Spending the winter months in the warmth of the Florida sunshine is a dream-come-true for many Canadian equestrians. There is much to be said for riding outdoors year-round, not to mention the caliber of competitions in a place such as Wellington for both the hunter/jumper and dressage rider. But the show season of 2020 came to a shocking and abrupt close due to the terrifying onslaught of the global pandemic. While COVID-19 seemed a faraway problem to many North Americans at the start of the year, it has now overtaken our lives. And no one could have predicted the far-reaching consequences of an international outbreak on the horse world.

While Canadian equestrians had by early March begun to question how long they should remain south of the border once coronavirus cases grew in number stateside and back home, when the Canadian government announced its Global Travel Advisory on Friday March 13 it became clear to many that time was running out. Then on March 18 came the ominous and unprecedented announcement that the Canada-US border would close to all non-essential travelers, making horse people worry if their beloved animals would be allowed to return. Here are some personal stories about that decision and the journey to get home.

A complicated scramble

John Taylor (JT) and Barbara Mitchell are no strangers to the Canadian equestrian community, for decades they have run horse shows, judged and taught slews of hunters and jumpers. Taylor judges in the FEI jumper rings at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington beginning in November and the couple normally stay in Florida until late April. Because they are in the state for such a long period, they own a house there.

Before the pandemic they had already planned to be home by April 1st. “Barbara has a lung condition that requires her to be on oxygen 24/7. This makes travelling complicated,” Taylor explains. “We have to make a detailed plan. She needed to be back in Canada by April 1st as she is trying to get on the lung transplant list.”

However, once COVID-19 concerns hit the area and the shows were cancelled, they wanted to return right away. “But we were in the middle of selling our last horse – First Watch – which slowed the plan down,” Taylor says. “We had shown First Watch with great success – he was champion or reserve most weeks. Probably the nicest hunter we ever owned!”

Fortunately, First Watch sold quickly, and with no horse to bring home it made life easier. The trip itself proved arduous, to say the least. “We drove straight through to home in 27 hours. That’s about 2,400 kilometres,” Taylor says. “We shared the driving and stopped for a two-hour nap. It was totally exhausting, and I don’t think we would do it again. However, we thought it safest to avoid hotels and restaurants.”

Taylor did observe that for the most part Canadian competitors in Wellington also headed for the safety of home, but a surprising number stayed on because they had paid for stabling and accommodations until the end of April. “I think the Canadian government was very clear that the safest course of action was to come home,” he says. “Certainly, with Barbara’s health we feel much safer under the great Canadian health system.”

Blown tire and horse hotel

Ontario-based dressage competitor Isabel Dopta shipped her two horses commercially in late December and she and her husband, Dave, drove their own trailer down full of hay and tack. Her plan was to ship the horses back to Canada commercially on March 31, “but we ended up driving them ourselves,” Dopta says.

The couple left Florida on Saturday March 14. “The week prior we had tried to set up commercial shipping for the week of March 16th, but understandably shippers weren’t clear on transport changes at the border and weren’t able to confirm a date,” she explains. “We also received a lot of encouragement from family and colleagues in Ottawa who felt it would be prudent for us to leave. We were told there would be closures at the border on Monday, March 16. Logically, of course, we knew Canadians would be permitted entry, but we still had concerns about possible complications with the horses, or even just general confusion at the border.”

Once Dopta and her husband decided to leave post-haste on March 12, it was stressful, to say the least. “It took a day and half to chase down the horse health papers, to prepare ourselves, and also to vacate the house. We had the horses at a big facility, IDA Dressage, and the owner is always incredibly accommodating. A number of Americans at the farm were also making quick getaways.”

Dopta said her horses each had a box stall and travel reasonably well, but it is not air ride comfort like commercial transport. There is driver fatigue to consider as well, especially given their original plan was to drive straight through to be home before anticipated border changes.

Fate had other plans; their trailer blew a tire on the 1-75 close to the Florida-Georgia state line. “It was around nine pm and there was a huge bang followed by the fender being ripped off,” explains Dopta. “I pulled onto the shoulder right away and fortunately there was a truck rest area one mile ahead, so we limped along with half the tread of the tire thumping around.”

