Unless you’re one of the three astronauts who landed back to earth from the space station on Thursday, I’m sure you are well aware that there is currently a global pandemic gripping the world that has come in the form of Covid-19.
The arrival of coronavirus has had a devastating affect on every country it has touched. Healthcare systems have been brought to their knees as they fight to reduce deaths, while governments plead with their populations to adhere to social distancing guidelines until they are given no choice but to implement country-wide lockdowns. All of these necessary health measures have had a massive impact on economies and people’s general way of life with unemployment rates soaring within a matter of weeks. There’s not a single aspect of society that hasn’t been impacted and that rings true for Ireland’s equestrian community.
In an effort to remain transparent, I am going to keep the focus of this post on Ireland as I don’t feel I can comment on the goings-on in other countries just by what I’m seeing on social media. However if you are reading from outside Ireland, I would love to know how your equestrian life has been affected by Covid-19 so please share in the comments.
What is happening in Ireland?
As of today, Saturday 18th April 2020, Ireland is on lockdown. This means that everyone must stay home in all circumstances unless:
- You are an essential worker and you are travelling to/from work
- To shop for essential food/household goods or to attend medical appointments
- For vital family reasons eg. to look after children or elderly/vulnerable people
- For brief physical exercise within 2km of your home
The initial announcement for lockdown was made on Friday 27th March at approx. 8.30pm when we were given the above instructions and advised that they would be in place from midnight that evening until Easter Sunday, the 12th April – so we were staring down the barrel of a two week lockdown.
When these restrictions were announced, the equestrian community in Ireland was left reeling as it struggled to determine what that meant for equestrian owners and businesses. We were given no guidance on what was considered an essential business so there were very large question marks over when we would be able to see our horses again.
As mild panic began setting in, people took to social media to see what further information they could glean from their trusted sources who, at the time, probably knew as much as anyone else in the country. That was, until approx. 10.30pm, when Horse Sport Ireland (Ireland’s governing body for the equestrian industry), posted the below on their Facebook page.
With this we were able to let out a sigh of relief as we realised we would still be allowed to visit our horses to give them the much-needed hugs and kisses we knew they’d so desperately miss in our absence (yes, I’m being sarcastic..we all know your horse just wants their feed and they’ll be happy, the hugs and kisses are for us).
The next question on everyone’s mind however, was whether our yards would still allow us in and if so, would we still be able to ride? This is where things became complicated…
The Options for our Livery Yards
Following the announcement, it was evident that livery yards across the country had already planned for the eventuality that lockdown would be implemented, as owners everywhere began receiving texts and calls informing them of what would happen in their yard.
Over the following days it became clear that livery yard owners had three possible courses of action they could take –
- Shut down the yard for the full two weeks of lockdown which would mean no access for owners
- Remain open but assign hourly timeslots so as to adhere to social distancing guidelines as best as possible
- Keep business as usual and allow free access
These decisions were made and while those who were faced with Option 1 may have been a bit disgruntled initially, for the most part, people seemed to be in agreement that they should do whatever is necessary to help ‘flatten the curve’ (a phrase I never want to hear again once this is all over). So we would just put our heads down and get on with things for the next two weeks.
Unfortunately however, things are never that simple for us here in this delightful community of ours. Over the course of those two weeks, it became clear through social media what yards were still allowing their owners access to their horses and as we drew nearer to our lockdown deadline and talk of an extension began, frustrations were beginning to mount.
Lockdown Extension and Rising Tempers
On Friday 10th April, it was announced that Ireland’s lockdown would be extended a further 3 weeks until Tuesday 5th May. By this point, horses across the country had enjoyed a solid two weeks of time off, getting fat in fields without their rugs as the good weather set in. Meanwhile owners were becoming more and more frustrated being confined to their homes while watching friends in other yards out enjoying their horses. Unfortunately this bitterness has made its way to social media this week (as does everything) in the form of a heated discussion around what livery yards should be doing.
There have been two clear sides in the discussion – those who believe all livery yards should be closed entirely and those who believe that owners should be allowed access to ride their horses while ensuring they adhere to HSE social distancing guidelines. But who is in the right? Well that’s what I want to explore next…
What is the right thing to do?
When I started looking into this I decided to do some research into what we have ‘officially’ been told to do. During my search I was only able to find two reputable sources who have provided some form of direction to the equestrian community, however unfortunately what I found only leads to more questions.
It is not necessary to seek official authorisation – it is up to you to objectively and fairly make the assessment in each case…
Starting with Horse Sport Ireland (click here for full information), for the most part they have provided answers for breeders and answer questions regarding transportation however what is worth noting is the following:
The Government have given guidance for employers and employees and the self employed, including farmers, to decide whether you are providing an essential service. It is not necessary to seek official authorisation – it is up to you to objectively and fairly make the assessment in each case…
So we can see where yard owners may have struggled to decide what the best course of action was. The Government has not provided any specific guidelines for livery yard owners. No law has been put in place. All they have to go on are ‘recommendations’.
