On June 1 the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s suspension of its owned and named events will expire, and shows may resume once again. But what will shows look like? And how will everyone stay safe in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic?
USEF CEO Bill Moroney joined USEF General Counsel Sonja Keating, USEF team physician Dr. Mark Hart, Equestrian Sports Productions President Michael Stone and trainer John Madden to share information and answer questions in an hour-long webinar on May 4.
“Personal and community responsibility is the foundation of transitioning to the new normal,” said Moroney.
“There won’t be one unified national approach to opening the country,” he continued. “Restrictions and behaviors will vary depending on what the state and, in some cases, the local government imposes.”
Stone put the challenge bluntly.
“The most important thing we have to realize is we just have one chance to get it right,” he said. “When we kick off, we have to do it correctly.”
The USEF will have mandatory and recommended best practices outlined in the USEF COVID-19 action plan, which will be published later this week. According to Keating, that action plan will be a fluid, living document that can be adjusted as needs change. Key elements of the plan include risk assessment; temperature monitoring of volunteers, officials and staff; social distancing; banning spectators from competitions; limiting the number of entrances and exits; requiring all entries to be completed online; and using posted orders of go and published ride times. Participants will have to sign a revised waiver and release of liability and assumption of risk and indemnity agreement.
Individuals can be removed from the grounds for failing to adhere to the requirements by the organization or officials.
Hart addressed the most basic question of all: Is it even safe to consider going back to competitions? His answer: yes and no.
“Equestrian sports are inherently safer than some other sports because we don’t have contact with other people,” he said. “In equestrian sports—barring a couple of our disciplines such as vaulting and para—we can maintain social distancing. Do we overwhelm a local medical system with our sport? We’re not showing that we’re impacting the local medical providers that way.”
Hart emphasized that individuals would have to make the decisions that are best for them personally. He said that the USEF has been working with other national federations and international federations to create protocols.
“Half the people who have it don’t know they’re infected,” he said. “They’re transmitting the virus for one to two weeks and don’t know it. Masks reduce that person from transmitting the virus. I strongly advise at this stage that we consider recommending masks.”
Stone discussed the changes he’s been preparing at ESP, the team behind the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida). They’re planning to move all the entries online, put plexiglass in front of show secretaries, ask everyone to wear masks, add extra cleaning staff (including bathroom attendants), look at disinfecting sprays used in hospitals to spray down warm-up jumps, and require social distancing, including within “tribes” from the same barn. He said he expects local health authorities will be inspecting horse shows to see how they are handling things. They’re limiting the number of people who can come with each rider to three: a groom, trainer and family member.
Competitors will be able to sign up to ride on a first-come, first-serve basis, and if there are too many people, and time slots run out, too bad. He’s looking into text messaging apps to send a mass text in case of a storm, and he’s planning to tell people to shelter in their cars rather than squeezing into tents in case of inclement weather.
“We’re following the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” he said. “We’ve worked a little with the [World Health Organization] risk assessment tool, which is really good, and we have very little risk. I think most organizers will be able to come out. I would ask people be respectful of everyone else. This isn’t a joke; this is serious. We want to get the business up and running; so many people who are self-employed haven’t had work for a month. We need to work with them to get business going.”
Madden, who runs John Madden Sales in Cazenovia, New York, emphasized personal responsibility and remembering the big picture.
“We have to be really good citizens to our staff, clients, organizers,” he said. “With local, county, state, national governments, federations and organizations, we have to be really good citizens to the world. This is not isolated like a hurricane or an earthquake. We might be enjoying the sun in Kentucky and having a great horse show, but other areas of the world could be under tremendous stress due to COVID-19 pandemic. We have to be sensitive to that so we’re not a burden.”
He pointed out that as a sport we’re already well suited to putting others first, as we need to put the horse’s well-being before winning. On a practical level, he pointed out that good practices should begin at the barn at home and continue at the horse show.
“We’re already wearing masks, social distancing, cleaning things,” he said. “It’s important to develop good habits of disinfecting. Go through your day and think about what happens. Who’s going to feed the horses? Who’s opening the stall door? Where will I put disinfecting devices? Are we going to keep the air moving in different places? Do I need to buy extra equipment so I can keep everything separate?”
