Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency in the United States on March 13, the Chronicle staff members gathered around a table in our office. Italy had just started lockdown, and it seemed likely that some major events would be canceled, so we were strategizing how to adjust our coverage.
Three weeks later, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. has surpassed the rest of the world. More and more people everywhere are dealing with the same hardships. We reached out to a few horse owners to learn what life is like across the globe in these remarkable times. Here’s what we learned.
Barbara Dove, St. Louis, Missouri
Barbara Dove keeps her horses, Tulsa and Schnickelfritz, on a 180-acre farm that grows wheat and soybeans and bales hay with wire instead of twine. The farm has been in the owner’s family for five generations—it predates the Civil War—but the world around it has changed drastically. What used to be neighboring farms or wild forest has transformed into a bustling suburb of St. Louis.
“If I ride up on the ridge I’m right at the edge of a bluff that looks down on three corners of strip malls and huge stores, movie theaters, everything, and then we’re on this 180-acre land that’s still pretty much how it was 150 years ago,” said Dove, a 59-year-old St. Louis native who began riding when she was 40 and has tried every discipline from driving to outriding at the Kentucky Three-Day Event.
Dove works as a hairstylist at an assisted care facility that went into lockdown on March 12, abruptly cutting off her income.
Since then she’s taken on odd jobs like pruning a friend’s vineyard, and she used a $100 gift from one of her local pastors to add 12 chickens to her existing flock. She sold roughly 25 dozen eggs after posting an ad on Facebook.
“I’m hoping those eggs will help me pay for the horses’ feed since they’re 29 and need soaked cubes and senior feed, stuff like that,” she said.
Dove is doubling up on farm chores in exchange for delaying her board until the crisis passes, but she encountered another equine expense when Tulsa had a flare-up of a neurological issue, which Dove manages with chiropractic work and red-light therapy.
“He had a flare-up just as I was starting to figure this all out, and my chiro called me,” said Dove. “She said, ‘My hair salon is closed! I’m desperate. Are you doing hair at home if I wear a mask?’ I said, ‘Why yes I am!’ So we’re bartering hair for Tulsa’s adjustment.”
Beyond the horses, Dove worries what the world will look like on the other side of the pandemic.
“There’s a tremendous sense of loss about what was and uncertainty about the future,” she said. “Not only short term with, ‘How am I going to pay my bills? What’s happening to my IRA?’ but long-term loss of, ‘Will life ever be normal again?’ A lot of people are worried about the economy. A lot of people have lost their faith and their trust in the government. I think people are frustrated with the money that was funneled to politicians in the midst of all of this. But I think in some ways people are being very kind and helpful. Maybe staying at home has solidified families and let people realize what’s really important.”
Patricia Clark, County Offaly, Ireland
The Republic of Ireland announced its lockdown measures on March 27. For Patricia Clark that meant an official suspension of her daily visit with her horse Monty, an Irish Draught stabled 10 minutes down the road. It also meant major disruptions to the way of life in her village.
“Ireland has always been a very open, relaxed and friendly country. Especially in rural areas, such as the one I live in,” said Clark, 33.
“Extended families are a lot closer than other parts of the world, and community relationships are very important,” she continued. “It’s common to call round to friends and neighbors to chat and catch up on a regular basis. Everyone knows each other. Now it’s very different. If we want to chat we have to do so at a distance over the garden fence.”
One of the most frustrating aspects of the shutdown for Clark is seeing other parts of Ireland not taking the threat as seriously. Her local pubs and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were canceled before the government officially called off festivities, but she says that commitment hasn’t been universal.
“I’ve seen stupidity elsewhere first-hand though, and that’s maddening” Clark said. “So many people are putting their lives on the line and making sacrifices. It’s upset and angered me to see the selfishness of some people.”
Clark also worries that the small, local business she works for won’t have a job for her by the end of the year. Her company coordinates work experience placements within the Irish agricultural and equine industries for students from all over the world.
“The business I work for relies on travel into Ireland, and so it’s been hit hugely,” she said. “Normally, we’d be at our busiest time of year, and I’d be away working with student groups from America or Europe. Currently I’m doing what bits of admin work I can.”
