I have a confession.
As the US enacted social distancing and lockdown policies because of the rapid spread of the Coronavirus, most equestrians bemoaned the loss of the spring show season. But I felt secretly relieved that I didn’t have to prep for shows and could focus on training at home.
My trainer lives a few miles from my farm and comes here to give me lessons. I imagined doing hillwork in my fields and long, tendon-strengthening walks around my neighborhood. I dreamed that when shows started in the summer (or fall?), I would burst onto the scene, well prepared and ready to win.
Around this time, confirmed COVID-19 cases spiked in the US. Reports of overcrowded hospitals, overworked healthcare professionals and shortages of masks, gloves and other basic hospital equipment were everywhere.
Seeing a horsey post of mine on Facebook, a doctor friend called and asked accusingly, “You aren’t still horseback riding, are you?”
“Well… yes,” I admitted, “but I’m only riding one horse.”
“That is crazy and selfish,” she told me bluntly. “If you get hurt and hospitalized you will use a bed and resources we need for COVID-19 cases. Plus, you will get the Coronavirus while you are in the hospital. Who will take care of your kids? Won’t you miss them while you are in isolation for two weeks?”
I was standing in my barn while we talked. My friend eventually got annoyed with my defensive stammering and hung up.
I turned to admire my horse. He was building a beautiful topline and shedding his winter coat. His mane was pulled and his tail was clean and shiny. He looked like a horse that was going places.
But on this particular day, he went out to the field, where he has mostly stayed since.
At the time, I couldn’t do the mental gymnastics to determine if I agreed with my doctor friend or not. I didn’t so much decide that it’s unethical to ride during this tumultuous time as I got swept into the busyness of homeschooling, cooking, cleaning and working from home.
But I haven’t ridden since that call.
I live in southwest Virginia. We only have a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases in my county, and about 600 in my state at the time of this writing. But other US “hot spots” have shown how quickly the infection rate can erupt and send hospitals scrambling into desperation. Our population density here is low, but we have a correspondingly dinky hospital that I imagine would be easily overwhelmed.
Even if I didn’t need to be hospitalized, the consequences of any injury now seem disproportionately negative. I am the single parent of a 10-year-old, an eight-year-old, and 16-month old. My life would be nearly unmanageable with just a mild concussion or sprained wrist.
Some equestrians are electing to not jump during this time and only school on the flat and trail ride. But many people have been badly injured in freak accidents when they were mounting, dismounting, sitting on their horse at a standstill or walking around the ring, so this policy won’t necessarily keep anyone out of a hospital.
And even if there are no COVID-19 cases at your local hospital now, there is no way to know when they will start trickling (or flooding) in. Some scientists assert that the virus is mutating and could intensify, and most agree that with our current, limited testing ability, it is hard to predict where it will migrate or how hard and fast it will hit.
In current panic zones, like New York or New Orleans, riding and participating in other high-risk activities is hard to justify when any hospital trip means taking up critically needed resources. Not to mention, do you really want your broken leg set by a volunteer National Guard medic in a hospital parking lot?
My heart goes out to all horse owners who are separated from their horses as boarding barns across the country close. I realize how fortunate I am to have my horses on my farm.
But if you have the luxury of keeping your horses at home or you can still go to your boarding barn, I encourage you to think about whether or not riding is worth the risk during the pandemic. Learn new stretches for your horse, practice massage techniques, hand graze—do anything with them that keeps your feet on the ground.
When I miss riding, I think of the heroic doctors and nurses risking their lives to care for our neighbors during this baffling time. Not riding for a few weeks suddenly seems like the least I can do.
Alice Bruno has ridden since she was eight years old, when she met a pony at summer camp. She owns and operates Shenanandoah Sporthorses in Lexington, Virginia, where she lives with her three children.