The barn is a sanctuary; a place where you can run away from the stress of the day and escape in an odor of leather, horse sweat and shavings. But, the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic have so many layers, from the government to small businesses to your local boarding barn. For most, that sanctuary has been closed up, thanks to social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
But the care for animals still goes on. For most states, the agriculture economy is still running as close to normal as possible, because they are essential business when it comes to the care for animals. However, roles are changed for those that work at the barn, and visits from horse crazy kids are very limited.
Currently, boarding barns across the country are dealing with a “new normal” that includes taking what’s supposed to be a social safe place to one of stricter biosecurity protocols and isolation.
“At the beginning, we followed the suggested restrictions of social distancing and washing your hands, but the barn was still open,” recalls boarding and breeding farm owner June Hillman. “To me, I started to feel it was socially irresponsible as things started to heat up in the community and the country, because I’d see so many people hang out at the barn, and I felt like this wasn’t going to work.”
Hillman then immediately closed down her West Chester, Pa., farm to everyone except for her family and barn workers. “When this started, it seemed like it would only be two weeks, but now you wonder how you adapt to the length of time things have to be shut down,” admits Hillman.
Now, Hillman is looking at how she can invite horse owners back into the barn, while still practicing responsible social distancing and biosecurity. She’s looking at adapting a plan much like Kalamazoo, Mich., barn owner Tara East has implemented for Eastfork Farm, which includes time slots where a single person can come to the barn for an hour or two at a time.
“Because we have a school program, the kids still have to care for their horses,” explains East. “So, we communicate with owners for their time block so they can come in, care for their horse, clean up after themselves and then leave before someone else can come in.”
Both boarding barns are now seeing less traffic in and out of their facilities amid COVID-19, with only essential veterinarian and farrier visits. Lessons and classes have been cancelled, which means less work for Hillman and East, however, they’ve seen an uptick in how much they are cleaning around the barn and their time spent on social media and communicating with horse owners just to keep them informed of how the horses are doing.
“There’s that added stress of feeling like you’ve taken people away from your horses, though,” admits Hillman. “And while it’s really the governor enforcing the stay-at-home order, so it’s really his fault, they blame you for that.”
The horses are still getting their routine care. Hillman explains that as long as the horses are kept on the schedule they’ve come to expect (e.g., feeding and turnout times), they’re happy. “I’m not even riding my horses right now, but I’m spending more time maybe grooming boarders’ horses,” she says.
Barn Life After Quarantine?
Just as uncertain as everyone is with current circumstances, Hillman and East both see a lot of uncertainty in their near and distant future. Furloughs and business closings wreak havoc on families’ finances and extra-curricular activities start to be eliminated.
“I’m a little worried as to what is going to happen if people aren’t able to afford their horses,” says Hillman.
Typical barn events such as summer camp and lessons may look a little different once the COVID-19 pandemic has ceased. Eastfork Farm is already starting to look at flexible alternatives for their customers and their monetary flow.
“We’re starting to look at how this will affect things we normally do,” says East. “We do summer camp, and since there will be a big lag for people and their finances, that will obviously affect how they spend their money for activities. That is, if we even have summer.”
Hillman and East are both formulating a plan for other opportunities for their horse owners and their business, be it lessons only once a month or a shift in expectations. “We’re trying to formulate plans so we can hit the ground running when everything is lifted and still have things available to people even if they’re strapped for money because of all of this,” says East.
But even with the best-laid plans with businesses such as a boarding barn, the situation is ever-changing, and the equine industry—and the entire world—awaits what will happen next in the historic COVID-19 pandemic.