Surrounded by the dramatic beauty of the Adirondack Mountains, the Lake Placid Horse Show caters to the best hunter/jumper riders in the country. By the close of competition, the notoriously challenging Grand Prix course is pocked and flattened by hard-charging hooves. But this summer, for the first time in more than 50 years, the grass remained undisturbed.
The event is just one of a string of major North American horse-show cancellations in the wake of Covid-19. Among them: all five Spruce Meadows tournaments in Calgary, Alberta; the Hampton Classic; and the prestigious Devon Horse Show in Pennsylvania, which has been canceled just three times (all during W.W. II) in its 124-year history. As restrictions ease, organizers find themselves adrift in a strange new world of social-distancing guidelines.
“Our intention is to go forward, but we’ve adopted a wait-and-see strategy,” says David Distler, show manager for the Washington International Horse Show, one of the “Triple Crown” of indoor shows. “With the protocols that we now have to deal with, we are looking at all options so the show can go on.”
In fact, the show must go on, for reasons beyond the disappointed hopes of America’s amateur competitors. Transatlantic horse sales, the economic engine of the sport, have taken a tumble. “People need to travel in order to see [and try] horses in Europe,” says one industry insider who has purchased a number of top-caliber horses from Europe, including a recent “Covid purchase.” The source, who preferred to speak anonymously, says our inability to travel is providing new possibilities for buyers willing to purchase horses in less traditional ways; the source’s last horse was purchased from a video, something very unlikely just a few months ago.
Even so, the market’s instability cuts both ways, especially when you’re talking about investments in the several-million-dollar range. “A couple years ago, I was much more open to buying [horses] at the top of their game. Now, in this economy, I just wouldn’t consider that. I’m looking for the diamond in the rough,” the source says.
Even as owners back off sales, the pandemic has opened eyes to the plights of others. “It brings out philanthropists,” our insider says. “There are so many [in] need that you want to give back.”
Many of those are employed by horse shows. According to a 2017 American Horse Council Foundation study, the equestrian competition sector contributes $28.3 billion a year to the US economy, providing more than 415,000 jobs. These include grooms, braiders, judges and stewards, plus photographers, grounds crews and security staff. All are feeling the Covid pinch.
“The cancellations have really hurt my business. The shows are the biggest part of my income,” says photographer Kaitlyn Karssen, who was struck especially hard by cancellations at the Longines Global Champions Tour (LGCT) Miami Beach and Spruce Meadows. “It’s been hard to find ones I can work at because of Covid restrictions.”
One way this community has rallied to help its unemployed bridge the gap is through the Show Jumping Relief Fund (SJRF). Created by US-based Israeli show jumper Daniel Bluman and his wife, Ariel, the fund provides temporary help—grocery money and assistance with pressing bills—to the hardest hit.
“A lot of people ended up having to fire grooms because they didn’t have enough to keep paying them. For braiders, if there’s no show, there’s no job,” says Ariel Bluman.
To date, the SJRF has raised more than $70,000 for 300 horse-show employees and their families through GoFundMe and Facebook campaigns. Those in need submit applications for funds, which are issued on a sliding scale based on the number of people dependent on the applicant.
“In this small world, you know these people by face and that they have kids,” Bluman continues. “They’re taking you from the parking lot to the VIP seating, or braiding your hunter at 2 a.m. if you have a derby class the next day. They are bending over backward for us, and it’s our time to step up for them.”
The SJRF will continue its fundraising as long as the need persists. Yet even as limited events return, the question looming for horse-show workers everywhere remains: How long will the uncertainty last?
“Even with the few horse shows that are able to run, there are still many people without work, with no end in sight,” says Karssen, who worries about the consequence of a second wave of Covid cases or smaller outbreaks within the horse community. “The struggle isn’t close to being over yet.”