What happens when global pandemic containment measures mean that your family-run equine business must close? Louise is learning to navigate this new reality while maintaining some normalcy on her farm in the beautiful Limousin region of France. We chatted with Louise about the environment there in France as well as the challenges and uncertainties that small, equine-focused businesses are facing now.
I'm a 52-year-old mother to three daughters. My eldest, Charlotte, rides professionally in Belgium, Emily is just back from studying in Canada and trying to finish up the papers for her Masters degree, and Madeleine was about to take her Baccalaureate (high school end exams) before the Coronavirus locked the schools down.
We - my husband, myself, and two of the girls - live on the farm. We have a small breeding program, but mainly produce young horses for showjumping. I have two older horses that I compete at international shows throughout the year - primarily to keep in touch with the jumping scene and to showcase our stable.
We are usually travelling constantly throughout Europe, whether competing in the spring or autumn tours in Spain or sourcing young, talented horses in Holland and Belgium. Because we buy very young horses, the majority are in the fields year-round, growing up in the hills around our property. I don't have any staff as such, just one lady who boards her horses with us and does the boxes (mucks the stalls), and holds the fort while we are away travelling. She lives onsite, and I would be lost without her!
Our business is so varied and spread out that we are accustomed to periods of inactivity, to be honest. Waiting for the youngsters to mature can be a long process. I'll have five or six in work at a time, including the older jumpers, and because we are based in quite a remote area, I’ve always showcased our horses using videos from at shows or home.
I have sold by video alone, but in the case of ridden horses, I have been known to bring them to the client at their establishment. It has worked well for us in the past.
I think I am on my sixth week of lockdown. I spent the first two weeks in Spain, as I had travelled down there for one of the tours literally just before Spain announced their restrictions. Everything was very uncertain at that time, and I decided to remain there for those initial 2 weeks. Already, we saw that this was going to be serious; we were only allowed out to shop for necessities. I was allowed to visit and ride my horses at the stable but could have no contact with anyone. I needed an attestation to travel and was stopped frequently!
After many calls and internet searches, we decided to leave back to France. With our dossier of relevant paperwork we made a seemingly apocalyptic 800km journey back home. In reality, it was very uneventful and very quiet, thank goodness!
Back in France, and the lockdown continues. Our property is set well off the road. We are very secluded and have few actual visitors, but I normally travel frequently to coach and train other riders and my own horses, so it is feeling very surreal at the moment. I do lose track of time - I must admit, only the girls with their online lessons remind me of weekends, and Easter holidays!
I assigned myself as the only person to be leaving the property. Equipped with masks, gloves and my paperwork, I go twice a week to pick up horse feed, the post, and to get food (and wine) for all of us.
The supermarkets are usually pretty well stocked, although things like flour, bleach, rice and pasta are sometimes sold out. There's always been plenty of toilet paper though. That must be an English thing.
We have to queue to enter the supermarkets, keep at least 2m apart from each other and nobody talks to each other or even makes eye contact.
Every place I go, I change masks and gloves, I have a stash of these in my car, which is pretty lucky as there is a shortage. There are cases of Covid-19 in our area, although information on numbers is a little sketchy, but the population of our little local town is dominated by the older generation who are at risk.
In general, it has been easy for us to self isolate. I do worry though that this is going to affect us for a long, long time. At the moment, I'm able to continue my usual work. The horses get worked, I'm even able to spend more time with the youngsters than usual, which I love!
But I have no income from coaching, no schooling liveries and no competitions throughout the horse world, meaning our whole existence is on hold.
Normally, I would love being here at home on the farm, because it is like being on holiday, spending time working with the baby horses, hacking the jumpers up on the hills and keeping up with maintenance. Now, it does start to feel restrictive, of course. And worrying. What if there are no more shows this year? Will that mean nobody will be buying horses? Will anyone still be motivated to want coaching? Will they have money to spare?
So far we have decided not to send the mares to Stud this spring. Firstly to cut costs, because in France it's an expensive process. Even though I have straws of stallions I've owned in the past, we are required to leave them at Stud until they are full, which is a costly few months. Plus, the travelling restrictions for horses are not clear, so I'll probably not take the risk, at least for now. Of course this means the breeding mares won't produce next year.
Our sport, our job is mostly directed to the wealthy, a luxury activity. Will we, as a small operation, survive this?
We have tried to stick to a routine here, but of course without the motivation of the beginning of the season, it has been difficult. I tend not to compete much in the winter, so for me the build up to the spring shows is normally an exciting time. My grand prix mare is ready to 'rock and roll' as is the lovely 7-year-old I have been producing. How long do I keep them 'show ready'?
I heard yesterday that one of my very favourite international shows of the year in the middle of July has been cancelled. It is always the highlight of our year, as we meet friends from all over Europe, using this time as our one and only 'away-holiday'. I've heard rumours that we might be in for a much longer lockdown than the May 11 deadline we have now.
For my own health, though, I try to make a conscious effort not to worry. Worrying won't make any difference. I'm lucky to have family around me and some lovely horses, who will still be lovely next year.
To keep busy, I've been playing more and trying new things with the horses. I’ve tried long-reining (which was a laugh), ground work, massage, and not worrying when I give them a day off. I've started reading more. I used to read a lot, so I've been rereading my favourite books and listening to podcasts. Thinking up new exercises… cooking… In effect, trying to imagine that I'm on an extended holiday!
I think that this crisis is going to last longer than we could hope at the moment, so I will be carrying on. I have some horses ready to compete, and some ready to sell, so I will be ready when and if the restrictions are lifted this summer. That's all any of us can do for now.
Photos courtesy of Louise.