April 2020 - The Gallop: Pandemic Perspectives

gallop

Every nook and cranny of the equestrian world impacted by coronavirus.

by Kim F. Miller

“March Madness” took a devastating form last month as the coronavirus spread to the point of being declared a global pandemic. That happened on March 11, accelerating a wave of severe disruption in all facets of life, including the equestrian world.

In the early days, competitions first attempted to continue with their shows, but with alterations to reduce concentrations of people and adding safety protocols. Within days, sometimes overnight, organizers shifted to either postpone or cancel their events.  

 


On March 13, the United States Equestrian Federation announced that all its owned events were suspended for 30 days, and asked organizers to do the same. News that the World Cup Finals were cancelled came the same day, followed by the same status for the The Land Rover Kentucky Three Day Event. Sunday, March 24, the International Olympic Committee announced it would make a decision regarding this summer’s Olympics within four weeks. Canada announced its athletes would not compete if the Games are held this year, and there was strong speculation that the Olympics would be postponed to 2021.

 

On March 19, California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered residents to stay home, with the exception of those engaged in businesses deemed essential. Although horseback riding was listed in many descriptions of safe outdoor activities, the businesses that enable most people to ride were not deemed essential. Many stable owners had already told boarders to stay home and entrust the care of their horses to a skeleton crew of staff.

While human health is the priority in all these decisions, the economic impact is already drastic. The necessary cancellation of shows has a ripple effect that is hard to quantify: judges, course designers, grooms, photographers, announcers, award organizers, food preparers and office staff barely scratch the surface of people who are now suddenly without income.

The California Professional Horsemen’s Association launched a GoFundMe.com page to help these kind of show workers. As of March 24, it has raised $3,655 toward a $15,000 goal. The West Coast equestrian world is a generous lot, but with almost everybody’s livelihood affected, it’s an especially tough time because the impacts are just beginning.  

To get a little more understanding of how this is impacting different people and horses in the West, California Riding Magazine Kim F Miller checked in with three people: Stanford Equestrian Coach & Red Barn Executive Director Vanessa Bartsch; veterinarian Phoebe A Smith; and Lisa Sabo, owner of Sabo Eventing and the Newport Mesa Riding School.

The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Vanessa Bartsch: On the Front Lines

Vanessa is the Stanford Equestrian Team coach and Executive Director of Stanford’s Red Barn Equestrian Center, which is home to Stanford’s 30 horses and the base for private training businesses run by Willow Tree Farms, Northern Run, Nicole Prows Dressage and RW Dressage. Its location in Northern California’s Santa Clara County put in on the front lines of efforts to prevent coronavirus spread in the U.S. The University was the first campus to close to most students and its Medical Center was among the first to offer tests to the community.

Kim: What were the earliest preventative steps taken at Stanford and its Red Barn?
Vanessa: Stanford was at the front edge of this. We have amazing resources through the school, its hospital, its health and safety officers, etc., so we adapted faster than others because we knew it was coming.
That led us to look at our operation of how we run the barn and what are our priorities. We determined that our #1 priority is protecting a core group of personnel who know every one of the horses on our property better than even their owners because they are in and out of their stalls every day. So, our priority was to ensure they were healthy and at the least risk of exposure as possible because they are paramount to making sure horses stay healthy.

Kim: How are the horse care logistics working out?
Vanessa: We determined a one person per six to eight horses plan. For Willow Tree’s horses, for example, that meant their grooming staff and (trainer) Guy Thomas going in alone. Each program was given a 2-3 hour window every day so we could limit who is sharing space at the barn at any given time. It helps that each program is in its own barn, so it’s easier to separate people.
For the team horses, I have my two assistants each working a half day, with one to two volunteers that are current or former student athletes. They scrub in and scrub out, wear rubber gloves and are disinfecting doorknobs, brushes, etc.
It’s been tricky with our team horses. Their average age is 13 to 14 and, while they don’t need to be kept competition fit, it can be hard for teenage horses to be taken completely off work then put back on. In normal circumstances, the horses work three weeks, then have a week off during which they get extra turn-out time and time on the walker, so we are incorporating that the best we can. It would help if it stopped raining--not that I want there to be a drought either!
We have fast-tracked retirement plans for a few of our older horses thanks to alumni and friends who can provide them a nice forever home.  

Kim: I saw in the early days that you had oodles of volunteers offering to help, but clearly you could only have a few people coming to the barn. How did you decide who to call?
Vanessa: I’ve known through my time at Stanford that there is a huge and loving community supporting us. I’d say we had between 50 and 70 alumni saying “What can I do? How can I get in there and help?” That’s the silver lining: seeing the amount of support, which has also been there for us during fires and other worst times.
Understanding how community health works, we made the decision early on that we needed to take the aid of super helpers. People who could pull a four- or eight-hour shift, versus an hour here or there. Some are phenomenal riders, and some are phenomenal on the ground: they are fast and efficient and can prep the horses so our coaches can ride them all. They are great with turning horses out, getting the laundry done, and other things so that my riders can get out and exercise as many as possible.
    
