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.
I try hard to keep this page a positive place, but every once in a while I see something that shouldn’t be ignored. It’s time to re-share this great blog called "Please don't suck when you go to the barn," from Jorna Taylor because, based on what I’m seeing out there, a LOT of people are really sucking right now.
So many posts and comments on Facebook, Instagram and horse forums complaining about barn schedules, rules, and restrictions - the schedules, rules and restrictions designed to keep the very people complaining about them safe!
Two weeks ago, a lot of us in Ontario didn’t even have access to our horses. Now stables here are open for boarders and lesson students alike. We should all be over the moon. Instead people are whining about what they can’t do and what’s not allowed, or bitching that Barn A is doing one thing and Barn B isn’t.
Everybody needs to take a deep breath and put themselves in their barn owner’s shoes. No two barns are alike; no single set of policies or recommendations is going to work for every barn. If your barn owners / staff are older, immune compromised or otherwise at higher risk for COVID-19, your barn will probably have more restrictions. If your tack room is tiny and unventilated, or if you don’t have grooming stalls or wash stalls with adequate physical separation from the rest of the barn you probably don’t have access to them right now. Maybe you’re keeping your tack in your car. Maybe you’re grooming outside. That’s ok.
Whatever policies your barn staff have put in place are for their safety and yours. You don’t have to agree with them, but you do have to abide by them for a while or find somewhere else for your horse to live. Their barn, their rules.
This is not business as usual and very little in our world is even close to “normal” at the moment. Maybe it never will be. Having even an hour of barn time feels like a vacation from the craziness of the past 2 months. It’s a privilege that should be cherished. Our horse time may not be perfect right now, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.
So please, even if you are feeling frustrated, cut your barn staff some slack. Appreciate their desire for caution stems from a desire to keep everyone safe. Think about the pressure and responsibility weighing on their shoulders, and how they would be affected both personally and financially should a disease outbreak be linked to their business. Instead of bringing them complaints, bring them a bottle of wine and say thanks.
Please don’t suck. And if you’re lucky enough to live in a province where barns are open, please enjoy your horses.
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.