A few days ago, my mom, sister and I were locked into an intense back-and-forth on iMessage. We were debating whether or not, in the face of a looming “stay at home” order, we would have to ask our small handful of boarders not to come see their horses anymore.
“...but what does ‘essential’ mean? I’m seeing FB posts of people saying they’re still going to see their boarded horses.”
“Petting your pony is NOT essential. Period.”
“This isn’t clear at all. I don’t want to hurt feelings. People enjoy coming out and getting fresh air.”
“You and dad live on the property, and dad is high risk. This is about protecting everyone including yourselves. Who will care for the horses if you get sick?”
My family’s boarding farm is very low-traffic and private, and even though we weren’t having to drop the hammer on 30+ people visiting and riding their horses during a time when folks need the refuge of the barn more than ever, the decision was pretty agonizing. Surprisingly so, and for many reasons.
From the boarder’s perspective, feeling like you’re losing control over your horse for an indefinite period of time can feel paralyzing or enraging. After all, it’s your horse, right? I have been a boarder in a number of barns, so I can quite literally put myself in the boarder’s position here; the thought being unable to visit my beloved horses for a quick once-over of their legs or a reassuring pat to let them know that I haven’t abandoned them is panic-inducing. Your barn owner knows this, and it’s almost certainly a large slice of the stress pie that they’re currently being forced to eat.
From the owner’s side, closing a barn to anyone except non-essential personnel creates a huge work, resource, and financial strain - one that they couldn’t have prepared for. Barns are having to stockpile supplies, should their feed stores begin to close or run short, and out of what budget? I look at my parents, creeping up in years, the embodiment of high-risk individuals during this outbreak, and I know the additional strain of work this will put on them for weeks. It will work them to the bone. My barn employs two college students who help clean stalls, but only a few days a week, and one of the girls has already put in her two-week notice because without school, there’s no reason for her to stay in town. This situation I'm describing is not an isolated one reserved only for my family. It's everywhere.
The next day, the statements from our county and even our state veterinary board (combed through by my sister, a DVM who is also USDA-accredited), rolled in. We realized there were no decisions to make, because the parameters were clear: boarders are not essential in the daily care of the horses (ouch, that stings, I know!) The exception is, of course, if you are a self-care boarder and your horse literally relies on you for food, water, and shelter.
Typing out that email to our small group of boarders was painstaking for my mom, who has never closed the barn a day in 20 years - not for illness, hurricanes, you name it. Within a couple of hours, she received a forceful message back from one of our long-time boarders expressing how we were incorrectly interpreting the rules, threatening my parents with liability if a medical issue arose with her horse during this period. All of the worries that my mom had about hitting "send" only a few hours prior were validated and alive in this boarder's audacious rebuttal.
I’m sure you’ve seen it on social media: posts circulating demanding board refunds, special allowances, and joking (maybe?) threats to ‘sneak out in the middle of the night’. The blame for compliance with state or county orders in an unforeseeable global pandemic is placed on the owners or managers of barns, most of which are hemorrhaging money without the support of lessons, training, and active clients.
If you find yourself feeling this way, please know that no aspect of the decision to close doors to non-essential personnel is good for anyone. Realize that many barn owners, like my mom, are probably living on the verge of tears right now, uncertain about where to go from here. And they’re not just caring for your horses - they’re balancing the worries of keeping their families safe, their businesses afloat (so that your horse can continue to have a place to live), and are bracing for the reality that they may also get sick - and then what happens?
Seeing my parents so anxious and stressed about COVID-19 and every implication that it has for them, their lives, and their farm is terrible as a daughter. They are worried that they won’t be able to come visit my first child when he/she is born in a few months. They’re worried about my sister, who still has to work and interface with clients on a daily basis. They’re worried about my 86-year-old grandmother who lives alone and 'how will she get groceries'? They’re worried they won’t make it through this pandemic themselves.
I know they are not alone and I know I’m not, either. We are all worried, and that collective fear is powerful. What you choose to do in this moment is truly a measure of character and what you bring to your community - to the world. Every single person has, within them at this moment, the power to set an example and be a beacon. In this period, when you can’t care for your horse the way you want to, consider nurturing the caretakers of your horse instead.
What if you chose to reach out to your barn owner and thank them for making a tough call, or just asking them, ‘Are you doing okay?’ What about ordering some food or groceries (carrots and apples for the horses included) to be delivered to them? How could you change someone’s day, or their feelings about the situation that we’re all grappling with?
Soon, when you’re able to rejoin your horse, you’ll be able to stride down the barn aisle after weeks away and feel proud of how you spoke and acted. And that feeling will rub off on everyone, including your horse, long after this time has passed.
Written by Caroline Culbertson
Caroline Culbertson is the Editor-in-Chief of NoelleFloyd.com. A southern girl at heart, she's currently braving the Northeastern winters with her two homebred Hanoverians, rescue pittie named Pig, and a variety of adopted cats and critters.