Hopefully after this strange and stressful spring we have all been reunited with our horses now and everyone is adjusting to the new “normal” as we figure out a way to adapt to the threat of Covid-19 while enjoying summer fun at the farm. How’s it going at your barn? Depending on where you live, what kind of program your barn runs, and what the physical set up looks like, I hear the situation varies greatly from barn to barn.
Many people have asked how we coped with coronavirus restrictions at the barn where I board and I’m happy to share, but with one major caveat: what works at our barn may not work for another. Every set up is different and barn owners / managers have to figure out the best way to protect themselves, staff, boarders and students. I board at a small, private barn. There are no beginners, no kids, no group lessons, and no difficulties in maintaining physical distance from others at all times. Here’s how it played out from March until now:
Phase 1: Lockdown
Like many stables in Ontario, ours followed the recommendations put out by Equestrian Canada and Ontario Equestrian, allowing only essential staff on the property initially. The majority of boarded horses there are in a full training program so they continued to be groomed and worked lightly 4-5 days a week by staff during the lockdown. The retirees and those not in training enjoyed a vacation with plenty of turnout. Staff provided photos and videos to owners several times a week, and kept us updated via a private Facebook group and weekly group video chats.
Phase 2: Weekly wellness checks
When it became clear that the restrictions were not going to end after the first month, our barn owner decided to allow boarders once a week wellness checks with our horses as part of the essential care the animals require. These were held outside only, with no access to the barn, rings, or other facilities. One-hour visits were strictly scheduled with gaps between each visitor to prevent overlap, and detailed protocols in place for hand and car sanitizing, glove use, the use of our own leads and grooming equipment, and an outdoor dropbox for safe delivery of medications, supplements, and other supplies. Grooming in the paddocks and hand grazing in designated areas were allowed on days the weather and horse behaviour permitted; riding and lungeing were not.
Phase 3: Return to riding
Whrn the solicitor general finally clarified that boarders in Ontario were allowed to access their barns and to ride their horses, we were ready. Our trainer and barn staff had been drafting schedules and protocols for weeks, hoping that we would soon get the green light to resume riding.
Boarders were allocated 90 minutes total on the property, including grooming, tacking up, riding, and untacking. Gaps were scheduled in between each visit to avoid more than 5 people being on the property at once. Other restrictions included a maximum of two visits per week per boarder, all tack and equipment kept in boarders’ cars, and access only to the grooming stalls and the outdoor arena.
We had originally discussed grooming and tacking up outdoors, but with our grooming stalls located next to the double main doors and offering plenty of space and ventilation, the barn owner felt that would be a safer location for both horses and riders. We were meticulous about not sharing any equipment and about disinfecting the crossties and grooming stalls after each use.
Phase 4: Gradual return to “normal”
When the provincial government announced that riding stables and lessons were allowed to resume operations, not much changed for us initially. We continued with our established schedules for visits and private lessons, and continued using the outdoor ring only and restricting access to facilities in the barn. The barn added signage and implemented a sign in / sign out procedure to facilitate contact tracing in the event of an infection.
When the CDC issued updated guidance showing that transmission of the virus via touched surfaces is more difficult than previously thought, the barn owner opened up more facilities to boarders including the wash stall, tack room, our individual lockers and the indoor arena during inclement weather. These changes were easily and safely accommodated thanks to our barn’s unique set up. The wash stall is separate from the rest of the barn and has exterior doors nearby on three sides, allowing for plenty of ventilation. The indoor arena also has numerous doors and windows, allowing it to be essentially open on three sides. Our tack room is a large open space with full walls of windows on two sides, and individual hooks so that nobody has to touch any equipment other than our own.
Bleach solution, disinfectant spray and sanitizing wipes are readily available in all areas, and boarders are expected to disinfect any common surfaces that we touch. The barn staff is working extra hard as well, disinfecting counters, sinks, stall latches and other surfaces throughout the day to maintain a safe environment for everyone.
We still have a schedule, handwashing and disinfecting protocols, sign in / out sheets, and everyone maintains physical distance and uses their own equipment; I expect those changes are here to stay. However, with gatherings of 10 people now allowed in Ontario, we no longer have limits on the length of our visits or number of days we can come each week. It’s a small barn with a limited number of staff and boarders; on the busiest day in normal times we’re unlikely to have 10 people there at once. In short, it’s starting to feel like normal - or at least as normal as things can be right now.
How are things going at your barn?
I’m particularly interested to hear how those with group lesson programs, trail rides, camps, or beginner lessons are coping. Are you able to provide the physical assistance needed? Are masks required in those situations? How have you adapted your programs and operations to protect staff and clients while hopefully seeing revenue levels start to rise again? If you’re reading from outside of Ontario, how do your restrictions and regulations differ? What can we learn and share with each other? Let me know in the comments below.
If you've been to a Toronto-area dressage show in the past few years, you've probably noticed Jennifer Black and her Clyde / Hackney cross Brixton. At 17.3, his size alone makes him hard to miss. With few amateurs competing at the FEI levels, and even fewer of them doing it on a draft cross, the pair stands out from the crowd.
I've enjoyed watching this pair with amazement (and no small amount of envy) as they moved up the levels consistently year after year, conquering a new level each year. In 2018 they made their FEI debut at PSG and Brixton was named Small Tour Horse of the Year by Equestrian Canada. Last year they moved up to the I1 level and Jennifer was EC's Reserve Small Tour Rider of the Year.
For the last two years I have had the pleasure of boarding at the same barn as Jennifer and Brixton, and watching them train in person. And now it's my pleasure to introduce them to you!