For comfort and hope, Clark leans on her other passion, Irish music. She normally teaches classes every night of the week and spends many weekends performing. These days, her gigs are virtual. She posted one video on Facebook of her playing fiddle in her living room. The caption reads: “New barn dance… name suggestions on a (sanitized) postcard please!”
“There are always other opportunities,” Clark said. “I’m using the quiet time to plan future work, both in my full-time job and in music—I’m writing funding applications and planning projects, writing new lessons and new material. I think the main problem is the uncertainty. It’s very hard to live with these restrictions and stresses when there is no definitive answer to: ‘How long for?’ The thought of getting back to my horse, getting back to work, seeing my family and friends again is what keeps me going.”
Rebecca Nicholls, Freemans Reach, Australia
Rebecca Nicholls is familiar with lockdown. So far this year her home in Freemans Reach, Australia, has been affected by drought, water restrictions, bushfires and flooding. Nicholls and her husband, Mike Nicholls, spent most of late 2019 through early 2020 voluntarily locked down at home with their horses, dogs, cats and chickens while they watched clouds of smoke roll across the sky.
“Thankfully the fires didn’t get close enough that we were evacuated,” Rebecca, 51, said. “We actually had some horses moved here from other properties that were under direct threat. We made the decision to stay home over the Christmas period rather than go away for a break due to the risk of leaving and not being able to get back home in a hurry. But that was a choice rather than a directive like [the COVID-19 lockdown].”
Rebecca usually commutes 40 miles to Sydney, where she works as a training manager in the support office for the skincare retailer Jurlique. She’s been working from home for the past few weeks, and Jurlique recently closed all of their retail stores across Australia for four weeks. Australia’s lockdown measures differ by state. Freemans Reach is in New South Wales, which has announced that residents are required to stay in their homes unless they have a reasonable excuse for leaving.
“I personally didn’t feel impacted until recently when my normal work was affected,” Rebecca said. “Friends will say that I have been practicing social isolation for years, and there is nothing I love more than not leaving my front gate or seeing many people when I’m not in the city. This now feels much more serious, and the rates of infection and sadly deaths are now too high to ignore. Panic buying of household items and food was just insane and still continues to be a problem with some products, so rations have been put in place. On a positive note, it seems that random acts of kindness are on the increase in the community. At a distance of course!”
Here are a few additional thoughts from horse people around the world on how the pandemic is affecting their professional, personal and emotional lives:
“There are still many stupid people who are fined every day for being out with no reason, but most people here are now taking the situation very seriously. They’re behaving responsibly and following the new rules our government has decided (lockdown for everyone). I don’t think people are panicking anymore, that was more at the beginning. But in each one of us there’s constant worry. All day long, all we hear about is COVID-19. The measures to follow, the increasing numbers of sick and dead people, the economic crisis, the full hospitals … This whole situation is surreal.” – Sara, Italy
“All the competitions were canceled. Boarding barns closing to all but essential employees. I’m in a private barn in Ocala [Florida] and qualify as an essential employee, but I would not in Massachusetts. Therefore I’m staying an extra month in Florida.” – Ann, Tewksbury, Massachusetts
“I run and own a horseback riding tour business, and we have had to shut down. Our string is turned out in order to save on feed. It’s depressing. I only pray the economy can support us when this is over. We already had to sell one horse to help pay the bills. It’s heartbreaking.” – Jaye Ganibi, Santa Ynez, California
“New Zealand is in lockdown now, so we have been instructed not to leave our home unless it’s essential. My husband works in an essential industry job so has to continue work, so we have had to segregate our home to keep our baby safe.” – Jorja, Urenui, New Zealand
“I’m high risk and a student rider, so I stopped going to the barn two weeks before my state’s stay-at-home bans.” – Rhonda Lane, Southington, Connecticut
“We are a little bit scared because lots of people can’t work, so they are likely to have financial problems in the future. Also nobody knows how long it’s gonna take, and I think everyone already would like to end staying home, because it’s so boring and depressing.” – Daga, Rybnik, Poland