A War Sans Calvary: Horse Ownership in the Age of COVID-19
My daughter is making crepes in the kitchen.

The windows are open. A quiet breeze flutters in. The sun reflects off the shiny backs of my bay and black Trakehners in their grassy field behind my house. It’s a peaceful scene, and in any other situation it might be an idyllic holiday in the French countryside.

But that’s not what this is. This is Day 8 of official confinement in France due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government orders just got stricter as of Tuesday (March 24). This isn’t peace. “We’re at war,” President Emmanuel Macron said again and again and again, like a battle drum during his stately speech telling his 70 million citizens that, until further notice, they can’t leave their homes except for the “essentials”—food, mainly, or health care, or “tending to the needs of your companion animals.”

We can’t go out without release papers that state our address, reason for being out, and the time we left home. Police controls are happening everywhere, and first offenses are punished by $US150 fines. As of Tuesday, second offenses carry a fine of $US1,800, and third offenses are punishable by a $US4,200 fine and up to six months in jail.

“Oh, a falcon just landed on the roof of the stables!” my daughter just announced from the kitchen, where her afternoon crepes are perfuming our confinement zone. Her cheerfulness pulls me briefly away from the dreary reality of confinement for French horse owners. And dreary it is—for some. Afterall, would you risk prison and fines to see your horse? What if he’s only a five-minute drive away? What if he’s in an unmanned pasture where you just walk over—or used to, back when we weren’t at war with a microscopic army—every day with carrots, love, and a water hose for refilling tanks from a nearby faucet?

Interpreting Government Decrees

My family is among the lucky ones. We moved to a 16th-century farm with 12 acres in the Loire Valley not even a year ago. We don’t need a paper to go outside for some equine bonding time. We don’t have to wonder if our horses are healthy, if anyone’s colicking, if anyone’s lame, if anyone’s broken through a fence and is running madly through the empty streets. All we have to do is look out the window or slip on boots and walk out the door.

But that’s not the case for everyone. Most French horses—and European horses in general—live in equestrian centers and boarding stables, not with their owners.

At first, Macron’s decree was unclear regarding horses. He said people could go out to take care of the needs of their “companion animals” as long as they stayed “near home.” But vague policies can be disastrous. Few countries, including France, have come to any kind of decision about how to classify horses—as livestock or pets. (In countries where horses can be slaughtered for human consumption that decision is more difficult for authorities to reach.) And what exactly does “near home” mean?

Confusion for Owners, and Authorities

One horse owner in northwestern France recently found out what “near home” means when she was transporting water on a scooter to her horses in their pasture, a quarter mile from home. The police slapped her with a $150 fine and warned her to not go back again. It’s likely that the fine will eventually get canceled (once authorities figure out what a welfare mess this could mean), and the young woman doesn’t intend to stop watering her horses. But it just underlines the fact that in this unprecedented situation, everyone’s confused.

So confused, in fact, that even the French Ministry of Agriculture needed eight days to get responses to my questions about how the confinement applies to horse management. They didn’t ignore me or forget me; they assured they were working on the questions. The thing is, they just didn’t know.

Getting Answers in a Make-the-Rules-as-You-Go World

The French Ministry of Agriculture finally responded this morning. No, people can’t go to their horses if they don’t live at home; they have to be cared for by the boarding stable’s personnel. (How does a staff of one or two people take care of 70 stalled horses?) No, you can’t go riding for exercise (not even in a forest with little pedestrian traffic) unless you stay at home. Yes, they’ll let you make an exception to move your horse to a pasture somewhere to get it out of a stall during confinement, but you’ll need plenty of paperwork to prove where you’re going with your horse and why, and it can’t be for any other reason than his welfare.

It’s strict. In Italy, for example, horse owners can still go out—release paper in hand—to check on their horses in boarding centers and take care of them. But in the end, Italy might not be the best example to follow, with 800 human deaths every 24 hours now despite nearly three weeks in confinement.

Giving Up Riding: The Good Sacrifice

In Spain, where the death toll just topped that of China, riding horses is now against the law until further notice. That seems extreme but, on further thought, it’s not a bad idea. The measure isn’t meant to stop the spread of the virus; that would have little effect. Instead, it’s designed to drop the rate of emergency room visits for anything other than COVID-19. Horseback riding is a known dangerous sport. Not riding is just one more way we riders can help ease the load of health care workers and, possibly, help save a few lives by freeing up doctors to treat COVID-19 patients symptoms instead of our concussions or fractures from some silly fall.

Regardless of a rider’s experience or ability, we’re all at risk, and I’ve decided to implement Spain’s rule in my home: no riding until further notice. I’ve never fallen in my many years of riding, but that doesn’t mean I never will. I’d hate for it to happen now—for me or any of the other family members and friends with whom I’m confined. This doesn’t mean not spending time with the horses, though. That article I wrote back in January—about what to do with your horse when it’s too cold to ride—now has a perfect place in this exceptional spring context as well. We’ll just need to rename it, “The Smart Equestrian’s Guide to Reduced-Risk Quality Time in the COVID-19 Pandemic Era.”

Playing My Part

As a journalist, I hope to help inform—both owners and government authorities—in dealing with this crazy situation that has taken over every aspect of our lives. I hope I can help make sure horses don’t suffer unreasonably because of the human virus pandemic.

As a fellow owner, I hope I can do my part in fighting this war, keeping my animals and my family healthy. I hope I can take three or four more horses on my 12 acres to get them out of a stall somewhere for the rest of the confinement period. I’ll take them all carrots and watch the sun glisten on their backs as the smell of crepes wafts through the open kitchen window–a glimpse of peace in these otherwise seemingly dystopian times.