and new seating area; it was fabulous!)
Then there was show management itself. Bettina Longaker and her team are always a pleasure to show with, because they run a tight ship, but this year was exceptional. Online entries via HorseShowOffice.com are efficient (and free, unlike other companies that charge a fee to use them). Coggins, waivers, vaccine reports, etc., were all easily submittable electronically. If you were flummoxed by a scanner, you arranged a time to come to the show office, so there wasn’t a queue. Packet pickup was outdoors. Communication with the show office was possible via text. I could have gone the entire weekend without stepping into the show office at all.
So let’s talk about the elephant in the room: the mask. If you’re one of the selfish, science-doubting lunatics who thinks they’re going to choke to death on their own CO2 because of a piece of fabric, then don’t you dare come to a dressage show. Participants were overwhelmingly compliant on their own, and both show and facility staff were on hand to offer kind but emphatic reminders. And no, they’re not fun, and yes, they are HOT. The heat index at this show was up over 100*, and fabric on your face isn’t a barrel of laughs. But it was totally doable.
If you needed a second to breathe, you went and found a quiet space outdoors, away from others, to pop your mask off and take a moment. Riders aren’t required to wear one while mounted (although hey, McLain Ward brought home a six-figure victory wearing one. Rock on, dude.) And how lucky, lucky, lucky we are that we can do this thing we love out of doors and socially distanced. If we behave well and wear our masks, not only do people stay healthier, which you’d think would be motivation enough, but showing can continue. If we behave poorly and don’t wear our masks, shows will shut down. It’s as simple as that.
As far as what type of masks work best, we learned a few things too. Behind-the-ears versus behind-the-head is about personal preference, for sure. (I’m the latter.) It’s pretty clear that thicker and layered is safer, though certainly hotter. I found that the masks with both a middle seam, so they’re a little bit more cone shaped, and a solid nose wire were the most comfortable to wear all day in hot climates. I found one on Etsy that came with a filter pocket into which I stuck a particle filter, and I could have added another layer of filtration if I’d wanted. But a BIG thing we learned is that you need to have a bunch of them, at least one per day, if not more, depending on how dirty you get over the course of the day. A wet mask is both uncomfortable and ineffective, so having backups was the way to go. (Pro tip: Bring some detergent with you, and wash your mask in your hotel sink; it’ll be good to go 24-ish hours later. I got away with only having two of my favorite masks for four days because I just washed them in between.)
The logistics of stabling, staying in a hotel and eating for a few days away from home took some tap dancing, but weren’t impossible. We brought a fridge for our tack stall and brought provisions for breakfast and lunch and snacks, so we didn’t have to go anywhere. For dinner, we did carry out from Lexington’s fine restaurants and brought it back to the show, where we socially distanced and used our own silverware we brought from home and then washed.
And this was particularly wonderful, because after months of isolation, it felt so good to be with other humans, to talk about horses, to catch up on our lives. It was very, very easy to just step back and talk from a distance. As an extrovert, it felt so, so amazing to stretch my conversational legs.
The hotel was a challenge. A big nasty Yelp review to the hotel at which we stayed, which not only had no signage about masks in common areas but also no requirement that staff wear masks, nor any kind of plastic protection for the check-in counter. So they won’t be getting my money ever again, and if you’re heading to Lexington and want to know which hotel I’m talking about, shoot me an email. But we checked in with masks on ourselves and then quickly used the stairs to get up to our room, where we used a sanitizing gun a friend built for me to sanitize our room from stem to stern, and then promptly put the “do not disturb” sign on the door, so we wouldn’t have cleaning staff inside for the duration of our stay. We made our own beds and reused our towels. Problem solved.
We also made some decisions within our team. Only my assistant trainer, Jess, and I rode, and we brought wondergroom Emily; I’m the old fart of that group, at the age of 35. We took horses of our own and some client horses. The owners of those horses decided individually not to come, to protect their health; we took photos and videos and sent lots of reports back. Some of my clients who want to head to a recognized show but are fearful of the virus will likely do some shows that are closer to home and therefore easier to haul in and out of. One of my students—my friend Abe Pugh who, ahem, won both the Grand Prix Challenge and the Grand Prix Freestyle Challenge, way to go—rides a fantastic Trakehner stallion owned by Alice Drayer, who did make the trip down in spite of being in one of the higher risk groups, and she was diligent in her mask wearing and social distancing, and did not feel unsafe.
So the COVID considerations required forethought, but they were not unsurmountable, not by any stretch. The dressage part was up to us, and fortunately, even though we’ve spent more than a few days at home doing Very Serious Horse Training by splashing in the pond and playing with tarps, finding our dressage-related inspiration a little wanting, my team did awesome. In addition to Abe’s big wins, Jess had stellar rides on our amazing friend Beverley Thomas’ dear creature Fantom, including a career-best at Prix St. Georges. She also showed Marja Lauren’s fabulous PRE Escándalo to third level high score honors and two wins, and I was right on her heels with my own Puck, who has proven that he’s officially a reasonable adult and a show horse by winning one of his own third level classes and scoring nearly 73%. Good boy! Helio, my mom’s little yellow Lusitano, had two solid rounds of fourth level, test 3, because I’m a glutton for punishment, and is qualified for the Regional Finals now, so I can stop with that nonsense and pop on a tailcoat, huzzah. And my student Keely had smashing good rides at first and second levels to take champion and reserve, respectively, in the “Sport Horse Amateur Challenge” divisions, which meant some excellent neck ribbons and swag to take home.
Our quarantine time of thinking too hard and fretting a lot wasn’t wasted. Our horses were well prepared. And we had plenty of time to think of creative workarounds in a coronavirus world. They weren’t hard or expensive; they just required some planning in advance, something in which certainly we neurotic DQs specialize. But even for the less detail-oriented, it just wasn’t that hard to make a safe experience.
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.