Enduring COVID-19 Changes as a Horse Owner who Boards

Like most of you, my life—and my life with horses—took a profound detour back in March. Necessary closures to curb the spread of COVID-19 upended my routines and interactions. During a time when, like many, I am grappling with the uncertainty of the next few weeks and months, spending time with my horse, which helps ground me, feels more necessary than ever.

But I know each of you has a different level of access to your horses right now. For some with private farms, horse-keeping has changed very little, aside from curbside pickup of feed and bedding. But you’re still stranded at home when you’d generally be meeting people to trail ride or going to shows. Others keep horses at boarding farms that have shut down completely to outside traffic, and you’re eager to simply receive photos of your horses from the barn staff. A bunch of us fall somewhere in the middle, depending on the farms’ policies in light of executive orders and agriculture department recommendations.

I’m grateful I get to spend prescheduled time with my horse daily, following policies of one person at a time in the barn, washing hands, and using disinfectant and my own lead rope (the halters—all leather or breakaway, of course, are staying on for the time being). I glove up each day to be extra-careful; one of our staff is among the age group most vulnerable to infection. As an extrovert who lives alone, that time out in the fresh air with my chestnut off-track Thoroughbred, Happy, is the best part of my day.

Enduring COVID-19 Changes as a Horse Owner who Boards

Still, I crave “normal” (Can I hear an amen?), so here are some simple things I have done as a rider who boards my horse to try to achieve some semblance of that in this strange time:

I video chat with my barn friends at least once a week. The first week it was a virtual happy hour. The second week it was a virtual tack cleaning party (okay, probably also a happy hour). We’ve had variations of those ever since. We schedule a time via a group-messaging app and then use Zoom for the call.

I’ve adopted a new normal of grooming and tacking Happy out of the back of my car. Our farm management instituted a longer time slot to ride during the staff members’ lunch, provided we groom and tack our horses out of our cars and social distance properly. Conversations with my barn buddies from across the driveway have brought levity to my days. Happy has grown accustomed to ground-tying beside my car. During those times I’m able to chat with a barn friend on the other side of the parking area while she tacks her horse. This feels a little bit like the social time we generally have at the barn.

Enduring COVID-19 Changes as a Horse Owner who Boards

Another new normal: Some days I just hand-graze Happy and take him for a walk. In late February I rejoined United States Pony Club (USPC) as an adult, aiming to compete in my first tetrathlon (shooting, swimming, riding, running) by fall. Then everything shut down. I was disappointed at first … I had just paid my dues and had my first riding lesson of the year! But this quiet time has made me realize I don’t need to be reaching toward any great riding goals right now. I just need to spend time with my horse, and taking a walk with him, under saddle or not—even just hand-grazing him—is perfectly fine. After all, low-key rides are the best ones during a time when we don’t want to be an unnecessary burden on hospital emergency rooms. On my own in my neighborhood, I’m trying to get started back with running, which is something I abandoned a few years ago due to injuries, but I’m taking my time. Another note: My Pony Club and USPC are offering some webinar learning opportunities during this time.

I still stick to my regular routine of grain-measuring and supplement scooping, devoting one of my barn slots per week to that (while wearing gloves). I’ve always felt like Mr. Bean in the movie Love Actually scooping gift-wrapping goodies when I prepare Happy’s feed and supplements; the routine for me is very Zen. Maybe you have daily or weekly routines you can keep.

I’m exercising and expanding Happy’s trick repertoire. Happy already knew how to bow, give (polite) kisses, and do “crunches.” During the times when I can go in the barn, I’ve target-trained Happy to the clock. I ask him what time it is, and he reaches up and touches it (I don’t have to point or look at it anymore). If you have ideas of tricks I should teach him, please let me know. He’s an eager student.

Enduring COVID-19 Changes as a Horse Owner who Boards

In my free time I’m reorganizing tack and equipment at the house and selling unused items on eBay. I’m not pressuring myself to be super-productive on this front, however. Sometimes I’d rather just watch our governor’s daily press conference or something on Netflix.

I have put horse-related things I look forward to on my Outlook calendar, even the virtual happy hours with my barn friends. Seeing horsey-related things on the calendar helps keep me engaged and upbeat. If you use a physical calendar, write it there.

I’m studying up. We have some great learning opportunities on TheHorse.com—ones you can watch, listen to, or read. I’ve availed myself of one of our webcasts so far and intend to go back and watch some of our others. Our Ask the Horse Live events are archived as podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts (I love Pocket Casts).   

I still make it a priority to do three (now virtual) workouts weekly with my gym, in addition to taking walks and bike rides. My trainers have been nimble and moved their business online, and they’ve come up with workouts that mimic what we’d be doing in the gym, only without all the specialized equipment. Think bicep curls in a wall-sit, mountain climbers, and kettlebell swings, all done during a Zoom call. I’m also getting out on my bike more, which is something I haven’t had time for in recent years. I’m trying to stay fit both for myself and for Happy. Some days I am more successful at this than others, but I am trying not to be too hard on myself.

Unrelated to horses, I am also connecting with friends and family via texts, phone calls, and video calls. I’ve joined a virtual Bible study group at my church, which is also allowing for some connections and some “normal.”

I know these ideas are simple ones but, honestly, simple is the most achievable during a time when you feel a little unmoored by the state of things. Be easy on yourself during this time—you’re grieving the loss of “normal,” and it’s not a productivity competition. Also, be easy on others; this isn’t the time to shame your fellow equestrians for how they’re handling the changes if it’s different than how you would choose to handle them.

Be well, and please share ideas for how you’re managing during this time.