Kim: What’s been the toughest part of this very tough situation?
Vanessa: Stanford people love having a plan, an orderly plan. I have so many emergency plans, including phone trees. The most difficult part was the landscape was changing so rapidly. Every day there was a new edict that we had to adapt to. Every day, we thought we had things handled safely and then, 24 hours later, there was a new hurdle. As the first university to close, it was very stressful for the first week, and then getting to a plan that could stick for a day or two. Now (as of March 19), we are on shelter-in-place, and things have stayed the same for a while.
I’ve been communicating with our boarders as much as possible, conveying the importance of protecting our staff’s health. Every individual wants to see their horse and have a place to come to that is not stressful, and I want to give that to them. But horse people understand the sacrifice each individual makes is for the greater good.  
The second part of what’s been most difficult is outside of barn management: it’s being there for my student athletes. I had 16 seniors this year, which is large for a 42-member team. It’s one of my best teams in terms of being caring, loving and well-bonded men and women. Their entire plan for their school year, and as athletes, is now cut short over something none of us could have foreseen.
We had a team meeting Tuesday night and it was very sweet to look at 38 members on our Zoom (Video Conferencing) meeting, trying to continue some sense our community. We are featuring a senior every day on our Stanford Equestrian Team Instagram account.
And, we are working with the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, asking what does this mean for kids who have qualified for the post-season, and for whom this was their athletic pinnacle, and it’s now cut short for absolutely necessary reasons.
Above all, I want to be there for each of my riders. It’s scary for you and me, and I can’t imagine how it is for 18 to 22-year-olds. It’s a lot to absorb.
    
Kim: Any lessons emerging from what you’ve seen and been through so far?
Vanessa: The importance of preparedness in running a barn. We talk a lot about worst case scenarios, and it can sometimes feel so pessimistic. Fires and earthquakes are all things we hate to think about and this mass pandemic is something out of a science fiction movie. So, the lesson of all this is probably to have way more contingency plans than you ever thought you needed and be ready to be adaptable.  

Kim: Final thoughts?
Vanessa: It hit here first and Stanford had the ability to test before anyone else. Along with Johns Hopkins University, I think we have a bead on this. I think what we are seeing is the tip of the spear. I was just on a conference call with other coaches around the country: there are several parts of the country that don’t yet have any restrictions. It’s crazy. I hope we are doing things right.

 

Veterinarian’s Perspective: Phoebe A Smith, DVM, of Riviera Equine Internal Medicine & Consulting in the Santa Ynez Valley

Kim: What does this look like from your perspective as an equine veterinarian?
Dr. Smith: As large animal vets, it falls into the context of herd immunity, in which we try to protect the vulnerable by minimizing the disease in the herd. So, conceptually, this is all very familiar. It’s what we do with horses when there is a contagious disease on a farm or showground. We lock down, nobody in, nobody out.  Much of the regular public has not had to think like this in recent history.

Kim: Is there a risk of transmission between horses and infected people?
Dr. Smith: Multiple species have different forms of coronavirus. But the one that causes the current disease, SARS-CoV-2, is new, so there is not a lot known about it in human medicine yet. At this point, there is no evidence that horses are part of the transmission process in any direct way. You could make a crazy link through a “fomite,” an inanimate object capable of transmitting an infectious organism. For example, say an infected person sneezed on your horse’s coat, and somebody else put their hand in that same spot, then touched their face and became infected.
As to whether horses can get it, we don’t believe so. There is rapid work being done trying to figure out what the virus does and who it can affect. I am getting that question frequently from clients, but there are no reported incidences of horses getting the SARS-CoV 2 virus.

Kim: How concerned are your clients about COVID-19 and their horses?
Dr. Smith: Completely coincidentally, there are some cases of equine coronavirus in our region currently. The equine coronavirus is a gastrointestinal-borne condition which presents as GI disturbance, colic, diarrhea, fever, or any combination of these clinical signs. This is caused by equine coronavirus, which is well-typed and something that we are familiar with. In most cases, we are able to treat equine coronavirus at the farm with supportive care.  Less commonly, intensive care may be required for more severely affected cases.
Most horses recover from equine coronavirus within days of falling ill. The virus can be transmitted in manure, so the treatment should include isolation.
So, the biggest concern is when I have to tell a client that their horse has coronavirus. I immediately say, ‘But wait...it’s not that coronavirus!” Again, this current regional incidence of equine coronavirus is completely coincidental with COVID-19, but it is causing some confusion.
    
Kim: Are there helpful take-aways for horse owners and care providers?
Dr. Smith: Yes, the principles of how respiratory viruses are spread are valuable lessons for animal health as well as human health. There is a lot of talk about how COVID-19 is spread through respiratory secretions -- coughing or sneezing. The virus also spreads through fomites, when those secretions get onto something that another touches. Think about how many things a horse touches with its nose to ask “Hey, what’s that?”
Because everyone has had to think about this form of transmission in such a detailed fashion, it could improve awareness of how contagions travel and that should improve a farm’s ability to control disease spread in the future.

