Competition Returns: Horse Showing in a Pandemic

Competition Returns: Horse Showing in a Pandemic

By Nicole Miller

I believe all of us can say that this has been a very weird year – and it’s only July. (I think. I’ve kind of lost track.) What started off in January as a calendar full of hope and opportunities quickly turned into chaos and confusion. And then life came to a screeching halt thanks to COVID-19.

For those with horses, navigating the ‘new normal’ of a locked down lifestyle became even more complicated. There were so many additional questions and concerns:
“How do I keep my horse fit?”
“Do I let people come to my barn?”
“Is it safe to ride?”
“What about my goals?”
“How do I treat medical situations?”
“I need my therapy!” 

It’s been a tremendous challenge. In our area of South Louisiana, the answers to all those questions were mixed: some stables never missed a beat, others were closed, while still others adopted a blended approach to ensure safety. In all cases, everyone was champing at the bit to get back to a real routine. As the situation started to ease in May, we equestrians began to look with cautious hope toward the near future and getting out with our horses again. 

One of our local stables and show venues, Lagniappe Equestrian Center, hosts several shows throughout a normal year. These are typically small, low key shows that are a lot of fun for the attendees. One of their competitions, a ‘horse trials in a day’ that encompasses a combination of jumping, dressage, and cross country in one day, was scheduled for mid-June. When I say that our local horse community was looking forward to this opportunity, that’s probably an understatement. It was one of Lagniappe’s biggest shows EVER. They had to hire a second dressage judge and put up a second arena to handle all the dressage tests. People who seldom come to these events came to compete and it was delightful to see so many new faces in spite of our Louisiana summer heat and humidity.

Of course, safety first! Everyone was encouraged to maintain social distancing, wash hands often at the wash stations, hand sanitizer was readily available, limited people were allowed in the show office and barns, and masks were encouraged for those who needed to wear them. Realistically, the heat index was over 100, so masks were going to be difficult to wear without passing out – but people did a reasonably good job of being respectful of distance with those who weren’t ‘in their circle’. It’s difficult to remember to ‘stay away’ when you’re excited to see people you haven’t seen in months and your natural inclination is to shake hands or hug. But, in the end, people were respectful and it was a successful exercise in the new world of COVID competitions.

I volunteered to help out and was assigned the in-gate for the stadium jumping. I actually enjoy working the in-gate and warmup arena positions because I get to see and talk to the competitors and play amateur photographer. It was a little different this time with being ‘socially distant’ from each other and having fewer people just standing around. In spite of that, it offered me a tremendous view of the show.

I was really impressed with the number of people who turned out and with the diversity of breeds! There were horses in nearly every color and size. We had ponies, gaited horses, Saddlebreds, Clydesdales, Warmbloods, Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Arabians, and probably loads of others I missed. It was a feast for the eyes!

There were many new people, with crossovers from other disciplines such as Jumping and Western Riding. The show seemed to attract a larger audience because people just wanted to get out and show, period. Some riders were first-time competitors, others opted to just do stadium jumping or dressage or a combined test or equitation classes or western dressage. I have to give the show organizers credit for juggling the demands of not only so many entries, but the diverse disciplines and needs of all the classes. It was a very busy show and a true pleasure to attend.

In addition to volunteering, I also was able to compete. This was the maiden voyage for me and my horse, Peter, and I was a bit nervous for many reasons. First, my coach was judging dressage in one of the other arenas, so I wouldn’t have the benefit of schooling with her before our classes. Then, my dear Peter has a bit of an issue with steering when he’s distracted: we were scheduled to ride in the grass arena, which meant no containing fences or walls and LOTS of distractions. And lastly, I am still battling a little PTSD from my previous horse who launched me in the warmup at the last show I attended nearly two years ago. I practiced a lot of deep breathing.

And, you know what? We just had fun! I remembered to smile, concentrated on the fact that Peter is a great horse, and that we can’t take these show opportunities for granted anymore so I should enjoy it. We did really well for our first time out, earned some very respectable scores, and I was proud of our effort. Of course, there is a lot of room for improvement (I think our geometry was a bit … calligraphic), but it was a great experience for both of us.

At the conclusion of this pandemic competition experience, I think I can reasonably say that equestrians have learned a lot of valuable lessons from the COVID ordeal. Not the least of which is that we cannot take our horses, stables, barn mates, and horse shows for granted anymore. Life can change in a heartbeat and things we’ve counted on may become unavailable to us (including toilet paper). This is a new world we’re navigating now and no one knows what tomorrow may bring. Enjoy any show opportunity you have, and cherish those moments with your horses and loved ones. And hopefully, I’ll see you out at a show soon!

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