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Northern Illinois equine businesses face unprecedented challenges as they navigate the pandemic

By Selah Holland

Val Buesching was looking forward to a fresh start. With plans set to move her herd of nearly 20 lesson horses to a new facility, her training program was entering a new and exciting phase. What she did not expect was a pandemic to interfere with her growing business plans. Buesching, the owner and head trainer at On Course Riding Academy, wouldn’t be the only equine professional affected by the COVID-19 Illinois shut-down that began in March; other barn owners, trainers, and equestrian athletes would soon find themselves scrambling for solutions to a problem they had never before encountered.

Northwestern University Equestrian head coach Meggie Cramer, for example, said the team is her primary source of income in her work as a trainer, so the changes brought on by COVID-19 were a financial blow.

Considering the liabilities involved, carrying several insurance policies in the equestrian world is no anomaly. Cramer carries three separate policies that, in summation, allow her to teach lessons, ride and train other people’s horses, and handle other people’s horses from the ground. These policies are presently under force majeure, leaving her with essentially one option.

“I’m not an independently wealthy person where, if someone were to sue me, I would be okay without my insurance policy. So that effectively rendered me unable to teach entirely for however long the stay-at-home order remains in place,” she said.

For now, some trainers are having clients sign additional liability agreements to fill in the gap of uncertainty, the rider of 26 years said. The question that remains is when equine businesses will be allowed to fully resume operations during the five-phase reopening plan in Illinois. Cramer has heard rumors that insurance companies will begin to consider barns to be high risk, which could delay reopening significantly.

“We have a lot of hands touching a lot of different kinds of materials. And then I have other people who are saying we’re a sport where I don’t have to physically touch you in order to teach you as a riding instructor. It can help sometimes, but it’s not a requirement. So wrestling is not going to be a thing for a while,” the 31-year-old joked.

Since the Illinois statewide shut-down in March, trainers whose insurance policies allowed them to resume teaching their clients have begun doing so cautiously. Trainer Alexandra Veleris, the owner of Third Coast Equestrian in Hawthorn Woods, IL, said she did not ride client horses until she was sure she was following proper protocol required by her insurance policies. She has since resumed working with a limited number of clients, but under strict guidelines; riders, for example, have been required to walk from their cars directly to the ring where their horses are tacked, and return to their cars immediately after dismounting. Veleris said it has given the effect of a full-service barn.

But the new quarantine-style business operation is taking a toll.

“I've been more tired these last few weeks than I have been on days where I've literally ridden 14 horses in a row,” Veleris shared.

Equestrian athletics in America do not have just one governing body, Cramer pointed out, resulting in different protocol guidelines across the organizations. This has led trainers, barn owners, and athletes to improvise according to their best judgments.

Buesching chose to follow the safety guidelines outlined by the United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA), which suggest riders wear face masks when not riding, frequent disinfection of commonly used equipment, and reducing the size of lesson groups, among several other safety measures.

“I walk around and I bleach the latches to the stalls every day. We try to keep the tack disinfected, but a lot of the kids that come have their own stuff,” the 38-year-old said.

One of Val Buesching’s horses, Charlie, sports a face mask in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Val Buesching)

Cramer boards her leased horse, Tag, at Sky Rose Equestrian Center, where they are taking similar precautions, she said, perhaps the most important one being a strict schedule for when clients can visit and ride their horses. At the beginning of each week, clients are required to send barn owner Nicole Avila a proposed visitation schedule for the week. From there, Avila can either approve or make changes to her clients’ plans to ensure no more than 10 people are in the barn at a time.

Avila, who lives on the Antioch, IL property with her husband, two children, and parents, can only hope she made the right decision to stay open.

“Each barn is going to have to do what's best for them. I have a couple of friends who own barns that have had to close during this whole thing and it's been a hard hit for them. But that was the best solution for their barn and their situation,” the 27-year-old said.

Barns are not the only operations being affected, however. Across the country, horse shows have been canceled for the spring, including the Northern Illinois Hunter Jumper Association (NIHJA) circuit, which holds its season from February through September each year. As of now, the NIHJAs, among other local shows, are set to resume this summer, this time with new regulations that will keep the number of attendees at a minimum.

Veleris, an accomplished show jumper, said she’s considering resuming her competition plans in July, but this time very selectively.

“I'm in no rush because there'll always be horse shows and I'd rather save my horses’ legs and their brains and save their jumps,” the 27-year-old said.

Alexandra Veleris, 27, jumps a winning ride on her horse, Peter Pan, at the World Equestrian Center of Ohio in December 2019. (Andrew Ryback Photography)

She also anticipates that coaching her younger riders at horse shows will be more challenging due to the guidelines, such as her voice being muffled by a face mask, preventing her from effectively communicating to her riders in the ring. But beyond that, the horse show experience won’t be the same for her riders.

“Growing up, your barn friends end up being some of your best friends. You can't watch and cheer them on, if somebody had a bad ride you can’t comfort them...and they can't watch and learn, which is my biggest thing,” she said.

Veleris coaches one of her young riders, Savannah, at Lamplight Equestrian Center in 2018. (Andrew Ryback Photography)

Cramer, on the other hand, has no intention of competing for the rest of the year. She does not believe health and safety guidelines will be stringent enough. Traveling to horse shows, she added, introduces the possibility of unknowingly bringing the virus.

“I live in a major metropolitan area that’s considered a hot zone right now, and the horse shows are all in rural areas. I would feel really deeply irresponsible as someone who has not yet had an antibody test to go from an urban area to a rural area without knowing whether or not I’m infected,” Cramer, a resident of Chicago, said, adding that many riders in her discipline––dressage––are older in age and may face dangerous health consequences should they contract the virus.

She also predicts a drop in the number of show entries, as the associated fees may increase due to necessary additional resources––such as contactless thermometers––at horse shows.

“[Riders are] afraid that it’s going to increase the cost of showing, because all of the regulations that [the United States Equestrian Federation] has put down on show organizers, the costs fall to the organizers themselves, which means it’s going to end up on the exhibitors,” she explained.

Some equestrians have expressed frustrations with the limitations at their barns, Cramer said, especially for those who board horses. But she doesn’t think their vexations should be prioritized over the safety of both barn staff and the horses for which they care.

“At the end of the day, for those of us who live in urban areas and do not have the kind of property where a horse can just hang out, you are paying for a service that is vital to the animal and the health of the animal. You also need to be a good partner in making sure that the health of the employees and staff are maintained as well.”

Meggie Cramer, 31, aims to visit her horse, Tag, four to five times per week during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Meggie Cramer)

Despite these financially straining times for many families, Buesching said that some parents of her riders have stepped up to help.

“I was very fortunate that, because I am strictly a lesson program, the parents picked up half leases on the horses to help me pay for them or I would have been sunk,” the mother of two said.

And while the future is eerily uncertain, Buesching is confident about one thing:

“Everything happens for a reason. Things are scary right now, but I know things will work out, even if that’s months from now.”



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