In the past few days, many states have announced stay-at-home orders. In many places, this has meant that equestrian facilities, as “non-essential businesses” have had to close, cancel lessons, and most importantly, tell boarders that they can’t come visit their horses for the duration of the lockdown. This has caused a LOT of grief and outcry on horse groups. I’ve seen people demanding prorated or refunded board, saying they want to move barns because they don’t believe it’s “legal” to tell them they can’t visit their horses. I’ve even seen some sketchy logic claiming that “horse boarding isn’t a business” which shouldn’t be covered by the orders. Wow.
We horse people love our horses like family, the same way we love our dogs and cats. But unlike our dogs and cats, most of us can’t keep our horses next to us in our homes.
Instead, we have to rely on boarding our horses at facilities and we rely on barn owners to do the daily work of caring for our horses and maintaining a facility with barns, tack rooms, cleaning equipment, lights, indoor and outdoor arenas, performance equipment like jumps, fencing and gates, water systems, feeders…and they source (or grow), store, move, and feed the hay and grain and often the supplements and medications we add to our horses’ diets, and on and on.
In my experience as well most of the barn owners (who are, according to statistics, 90% women) are also doing all this while managing families, children (often as single mothers), and chronic health conditions.
If we’ve learned nothing else from the Covid-19 pandemic, have we at least learned that there are a lot of people and privileges that we take for granted? Grocery store workers, healthcare professionals at all levels, food service workers, bus drivers: We take these people for granted and we allow a system to exist that values their labor and their lives so little that they can’t live.
Can we appreciate the great blessing of horse ownership? How many of us could really own horses without the labor of barn owners? Do we also appreciate that barn owners don’t really make money off our board checks?
Can we also take a moment to appreciate natural areas, agricultural land, and greenbelts? My particular barn is located in an area of preservation farmland where several farms are surrounded by new housing developments, literally 2 minutes from the developed city area served by the bus line and 10 minutes from downtown. This important natural space might not otherwise exist without the labor of the farmers who manage these lands.
Many of the closures have also affected public park and recreation facilities. National Parks, city parks, Metroparks, etc., have become overcrowded. One of the only things left for people in suburban areas to do is go outdoors and walk in their neighborhoods and nearby undeveloped land. People in urban environments do not have this privilege, and especially not now that public transportation has been shut down or severely limited.
Fear makes us do mean things. Fear makes us become resource guarders like horses who have become food aggressive because they were malnourished or pushed out of food by herd dynamics.
The events of the past few weeks are unprecedented and things are happening so fast, it feels like every day something new is being taken from us. The barn and our horses are a major part of our support system and our mental health and it is absolutely a difficult and sad situation to be told “stay home and don’t come see your horse until the stay home order is lifted.” That feels like the rug being pulled out from under you, I know. I KNOW. I can’t go see my horse either and he lives 3 minutes down the road from my house.
Coping with Separation from our Horses
Don’t deal with the grief and fear by lashing out at the people who make it possible for us to have horses in our lives. A spiritual best practice (regardless of what your actual religion might be) is whenever you feel a sense of righteous indignation, anger, entitlement, or “me-ism” to talk back to it and do things that counteract that narrative in your head.
Fight back by taking a moment to remember what a blessing it is to have horses at all. Then think of all the things your barn owner has to do and maintain and spend money and energy and time on to make sure your horse is healthy and safe. Think of all the ways it would be hard for you to do that.
Then fight back by forcing yourself to reach out and GIVE rather than take.
- Send some supportive texts to your barn owner/manager. Tell them you appreciate them.
- Check on them and ask if there’s anything you can do to physically help them, especially if you know they need to self-quarantine and/or they’ve lost their help. With many people being forced to stay home with kids out of school, or they are self-quarantining because they are high risk, it’s possible that your barn owners/managers are working with little or no help.
- Lessons are canceled in most places as well which means your barn owner/managers and trainers have lost money and they might not be eligible for unemployment benefits. So:
- Find ways to help out remotely by sending them gift cards for take-out food.
- Pay your FULL board amount and don’t demand a refund.
- Seriously, if you can, try to throw in some extra money to your board amount. We’re all on tight budgets but maybe the $50 we’re not spending on lessons this week, the $20 we’re not spending on gas to get to the barn, or heck even $5 with a nice note.
- Pray for them. They are part of your horses’ family (and hopefully your friend and community too) and they deserve for you to mention them in your prayers.
Finally, many of us women fulfill our needs to be caretakers by lavishing that care on our horses. Many of us are middle aged, have raised children who didn’t (or still don’t) always appreciate our care. Caring for our horses makes us feel competent, appreciated, and special. We can care for our horses from a distance by:
- Brushing up on our horse care knowledge. Some ideas include:
- Researching our next supplement or tack purchase
- Plain old window shopping online or in catalogs
- Watching videos and learning how to train our horse to do something new when we are reunited (I recommend The Willing Equine! https://www.thewillingequine.com/)
- Sewing or crocheting a fly bonnet or costume item for our horse
- Creating a photo book or other project made from pictures of our horse
- For those of us with Off-Track Thoroughbreds, researching their race history, finding their race videos, and trying to track down track photographers and former trainers if we haven’t already, and building a memory book of our findings.
We all know that horses are a tremendous blessing. We all know that NONE of us has horses for the money. We all have horses because in some way we rely on them as much as they rely on us. Extend that mutual reliance and love to the people who are part of your horse’s family.