COVID-19 Economics Challenge the Horse Industry
From shutting down local horse shows to postponing the Olympic Games until 2021, the coronavirus pandemic has played havoc with the way owners keep, exhibit, and even trail ride their horses. Now some believe its effects on the equine industry will go on long after the pandemic has passed.

In January, the United States reported its first cases of the virus. By March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and as of March 30, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported more than 140,000 cases and 2,405 deaths connected to coronavirus in the U.S.

In response, equine industry organizations such as the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) have either canceled or postponed long-scheduled events, including the FEI World Cup Finals slated for April in Las Vegas. USEF has also suspended all events, selection trials, training camps, clinics, and activities for 30 days through April 14.

Since then, nonaffiliated local horse shows have followed suit, taking a bite out of income event officials expected to derive from those events.

“Eight of the shows I was scheduled to do between April and the middle of May have already been canceled, and we’re still not sure how long the COVID-19 situation is going to continue,” said Jennifer Woodruff, who judges horse shows in several disciplines in Florida, New York, and Ohio.

Woodruff’s schedule of in-person clinics scheduled to take place at boarding barns in three states has been postponed indefinitely, too.

“People just don’t want to take the chance,” said boarding barn operator Clarissa Cupolo.

Meanwhile, equine rescue organizations have been even harder hit economically, said Jennifer Williams, PhD, executive director of the Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, in College Station, Texas. She said some rescues are short-handed as would-be volunteers observe state-mandated stay-at-home orders or as fosters decline to fulfill commitments they made months ago.

“For example, we had a foster all lined up, ready to go, and (the foster) said that she would be unable to take the horse,” Williams said. “We’ll have to start over.”

Smaller organizations are the most challenged, she said. “The horses still have to eat, they still have to be taken care of,” Williams said. “People are not going out of their way to adopt horses because they are worried that they will not have jobs, and I’ve already seen some smaller rescues close.”

Fundraising is challenging, too. Would-be donors worried about their own financial security are either committing to smaller contributions or eliminating them altogether. Meanwhile, virus-related restrictions that limit the size of social gatherings are putting the kibosh on major funding events.

“I’ve heard of a some (events) being canceled already,” Williams said. “I just started planning ours for October—I hope everything will be okay be then.”

Even so, COVID-19’s long-term economic impact on the equestrian community is not entirely bleak. Some canceled events will just go online, Woodruff said, and would-be exhibitors are increasingly willing to pay her to judge their performances digitally.

“Actually, I think there will be an association for virtual horse shows in the future,” she said.

Meanwhile, some clients are requesting virtual lessons by submitting performance videos for trainers to evaluate and critique.

“In fact, I’ve gotten some new virtual clients in Ohio and New York,” Woodruff said. “You just have to think out of the box.”

The virus’ lasting impact on the equine industry remains uncertain. In the meantime, the American Horse Council (AHC) is polling those who work in the industry to learn how COVID-19 has affected their businesses. To participate in the survey, call the AHC at 202/296-4031 or email info@horsecouncil.org.