Researchers Find Benefits To Riding Center Lockdowns During COVID
Covid-19-related lockdowns might have been tough for horse people. But they also offered benefits.

Lockdowns at riding stables led to more nonridden time with horses, a greater appreciation for the horse-human relationship, community efforts to safeguard horse welfare, opportunities for farm maintenance and repairs, and downtime for stable managers, allowing them to rethink their business models, according to a new study by Canadian researchers.

“The positives (resulting from lockdown) were really the highlight of our study—all of them,” said Katrina Merkies, PhD, associate professor and equine behavior researcher at the University of Guelph, in Ontario. “It showed people pulling together. It showed people appreciating the time given to them as a result of the lockdown to attend to things that daily life often doesn’t leave time for. It allowed a reevaluation of why horses are important in our lives. And, most importantly, it allowed a reconnection or reaffirmation with horses on a deeper level.”

Merkies and her colleagues in the Department of Animal Biosciences at the University of Guelph carried performed an online survey of 72 riding facilities throughout Ontario, representing various disciplines but primarily hunter/jumper lessons. They asked the managers about their pandemic control protocols and how government-mandated lockdowns and voluntary closings affected them.

Financial Fears and Community Pooling

The researchers found that, unsurprisingly, many were worried about financial constraints due to lost income, Merkies said. In particular, they were afraid of the effect this would have on their horses. “We heard about the fears that people were experiencing around this, mostly that they would have to give up their horses,” she said.

In general, however, an overwhelming feeling of unity replaced those fears as the greater horse community “pulled together to help each other out a lot,” said Merkies. “In Ontario, the For The Herd fundraiser distributed over $200,000 to lesson barns in need. People also donated supplies and fostered horses. Other fundraisers helped out too, like Red Scarf Equestrian. And recently, the Ontario government has dedicated CA$3 million to assist equestrian facilities.”

Some of the facilities chose to remain closed, even when the government allowed them to reopen, in hopes of preventing further viral spread, she said. Many took advantage of the downtime to concentrate on maintenance and repairs and even reconsider how they’re running their business or how to update their facilities. Those that reopened generally did so with reduced-size lesson groups and “creative” biosecurity protocols such as requiring riders to bring their own grooming equipment and reins.

Grounded: Developing and Appreciating the Horse-Human Relationship

Many also assigned specific horses to specific riders instead of sharing horses; in the second phase of lockdown when riding was restricted but visits with the horse were permitted, these horses and riders could create a partnership, she said.

For both students and horse owners, this phase seems to have affected the way people view the horse-human relationship, said Merkies. “Since horse shows weren’t an option (at least in the early part of the summer), riders did not have that goal to work toward,” she said. “Instead, they had to reevaluate their training plans. I think that this really impacted a lot of people to consider why they have horses.”

In fact, that one-to-one time between horse and human might have offered benefits during a pandemic, which induced anxiety and other mental health challenges for many people, she added. “As the lockdown continued, it is becoming increasingly apparent the role that horses play in our own mental health,” said Merkies. “Horses are important, not just for riding or showing, but as individuals in themselves, for the relationship they have with us, and for the pleasure their mere company gives us.”