Meet Jennifer Black
Horses: Brixton (2010 Clyde x Hackney gelding), Modern Art aka Momo (2018 Hanoverian filly)
When did you start riding, and specifically focusing on dressage?
I started riding when I was 6, doing pony club, then hunters, then eventing. I started focusing on dressage in 2013 after a 10-year hiatus from riding while I was in university. I knew I wanted to show and dressage was my way to do that.
Where did you find Brixton and how long have you had him?
I bought Brixton in 2013 from his breeder (Shady Maple Farm) as 2-year-old. I chose a draft cross because I wanted an A+ temperament, meaning if I couldn’t ride for weeks, I could get on and not die.
Who do you train with?
I started Brix under saddle on my own. I was looking around the internet and saw a video of Meredith Risk competing with a Clyde / Hackney cross named Jacob in the I1. I thought why can’t I do that? So when he was almost 4 we started training with Meredith at Nobleton Dressage, and we've been there ever since.
What were your goals then and how have they changed?
My initial goals were to give Brix a good foundation and hone my own dressage skills, and maybe get out to a few schooling shows. When I evented, dressage was something you suffered through to get to cross country. I knew there had to be more to it than that.
Once we started training and competing, my goal changed to seeing how far we could go together. And level after level he kept surprising me, and I kept surprising myself. Our first show at Training Level was in 2014 when Brix was turning 4, and we made our FEI debut at PSG when he was 8. I'm very proud of that progress. My personal goals now are to do a decent Grand Prix at some point, whether it’s on Brixton, or Momo, or another horse.
What is your competitive highlight so far?
My biggest highlight was probably the Saturday I1 at Angelstone last August. I rode a pretty great test (almost clean) and could have cried when I was leaving the ring. It kind of felt like it all came together and Brix tried extra hard for me. It was pretty special.
It's quite rare for an amateur to progress up the levels this far and this quickly, let alone on an "off breed" horse. What's the secret to your success?
Success is progress. Some days that’s nothing more than bending your left elbow and some days it’s getting a clean line of twos.
The biggest factors in attaining success for me have been having an excellent, supportive trainer, and clearly defined goals. Make sure you have a trainer who repeatedly produces the results that you want to attain, both in their own horses and with other amateur clients . Do you like the way the horses go? Do you like the way the trainer rides? Do you share the same philosophy?
You also have to ride as often as you can. Just keep showing up, even when it gets hard. You won’t get to where you want to be without putting in the work.
With respect to preparing for horse shows, watch the pros ride tests in person or on YouTube, including the lower level tests. You may not have the same fancy mover but there is a lot to learn, for instance how they ride their lines, and where they start their movements. It’s a wealth of information.
What have been the biggest obstacles / setbacks for you?
As an amateur, the biggest obstacles are always time and money. Not only does it cost money to care for a horse, and to pay for good quality lessons, training show fees and more, when I am riding, I’m not billing, so I’m not getting paid.
I’ve learned that there are actually enough hours in the day if you wake up early enough. Being super organized helps as well, and planning your day/week out in advance. I also find that riding and being around horses in general gives me the energy to do a great job for my clients, and to be organized at home (although my husband would like to have me around more). Inevitably you will miss social events and get home later than you’d like.
For competing, I save most of my vacation time for the summer so I can have days off before and after the horse show, which makes it less stressful. I am lucky to have a somewhat flexible schedule, and a trainer who will accommodate me. Also if I can’t ride, I know my horse is getting a good training session in with Meredith.
I have been lucky with only a few setbacks with Brix. I had one really bad test in July last year. About 50 people were watching and I could barely keep him from barrelling through the ring. We pretty much just rode the pattern and kind of did some of the movements. I let myself cry for 5 minutes, and then gave him two days off, and then rode the test in my first lesson back. I immediately felt better.
The biggest setback is that Brix currently has an injury. He is supposed to come back 100% but it is hard to lose the season (even if there is no show season due to COVID) and it will be particularly hard getting him in shape again.
What's the best advice you can offer to other amateurs with competitive goals?
My most important advice for amateurs is to (1) work with a good trainer and (2) just ride as often as you can.
Make the time, even if it means waking up at 4:30 am to get to work early so you can make it to the barn in time for a lesson. Don’t miss an opportunity to train if you can help it. And most importantly, enjoy and spend time with your horse; they’re not machines
.Writing for a number of equestrian magazines has given me the amazing opportunity to meet, interview, and feature some of my dressage idols. Almost all the articles I write are about professionals competing at the highest levels of the sport, or rising stars working their way onto the international scene. They are incredible and inspiring athletes, but not necessarily relatable to the average amateur on a budget, with a less than fancy horse, juggling to fit lessons, training time and shows in around work, family, and other commitments.
Amateurs like us represent by far the majority of dressage riders in Canada. Many of us will never compete any higher than First Level - if we even compete at all. We do the best we can with what we have, setting goals that fit our skills, budgets, and available time. If we meet our goals - whatever they may be - then we are successful and should be proud of our accomplishments, no matter how big or how small.
But what about the amateurs who aren't like us? Over the past few years, I have met some amazing Canadian riders who have impressed me with their accomplishments, whether reaching the highest levels of FEI competition or overcoming incredible personal challenges just to get in the saddle. I wanted to profile some of their achievements and their stories, so decided to to start a new blog series called Amateurs (Not) Like Us.
The first amateur in the series has inspired and influenced me personally, so stay tuned for the first installment, featuring Jennifer Black and Brixton. And if you know an incredible Canadian amateur with a great story to share, please let me know!
About the author
I'm a middle-aged, overweight, rusty re-rider who refuses to let any of that get in the way of my passion for dressage.