Dave got on the phone for assistance and they lucked out. “We met a great tire pro who swapped the tire, then led us back to his shop. We pulled the horses off at eleven pm and grazed them on a church lawn in a sleepy town while his guys gave us four new tires.” They got back on the road but were too exhausted to make the journey to the border in one go, so made last-minute arrangements with Newton Station Layover (a travel overnight boarding facility) in Kentucky. “Again, luck was on our side and they had room,” Dopta says, adding, “The horses had been there before and settled in right away.”

The rest of the trip proved uneventful – a relief – and the border was a ghost town. Dopta says there were no issues at all, and they were happy to be home later that day.

Three women, three trailers and six horses on a convoy for home. (Photo courtesy Lori Bell)

A convoy of Canadians

Ontario based Lori Bell, who runs Horse Haven Farm with her husband Denis Rodet, travelled to Wellington this winter for her third Florida season. They left at the end of December, shipping their three horses commercially and, like Dopta, using their own horse trailer to transport feed, hay and tack. Then her husband returned to Canada.

Bell had a great season, training with Jaimey Irwin, moving one of her mounts up from the small tour to the Grand Prix. Then on March 6, the last two shows at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival were cancelled. It was clear to Bell that the season was shutting down. “However, my commercial [shipping] arrangements weren’t until the first of April; that still seemed to be an acceptable plan,” she says.

But rumours began to circulate among the horse community of the border closing, of non-essential travel being banned, horses being considered non-essential, states going into lockdown and more. As these murmurs grew louder, sometimes changing every hour, Bell said, “The fear started to become ‘what if we can’t get home?’; ‘what if our travel medical insurance is cancelled?’; ‘how will I get export papers quickly enough?’, ‘where will my horses and myself go if our seasonal barn and housing shuts down?’; ‘how will we afford to stay?’ ‘What if I get sick?’ My horses were cared for solely by me.”

Bell was extremely fortunate to be told that her apartment was available for as long as she needed it without charge. The horses were safe in their location and would never be asked to move. For these things, she was very grateful.

But getting home was going to be a challenge because Bell’s trailer was only set up for two horses, plus all of the gear she’d shipped down on her trailer. She was able to settle these issues with the help of her friend, Julie Barrett, who had a spot free on her trailer for a third horse. Bell was also allowed to store equipment at the barn she was renting until next year and her landlord also allowed her to leave belongings in the apartment.

Bell found further difficulty getting export papers from the government agency, the USDA, which appeared to be wildly overwhelmed. In the end, Bell made the call to leave Wellington without the proper export papers, relying on FedEx to deliver them to a vet off the I-75 in Ohio before reaching the Canadian border. This added another layer of stress.

Driving the trailer herself, Bell left Wellington on March 23 along with Barrett and another Canadian rider, Shannon Thorndyke ‒ three women with three trailers and six horses on a convoy for home. Bell said Thorndyke had driven a trailer once; the day before, with Barrett, who is all of 22, giving pointers. “The trip entailed many, many emotions, at least for me: fear, obviously; excitement, it was an adventure after all; fun, we had quite a few laughs along the way,” recounts Bell. “But I worried for the horses, as commercial transport gives them box stalls and air ride, our trailers did not. But overall I felt joy to be heading home.”

Bell had a couple of layovers. The first one was a small farm in Georgia; the second one was in Kentucky at a facility owned by a vet. “It was a big modern barn that was disinfected between horses and used by many commercial shippers,” Bell says. “And a vet who knew how to get export papers in one hour! I handed her my EIA results, one hour later, she handed me my export papers. Unheard of!”

Ice cream!!! (Photo courtesy Lori Bell)

The happy to be home, Bell said the highlight of the journey was a gas station with a drive-through Dairy Queen that could accommodate a truck and trailer. “So that meant ice cream.” No doubt a much-needed treat under the circumstances.

“At a time when everything is so unsettled, I feel fortunate to have had so many people in my life help get me and my horses home,” Bell says. “Good friends to complete strangers went above and beyond to offer what they could. I will be eternally grateful for these people and, yes, even this experience.”

Many other Canadian horse owners and riders no doubt have similar stories to share. But one thing is certain, when it comes to the health and safety of the humans and animals we love, there is no place like home.