The cancellations caused by the pandemic just keep on coming, turning the horse show world upside down again nearly every day. One of the more stunning blows came Monday, as organizers of the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair announced that the USA’s largest multi-breed show would not run at the end of May.
Memorial Day weekend has been synonymous with Devon since 1896, but safety means much more than tradition in the new era of Covid-19.
“It’s like everything else; you kind of knew these things were going to have to happen and they kind of fall like dominoes,” said McLain Ward, Devon’s biggest star, who has a record 11 wins in the grand prix named after his longtime mount, Sapphire.
Devon, he said, “has always been a magical place for me, my team and my family.”
He had been holding out hope for the show to run “because it’s a permanent facility and a lot of facilities that have to put up temporary infrastructure are closing down quicker. It’s a shame and it’s frustrating and we want to do what it is we do in life,” he commented, but added, “We’ll survive.”
Like many top trainers, McLain, his wife, Lauren, and their two daughters are “hunkered down” in Wellington, Florida, staying on their own property with the horses in their charge.
Although his base is New York (where the May Old Salem show in his Westchester County vicinity was canceled as of Tuesday), McLain isn’t heading home until he sees how things go in a state that is a hotbed of the virus, with more cases than anywhere else in the U.S.
Like many of the big name trainers, McLain is lucky to have his horses on his property, so they can be kept in training as much as he feels suitable, without knowing when shows are going to start.
But people boarding horses at the nearby Palm Beach International Equestrian Center showgrounds have less in the way of options. Although there have been rumors that showing is going on at the home of the Winter Equestrian Festival, that is not the case according to Michael Stone, president of Equestrian Sport Productions, which runs PBIEC.
“We’re doing controlled schooling for people who are still stuck here, rather than letting them mingle,” said Michael, a former secretary-general of the FEI (international equestrian federation.)
“A lot of these horses and people are stuck here. They have barns in New York and New Jersey (another virus hotbed) but they don’t want to go up there.”
WEF ended two weeks early and the spring series of shows which were to begin this month are not happening now. A number of trainers stayed after WEF for those shows before heading to Kentucky and points north, which means their horses are still in the PBIEC stabling.
“The horses are here, they have to be exercised. So we’re stuck having to provide something for them,” Michael explained.
Hence the schooling situation on a property where every entrance is guarded to keep out people who don’t belong there. ESP’s Global Dressage facility down the street, where no spring show was scheduled, was in total lockdown to the point where the guard wouldn’t let Michael in today.
At PBIEC, “If security sees more than five people together, they break them up,” said Michael.
Those participating in the schooling are “amazingly respectful. They appreciated the opportunity to keep their barns going,” said Michael.
“None of big barns have a problem. It’s the smaller guys with four or five clients who rely on buying and selling horses; they’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”
The schooling arrangement was born of necessity (one has been put in place by a racetrack in Ohio for resident horses there).
“We ran it by the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the Village (of Wellington) and the county and local municipalities,” Michael explained.
“Our view was better to take control and have it organized and keep people safe.”
While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis today put in a statewide stay-at-home order, stay-at-home was already in place for Palm Beach County, where PBIEC is located, and three other Southeast Florida counties as well.
The governors of every state decide what kind of quarantine should be ordered in their jurisdiction. Florida’s situation is different than one in North Carolina, where another ESP property, Tryon, had to be completely shuttered.
At the moment, “We’re considered to be an essential business and an animal boarding facility,” said Michael, explaining how the PBIEC venue operates.
However, the details of the new order were not revealed this afternoon. Michael said it is not known if it is substantially different from the current order for the county.
“If he says close down, we close down,” he observed about the governor’s mandate, noting “we wouldn’t wait” until the midnight Thursday deadline.
Michael said ESP would try to figure out some sort of rebate and work with trainers who paid to house their horses at PBIEC if they are ordered to leave.
Meanwhile, the facility has been having fogging machines spray sanitizer around the area being used. All the seating has been taken out so people can’t gather, no more than two horses are allowed in any of the facility’s five rings at one time and no more than five people, including the rider, can be on hand for the schooling.
Michael pointed out, “We’ve never had more than 35 (exercising in the rings) a day,” estimating there are between 250 and 300 horses left in the venue. Unless the governor’s order bans it, plans call for some horses to be there another couple of weeks, since the spring shows were to run through April, and people paid stall fees for that time frame.
Every horse has to have a WEF back number, but trainers who are based on the grounds can have their other horses stabled off the grounds come in to train.
With a fee of $50 per horse to enter a ring for schooling, “We don’t make money out of it; what we get, we give back to staff (jump crew, drag crew, ingate people, security) to run it,” Michael explained.
All of them work on a day rate rather than being full-time employees.
“We’re trying to keep as many of those guys as possible. It’s very tough.”
While Michael is hopeful that shows at the venue can start at the end of May, he noted, “I’m not saying that’s actually going to work. That may be optimistic.
“What the industry is going to look like afterwards is really the issue. A lot of the small sponsors the whole industry deals are going to struggle if they can’t sell their stuff. A lot of them may go out of business. Who knows where any of it is going to go?”