The U.S. Equestrian Federation has labored mightily to find ways that shows can be run in the era of Covid-19. Although most of its employees are still working from home, rather than in the federation’s Lexington, KY, offices, they are working hard. Establishing new safety requirements, reallocating dates, waiving some requirements and dealing with rules that are different in nearly every state required a reinvention of the way sport has run during the lives of the current participants.
The Covid action plan is “a living document,” said USEF CEO Bill Moroney, noting weekly revisions are on the USEF website every Wednesday. He suggests people should put the action plan next to their bed and read it every night so “it will stick with you a little bit better.”
If someone tests positive after a show or event, the organizer will notify people who were at the venue, according to Katlynn Sacco, the USEF’s director of competition licensing, evaluation and safety
As with other businesses, equestrian webinars on Zoom have become the way to communicate, avoiding close contact in the virus era. USEF has been hosting these sessions regularly, often with major affiliates such as the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, the U.S. Dressage Federation and the U.S. Eventing Association.
The most recent one included USHJA President Mary Babick, along with several of the federation’s managers. We learned that when USEF shows resumed June 1 after an 11-week hiatus, nearly the same average number of people took part as had attended on the same week in 2019 (137.9 per show, compared with 137.5 last year). There were 29 competitions across the country, compared with 80 for the same week the prior year.
“As states open, we’ll see an uptick,” Bill predicted. “People are interested in getting back to competition.”
There were 16 FEI 2-star through 5-star shows slated for June in North America before the lockdowns. Now there are just five North American FEI 2- and 3-star jumper shows this month, all in the U.S.
As Bill noted, “We’re learning every day through the process of reopening.”
He applauded the concept of facilities that had unlicensed shows before June 1 so they could work out the kinks, including how to take temperatures of everyone entering the showgrounds, sanitizing and running without spectators.
The fate of shows that have been cancelled or must be postponed is being handled in a different manner than usual because of the circumstances.
“We continue to process according to our rules,” said Bill, “but we’re expediting time lines. We’re trying to stay as nimble as possible.” That’s important, since shows forced to cancel because of state restrictions or other problems often want a chance to get back on the calendar.
As the environment changes, those denied exemptions from the mileage rule can make as second pass that allows them another opportunity for dates. Dealing with this is an enormous task. Eventing alone has had 31 additions and postponements to the calendar so far.
Many Questions Remain
There are still many questions that must be answered. The U.S. shows on the North American Fall Indoor Circuit – the Pennsylvania National, the Washington International and the National – are working together in an effort to determine whether they can be staged. Indoor shows are a bigger challenge than outdoor shows, because it’s easier to socially distance outdoors than inside, where air circulation is also an issue. The Capital Challenge, an indoor show that precedes the circuit, is going ahead at the moment with its plans to run.
One of the most difficult things is figuring out how to safely handle disciplines that involve groups, such as vaulting with several people on a horse; para-dressage, where caregivers and assistants are part of the equation; and driving, with grooms and navigators on the carriages.
Meanwhile, it will be up to the USEF board of directors at its mid-year virtual meeting June 22-23 to decide such questions as whether junior riders who would age out in 2020 should get another year because of the missed weeks (seems unlikely, staff is recommending against it) or how the Horse of the Year awards program will be handled.
Qualifying standards for various competitions have been eased in most instances, reflecting the fact that there are less opportunities to obtain them.
The USHJA’s prestigious green hunter incentive and international hunter derby championships, set for mid-August in Kentucky, this year require only that horses be enrolled, rather than having to earn points for a spot. Those competitions are by no means certain starters, however; they will get a “go/no go” by June 29, Mary said.
Some have asked whether there will be a rebate of membership fees because of the spring hiatus. The answer is no. Mary explained USHJA believes its membership, which comes out to 23 cents/day, is a “very strong value” because it offers so many education programs, which have been entirely virtual for the duration of the lockdown. USEF also has a vast library of educational offerings.
Bill said USEF moved forward with its options, employees studied what major league sports are doing because of the layoffs, and what they have done in the past when their seasons were stalled. He mentioned that the equestrian freeze was only 11 weeks, not the whole season, which is considered when deciding what should be changed or exempt.
But there are many things that deserve consideration because of the circumstances, for instance, the heights of fences that the Young Jumpers will face on their return. And USEF officials understand money is tight for many because of the lockdowns, so they are offering a break with a discount on lifetime recordings for yearling and two-year old horses and ponies, available from July 1 to Aug. 31.
What does the future hold for shows?
Bill said he would like a crystal ball to find out how long we’ll be distancing, wearing masks and sanitizing, but lacking that, he commented, “I expect these behaviors will be with us even after a vaccine is developed.” He believes that things will continue the way they are through the end of this year and the beginning of next year.
“I wish we could return to the old normal we all enjoyed,” he said wistfully. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely, as comfort must take a back seat to safety for the foreseeable future.
So stay away from USEF horse shows if you won’t observe social distancing guidelines or refuse to wear a face mask when you’re not on a horse. Bill is warning anyone flouting pandemic restrictions on the showgrounds: “For those who don’t want to be responsible, stay home. Don’t make it difficult for other people to be responsible.”
In a Monday webinar update he advised, “Let other people enjoy horse sports, don’t be a problem for organizers,” adding that the federation will support show managers who ask a non-compliant person to leave. USEF even gave one show a warning when the live stream revealed some people at the venue weren’t wearing masks or social distancing.