Kim: Any general advice to horse owners regarding COVID-19?
Dr. Smith: We all want to spend time with our horses and you should continue to unless you are sick with the coronavirus or have symptoms that indicate you might be infected. And this is only because your horse could accidentally become a fomite if you coughed or sneezed on his blanket, or somewhere else, that another person might touch. They are just now working out how long the virus survives on different surface types.
(The National Institutes of Health announced on March 17 these finding regarding the virus’ stability on various surfaces: in aerosols for 3 hours; on copper, up to 4 hours; on cardboard, up to 24 hours; and up to two and three days on plastic and stainless steel.)
    
Kim: What about advice for those who can’t get to their horse because of self-imposed or mandatory “shelter in place” restrictions.
Dr. Smith: I think everyone understands that horses still need to get out and get exercise and are working with barn managers to find efficient ways to do that. I hate to see horses standing around all day in their stalls. Activity is important to keeping horses healthy, which will minimize the number of vet visits and minimize the general downstream effects of all of this.

Kim: Any suggestions for those who can safely spend time with their horses, and have extra time because of show cancellations or postponements?
Dr. Smith: It’s the same concept as what we are working on for ourselves and our families: what do we want to work on that we don’t normally have time for? Maybe it’s ground manners or getting over that fear of needles.
Some of my clients are using this break to give their horses extra rest. And some of my upper level rider clients are having to re-think how they are conditioning and preparing their horses, especially those with Olympic plans and hopes. I think we will see there is a lot of coordination in finding ways to allow them to continue preparation without risking anybody’s health.

Kim: Final thoughts?
Dr. Smith: It will be interesting to see how this shapes our future. On the horse and horse owner side, I think there will be truly lasting benefits in people having more familiarity with disease control and response to disease outbreaks.

 

Lisa Sabo: Owner, with her husband Brian Sabo, of Sabo Eventing and Newport Mesa Riding Center and Newport Mesa Pony Club, based at the Orange County Fairgrounds Equestrian Center, in Costa Mesa
 
Kim: As of March 19, what was the status of your business activities?
Lisa: We initially got a letter from the Fairgrounds that all activities need to halt. But we explained that the horses still need care and exercise. So, our owners, trainers and grooms are allowed to be at the barn caring for the animals.
We are not having any gatherings or group lessons, so the school horse program is totally shut down. We are washing our hands like crazy and keeping a 10’ distance from each other. I have always been the one constantly telling people to use their own brushes because you don’t want to spread anything between horses. And, now I’m doing it to prevent the spread of anything between humans.

Kim: Who’s keeping your lesson horses exercised?
Lisa: We have 12 lessons ponies. I have six instructors, two of whom are full-time, and they are exercising the school ponies. We are also putting them on the walker, which I hate to do, but we’ve had to go down to a skeleton crew.

Kim: This is impacting every business, but I’m thinking lessons program are taking an especially hard hit.
Lisa: Each lesson horse costs about $1,000 a month. Every month, if my black meets my red, I’m happy. I consider my school program as here to provide access for people coming up into the sport and some of them develop into training clients. I feel like school horse programs are necessary to attract people to our sport and to share our love of horses. I’m proud that I do it, but times like this are really devastating. It’s worrisome.

Kim: How are your training clients holding up?
Lisa: This is impacting everyone. My client families include airline pilots, travel agents, doctors, dentists, etc. Everybody is affected. I’m worried for everybody and for our industry. Horses, after all, are a luxury.

Kim: Any problems with compliance with the safely guidelines?
Lisa: We all have to follow the government guidelines. Even though it might be tempting to haul away for a cross-country school somewhere, the President and the Governor have told us to stay put and not travel. If I needed to haul a horse for a health emergency, I would do it, but not for anything else. Travel involves stopping at gas stations, using their restrooms, etc... Because we can be carriers and not even know it, I consider it my personal responsibility to stay put.
Sometimes I think we horse people are a little out of balance. I think some people feel exempt from the safety guidelines. If this were a horse disease, people would understand the horse needing to be isolated and taking all these steps to stop the spread. If anyone has any doubts about the importance of compliance still, they should just think about what they would want done if this was happening with their horses.

Kim: You are one of the most positive people I know. Is there a bright side?
Lisa: It’s a good time to give the competition horses a little let down. With our area’s show schedule, June is normally a slower month. But with the events being cancelled or postponed, that slow month is now March and April.
It’s also a good time to study horsemanship. Every Saturday is horsemanship class at our Riding Center. I just sent out an email with an online horsemanship class, with a bunch of attachments to study. Hopefully, we can keep people involved that way.
Of course, I am hoping this is only for a few weeks. We all have to suffer the consequences. As a whole, we need to dig in and get through this.