Earlier this week, my mare let out the world’s most pregnant capriole ever documented.

Perturbed that she was not the first back into her stall for dinner, she took a big step away from me, leaped into the air, and kicked out with her back feet as hard as she could. Even now, I am still impressed her big foal belly could get up that high.

Luckily, my girl moved out of the way to avoid hitting me in her moment of frustration, but the energy of her double-barrel kick rang in my ears. The sensation reminded me that life with horses, even when just doing daily chores, is always one stupid moment away from a trip to the hospital.

Risk is a fundamental truth in our sport, but that risk has a new darker level to it with the pandemic.

Even though the Omicron variant is less severe than the variations of COVID-19 before it, if we do get hurt enough that we need to go to the hospital that hospital is now a far more dangerous place to be due to a highly infectious disease and the strain it has put on the US healthcare system.

The ICU in my rural town in Illinois has been at capacity for more than two weeks, and the CEO is urging people to avoid the emergency room. To make matters worse average daily cases in the county have gone up by more than 130% between January 5 and January 19. Because the vaccination rate where I live is at 60% for those 12 and up, those going to the hospital are likely to be sicker than those in places with a higher percentage.

That means if I do get hurt badly enough to require a hospital trip, I face the danger of not only contracting COVID but waiting longer for treatment. It also means I will likely be cared for by understandably burned-out doctors and nurses. Reports around the country noted a nursing shortage even before the pandemic, and now there are significantly fewer nurses than there were in 2020. In addition, rural areas like mine have been hit extra hard by the lack of staff.  

Worried about emergency rooms, I texted a nurse friend of mine, “Should I be riding right now?”

She advocated that riding might be good for my sanity. While my horse is out of commission for a little bit, I can hop on others. I did ride once, right as Omicron took off. It was nice. Now as I have watched the graphs climb in ways they never have before, I think I will wait. 

One of the many lessons the pandemic has taught me is that no matter how much I would like it, my horse life does not exist in the bubble I wish it did. The outside world inevitably creeps in, one way or another, both the good and the bad. So in this case, I’m opting to postpone my riding for a spell because the outside world hints that it is the best option for me and the town where I live.

My choice to keep my feet out of the stirrups isn’t a blanket statement, however. Hospitals in other areas aren’t as hard hit. I don’t need to ride or train to pay the bills, and if the horses I love are pasture pets for a few months, it isn’t going to ruin any big dreams of mine. Other people do need to ride, and perhaps if I leave my feet on the ground, I leave a space in the ER for them. Just in case the worst happens.