From there I found further recommendations published by Teagasc, the Agricultural and Food Development Authority (click here for full information). Again, these are only recommendations and not absolute rules that have been put in place by the Government – it’s all interpretation. Of course the usual recommendations were given around following HSE guidelines to the best of your ability but below are a summary of other recommendations which I found to be most relevant for livery yard owners:
- Deny all non-essential visitors at this time
- Set up hand washing sanitising stations in the yard(s)
- Clients in livery yards etc. should use their own grooming kits, tack etc. and be encouraged to clean between uses
- In a D.I.Y., or part livery situation, for the immediate term can care of client horses be undertaken by the yard staff, consider turning horses out to grass for a period of rest
- Alternatively stagger the attendance of clients in the yard with clearly communicated timelines to attend
Again, yard owners are given a swath of recommendations that almost contradict each other and make it difficult for them to decide what they should do. Should they deny owners access to their horses and take on the additional labour that looking after horses on DIY will cause (and for no additional pay mind you)? Should they only allow DIY owners access which, let’s face it, will cause uproar among full livery clients who have been denied access to their horse? Should they allow their client’s access and risk being berated by other yards who have taken the decision to close and are now being questioned by their own clients for their decision? There’s just no winning.
This pandemic has proved to be a highly emotionally charged event. People are anxious and stressed. They also have more time on their hands than they know what to do with so time spent on social media has increased (by up to 40% according to techcrunch.com). With this increase we are unfortunately seeing a lot of negativity. People are angry at the situation and they’re looking for someone to blame so anyone seen to be out enjoying themselves (even though they may be practicing perfect safe social distancing) are instantly seen as the reason we are in the situation we are in. And while everyone is arguing about whether livery yards should be open at all, what I’m not seeing is anyone asking the question, “Should we be riding our horses at all at the moment?”. Which honestly, I think is the most important question.
Is riding really necessary right now?
It’s a fact. Horse riding is a risk sport. It’s the first sign you see when you enter any riding school. So given the current medical emergency our hospitals are faced with, should we really be taking the risk of riding our horses at all at the moment? Horses are unpredictable animals. Even the most bombproof gelding can have a moment which can lead to even the most capable rider landing on their arse. You just don’t know what could happen.
Both HSI and Teagasc make reference to this in each of their articles.
Given health services are stretched to capacity it is strongly encouraged to avoid any activities that carry increased risk of injury. Consider giving your horses a break right now. Riding has not been forbidden, but it is a risk activity.
While HSI says:
Extra care should be taken not to take undue risks when handling and exercising horses at this time, due to the increased pressure on the hospital system due to Covid-19. Therefore, precautions such as lunging fresh horses prior to riding or using horse walkers if available, should be taken.
So should we just accept our situation and give our horses some time off? Well the problem with this is that we don’t know how long this pandemic will go on for. It’s all well and good saying we’ll give them the two weeks of the initial lockdown off but once lockdown was extended for an additional three weeks, that completely changed the game. Aside from the fact that time off generally means extended time in the field where our horses can now indulge in the finest fresh grass the recent spring weather can provide, but add in a total of five weeks off work and, depending on your horse, you could be asking for trouble.
You also have the scenario where some horses need to be kept in regular work or they start to become stressed which can lead to weight loss, a deterioration in condition or they can do themselves an injury. And what about young horses? This could be a pivotal time in their development where they need to be kept in consistent schooling to ensure they become the horse they are capable of being.
There are many reasons to argue why we need to keep our horses in work and I’m not here to say what is right and what is wrong. I do believe it’s something everyone should consider though and if you have made the decision to keep riding then I think we owe it to our healthcare workers to be sensible with how we spend our time in the saddle.
You may be able to handle your horse’s excitable moments but maybe for now it would be best to lunge it out of them first. Do you really need to be jumping right now? Would it really hurt your horse to go a month without jumping? Flatwork is the foundation of jumping and you don’t have any shows to be preparing for so maybe use this time to improve on areas you’ve been neglecting. These are questions I would even pose to professional riders and those yard owners who have restricted their client’s access to their horses but are still working away with their own stock of competition horses. For the most part, these riders are looked up to within the equestrian community so shouldn’t they be leading by example?
I would always say to each their own, but I think we owe it to our healthcare workers to not take unnecessary risks while we as a country are still fighting to tackle this virus.
I think we all need to take a moment and recognise that no one really knows what the right thing is. We are experiencing something that has never been seen before in our lifetime. These are entirely unprecedented circumstances and everyone is only trying to do what they feel is best. As of today, experts are telling us that we have flattened the curve. Which means what we have been doing is working. Yes, we still have a long way to go but I think as a community, us equestrians need to acknowledge that no one is making decisions with malicious intent. Everyone is doing their best to make socially responsible decisions and as we get deeper into lockdown we need to rally together even more.
I’ve done a lot of talking and rambling in this post so now I want to hear from you. How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted you and your ability to see and enjoy your horse? Let me know in the comments.
If you’ve made it this far, I applaud and thank you!