By Gabriela Carroll
For equestrian riders, the COVID-19 pandemic shook up the summer competition schedule, and limited opportunity in a travel-heavy sport.
At Owl Ridge Barn, run by East Hampton native Shana Altschuler, many of the biggest competitions of the season were canceled, leaving the barn scrambling to find new events to participate in.
“We’ve lived week to week, deciding where we’re going to go,” Altschuler said. “Usually, we plan our whole summer out. We know what horse shows we’re going to, we have a really planned schedule. This summer, we’ve gone week to week, seeing if anyone who wants to do this horse show that looks like it’s still going. Is there room, or is there not room? Things have been a little more ‘fly by the seat of our pants,’ to use the old expression.”
The headline competition of the season is USEF Pony Finals in Kentucky, which was supposed to take place on August 3-9. Owl Ridge Barn planned to compete at Pony Finals in 2020, before deciding not to make the trip, and Pony Finals was later canceled due to positive tests on the show grounds.
One thing further complicating travel plans is changing quarantine regulations. Each week, governors update their lists indicating that travelers from certain states must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Owl Ridge Barn is located in Wilmington, Delaware, a small state with fewer equestrian competitions than the states surrounding it.
“Every summer, we go for two weeks to Saugerties, New York, and they have a big horse show there all summer,” Altschuler said. “Right as we were supposed to go, Delaware got put on the list for quarantine. We obviously then couldn’t go, but we had it all planned and paid for the house. We had planned everything around that. That was tough with the kids, because they were excited about that.”
The last-minute event cancellations create a precarious financial situation for riders. Altschuler said many events, like Pony Finals, aren’t issuing refunds due to cancellations. In order to avoid losing money, the barn won’t compete at events that require payment in advance this summer.
Altschuler competes in Grand Prix events herself, and purchased a new competition horse just prior to the barn shutting down due to the stay-at-home orders. She hoped to train on the horse and compete in smaller events in the spring, so she’d be prepared to take her new horse out for bigger events over the summer, but they just did their first Grand Prix event two weeks ago.
Owl Ridge Barn shut down completely for three weeks after the stay at home orders were placed in their state. Altschuler used those weeks to inform herself on the risks of re-opening and invited back those who own horses that board at the barn to return after those weeks were up.
“I opened on a scheduled basis, so I’d have hour and a half slots and only two people per slot,” Altschuler said. “They weren’t allowed in the common areas. We would bring the horse out to them, they would ride in the ring. And then we would take the horse and put the horse away for them.”
The social experiences at horse shows, especially for the kids who ride at Owl Ridge, are one of the best parts of the sport, according to Altschuler. Because of the pandemic, riders can’t socialize much with other riders. Even when just riding at Owl Ridge Barn, the restrictions necessary due to COVID-19 limit most interpersonal interactions.
But for many riders, having the ability to compete at all is a blessing. Riding is an easy sport to social distance during, according to Altschuler, and it gives the riders a piece of normalcy in uncertain times.
“The barn has been a little bit of a haven for these kids and given them something to look forward to,” Altschuler said. “It’s been nice for me to keep a little normalcy in my life where I’m not completely socially isolated. Seeing these kids, especially the kids that are going off to college who I’ve been teaching for the last seven or eight years, who were really looking forward to competing in their last summer, getting out there and having a good time.”