Don’t Forget Your Mask and Social Distancing at the Barn
As a traditionally outdoor sport, horseback riding might seem like one situation where you wouldn’t need to wear a mask or stress over social distancing. However, that might be a mistake. According to a leading equitation scientist, masks can help prevent the spread of human viruses, including COVID-19, in the barn—and even in the saddle.

“If we only consider aerosol transmission, there would seem to be a greater risk between even only two riders in a large indoor arena without a mask than with a mask,” said Katrina Merkies, PhD, associate professor and equine behavior researcher at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada, and board member of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES).

“It’s important to consider that aerosol particles can remain airborne for a period of time, during which the rider moves out of the space where they just exhaled, and perhaps the other rider moves into that space,” Merkies told The Horse. “The riders are still greater than 2 meters apart, but they are in direct contact with each other’s exhalations.”

And that doesn’t just apply to indoor riding, she added. “Even if riding outside, wind speed will help to disperse aerosol droplets but may also move droplets directly into the breathing path of another person,” she said.

Although masks might seem inconvenient at first, especially under a helmet, people can quickly get used to them, said Merkies. And they have a nice side benefit: “It definitely helps to keep me warmer in the winter!” she said.

Specially designed masks that include the barn’s logo might encourage more common use of them, Merkies acknowledged. “It is always better to lead with a carrot than push with a stick,” she said.

The 19th Century 6-Foot Distancing Rule

The 2-meter (6-foot) social distancing recommendation might be too optimistic, said Merkies. Her recent investigations into scientific studies revealed that the 2020 suggestion comes from research dating back to the late 1800s, without more recent updates.

“I was quite surprised by this,” she said. “The original research on how far droplets could reach during coughing or sneezing was quite simple, but the photographic technology of the time clearly showed the range of droplet spread.” The 19th century scientists had added the caveat, however, that droplet spread depended on many factors, “including the size (weight) of the droplets, force of emission (big sneeze versus a small cough), ambient airflow, temperature, sunlight, and humidity.”

For example, while most droplets might stop at about 2 meters, scientists have reported travel distances of up to 10 meters (30 feet) and even more when droplets are very small, she said.

Some social distancing recommendations lean toward larger diameters, especially when people are breathing out more forcefully during physical exercise, Merkies said. But it’s not commonly adopted and doesn’t seem to be the accepted norm in most riding stables.

Masks Around Horses

We still don’t know if horses can catch COVID-19 from humans, although some research suggests they could. It’s also still not fully clear how long the human coronavirus can hang on to horse hair.

“Currently there is no evidence showing the spread of COVID through pets as a vector,” said Merkies, who added that she’s not an epidemiologist. “As a precaution, any person who tests positive for COVID should avoid interacting with animals.” Equestrians should continue to consult the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) website for more information about COVID and pets, including horses.

As for equipment, the virus might linger on tack, grooming supplies, and cleaning tools. “We still don’t really know how long the virus can live on fomites (objects or materials that can carry pathogens) in the environment,” Merkies said. “Different studies show persistence of the virus anywhere from two hours to nine days, dependent on the temperature, substrate, and the environment. Obviously, hand-washing and disinfecting surfaces is critical.”

And don’t worry about communicating with your horse while wearing a mask, Merkies said. While you might have difficulty conversing with your grocery store cashier across a plastic shield when you’re both masked, your horse isn’t going to ask you to repeat your verbal cues. “My hypothesis would be that no, masks would not result in horses responding more poorly to our vocal commands,” she said. “I think they respond more to our body language anyway.” Even so, she added, the question makes for a great scientific study if any researchers are interested!

The Real World Example: Bramblewood Stables in Greenville, South Carolina

Horse lovers can certainly combine their equestrian passion with good biosecurity for humans, said Kimberly Carter, owner, trainer, and life coach at Bramblewood Stables, in Greenville, South Carolina. And her barn is doing just that.

“Our facilities are all outdoors with a shedrow-designed barn and outdoor rings,” she said. They have five instructors teaching throughout the day, and they encourage mask use anytime they’re closer than 6 feet from each other or students, including during tacking and mounting.

“All riders are instructed to not attend lessons if they are feeling unwell or running a fever, and we strictly adhere to quarantine guidelines for families who have been exposed to COVID,” Carter said.

They encourage hand-washing and provide hand sanitizers at the front of the barn.

That said, using disinfectant on equipment turned out to have some negative consequences, she added. “For many months we were sanitizing all shared pieces of tack in between rides, but we were destroying the equipment,” she said. “As more evidence came to light throughout 2020 that the virus had a more airborne route, we phased out the tack sanitizing.”

She said they often use the horse as an example for keeping a safe distance from each other. “I like to remind all our riders that the horses are naturally geared to social distance, so the horses have a way of keeping all of us mindful of our space,” she said.

Thus far, her program has been apparently successful. Although some staff and riders have tested positive for COVID, the virus doesn’t appear to have spread through the stable itself. “Of course, all positive cases quarantine at home before coming back to ride with us or return to work,” said Carter. “We have made adjustments to our cancellation policy so that no one will be penalized for having to cancel at the last minute as they learn of exposure or begin showing symptoms.”