The panel stayed on after the presentation, and Mark Coley, the USEF director of development, read questions that had been submitted beforehand or during the presentation.
• With so many horse shows rescheduling, will the mileage rule still be in effect?
Yes. Shows that conflict with other shows within the allotted mileage will still have to go through the exemption process. That said, the USEF board has approved a resolution permitting Moroney to modify rules to create flexibility and the nimbleness needed to counter the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.
“The resolution by the board allows me to have the flexibility to alter timelines to expedite the process a little more and to bring groups of competitions together to look at as a unit rather than a one-off,” said Moroney.
• Will USEF or state governors be the ones to OK competitions?
The USEF will defer to state and local governments.
“We urge the organizers to conduct the risk assessment from the WHO and do it in partnership with state and public health authorities,” said Keating. “That will guide the decision.”
• Will there be restrictions on those traveling from areas with a high density of COVID cases to areas with a low density?
Not from the USEF, but state and local governments may make their own decisions that competitors must abide by.
• How will social distancing work at the riding rings?
“We’ll have specific ride times for people and limit people who can come with the horse to a trainer, groom and one family member,” said Stone. “We’ll have social distancing at all the rings keeping people separate.”
• When will we get access to the updated waiver and release form? How do we handle releases from grooms and others who don’t sign an entry blank?
The waiver document is finalized, and Keating said the USEF will make sure it’s available. She encouraged organizers to have everyone on the show grounds sign, from licensed officials to volunteers to grooms.
• Will the USEF require masks, and if not, why not?
Hart pointed out that there’s a fine line between recommendations and requirements, and that he’d strongly consider asking organizers to implement policies requiring masks.
• Will families of a minor be able to attend shows?
The USEF would not disallow a minor to be accompanied by a guardian or parent, but perhaps to meet the three-person limit they may only bring one.
• Who will monitor the USEF recommended safety guidelines and who will bear the costs?
“The organizer will have a responsibility to put in place and implement the guidelines that come out and to follow all federal, state and local regulations, and recommendations of the CDC,” said Moroney. “The reality is I think the entire community will be doing this. I think organizers have a real desire to do the right thing here. I’m a little worried back in the barn where people might get lax for how the barn is operating where people are sitting together in the tack room, aisle or barn.
“The cost will be borne by everybody,” he continued. “Organizers will have to put in place and pay for what they need to do as well as the trainers. As an employer of 140 people [the USEF] will supply face masks as they come back. Trainers will do it for theirs, participants will do it for their children and themselves. I think we’ll see everyone pulling together to be sure we do this right and sustain equestrian sport going forward in this new environment.”
• Since avoiding touchpoints is the most important way to stay safe, how do you deal with jump cups, stall clips and everything else that’s handled by multiple people throughout the day?
Madden suggested that barns implement systems that work for them, such as each groom having his or her own equipment, riders meeting horses at the mounting block, and limiting the number of people in the tack room to two. He suggested barns practice these policies at home before they go to the show, and work with organizers on disinfecting public spaces.
• What do qualifications for championships look like? What about Horse of the Year points? What happens if only some states are allowed to have shows—that seems unfair. What about juniors getting another year?
Moroney said that the USEF has already sent out several press releases adapting qualifications for certain competitions, and they’re working on others.
“In regards to fairness, the goal is to be as fair as possible, but knowing the limitations we have, nothing is perfect for everybody,” said Moroney. “We’re trying to do the best we can with what we have at hand and to make opportunities as broad as possible so people have a chance to participate and enjoy it. As far as decisions about eligibility of junior exhibitors and horses in age-restricted divisions, we’re too early in this process to make those decisions.
“We’re not at that point yet to determine that a majority of the competition year has been taken away from athletes yet,” he continued. “We hope it isn’t. The best I can say now is that we’re actively researching this and coming out with updates.”
• How can we rely on temperature checks if ambient temperatures are raised or temperatures are raised further with physical activity?
Temperature screening occurs as someone is entering a venue. Dr. Hart said he can’t imagine organizers running around and going after people. He pointed out that the CDC considers a fever at 100.4 degrees, and unless someone was vigorously exercising even in high ambient temperatures it would be unusual to get to 99.5 degrees.
• What resources will the USEF provide to organizers?
By the end of this week the COVID action plan and waiver will be available on the USEF website, which already has lots of other resources.