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‘I just miss her so much’: Calgary riders still saddling up with strict COVID-19 regulations

More COVID restrictions were introduced on May 4, which closed down gyms and sports once again, but one group of athletes is dealing with a different situation.

Calgary equestrians have been balancing COVID regulations and their sport for more than a year. Most barns have strict sanitization and distancing policies, and use schedules to limit the number of people around.

Lisa Smith has been in the horse business since 1997 and has introduced tight measures in her barn, Prospect Downs, to keep her clients safe. 

These measures, which include schedules, requiring masks and social distancing, and increased sanitization, have been handled well by Smith’s clients. 

“In the beginning I think it was hard for people to remember to wear a mask all the time while they were inside, but actually I don’t have any issues with people wearing masks. I think with the increasing numbers, people have to be more diligent about spacing themselves apart,” Smith said.

Albertan equestrians have been dealing with altered restrictions since December 18, 2020 when the government issued an exemption for equestrian exercise, citing reasons of animal health.

New Restrictions Coming

Smith now worries how the newest set of restrictions coming that went into effect May 10 will impact barns. 

“In order to ride, a person has to ride outside with only members of their household, or two close contacts if they live alone. So now we can only have one person riding on our 30 acres at a time unless you’re riding with people from the same household. 

“It doesn’t really make sense, because you can have people in Walmart, you can have people in church, but you can only have one person riding outside on 30 acres,” Smith said.

Sara Vidito, who keeps both her horses at Smith’s barn, adds that the time limits have been a challenge. 

“The after work time is primetime and they’re not quite close enough that I can sneak out on my lunch,” she said.

For Vidito, time limits mean she’s unable to spend as much time with her horses as she usually does.

“By the time you get there, catch your horse, get all your stuff out and then do everything in reverse order when you’re leaving, it really is not a lot of time,” Vidito said.

Barns throughout Calgary, like Nicole Garner’s barn Braden Equestrian, also have sanitization protocols and a schedule in place. Garner, who’s a Grade 11 student, said booking good times can be hard and that you have to act fast.

“Otherwise, you’re stuck at like 9 in the morning, or like 7:30 at night. I don’t want to be out there in the dark by myself,” Garner said.

Striking a Balance

In order to balance work, riding, and life, Vidito will have to adjust her barn schedule. This means switching to only seeing one horse on weeknights and both of them on the weekend. 

“I never have enough time to do both of them on the weekdays anymore. I was super frustrated about that and now the frustration has just turned into defeat and I’m accepting it,” Vidito said.

Like many young Calgary equestrians, Garner must balance her riding with school. She said now that classes have moved fully online, she’ll be able to spend more time at the barn. 

Garner also faced the additional challenge of having to isolate for almost a month after being in close contact with a positive COVID case. She says she’s had to pay for training rides for her horse, as well as count on friends to help.

Vidito had a similar struggle. One of her horses has a medical condition that requires she be exercised for at least 20 minutes a day. This is challenging even in a normal year, and budgetary restraints can often play a big role.

Photo: FACEBOOK It remains to be seen if an exemption to the newest COVID-19 safety measures will be granted for riding facilities

Uncompromised Care

Despite the decreased attention many Calgary horses are getting from their riders, neither Vidito or Garner worry about the care they receive.

Smith said the health of staff and riders is top priority, but that keeping horses healthy can be a challenge, especially preventing serious ailments like colic.

“They’re not getting as much work so they’re not as in shape, or not as fit. And that always becomes an issue with medical conditions. People can’t come out often as they would like to,” Smith said

While riders throughout the Calgary area know their horses are well cared for, it doesn’t stop them from missing their equine companions. 

Garner hasn’t seen her horse in about 4 weeks, something that’s tough for the young rider.

“I think about that all the time, like I think, if I go back will she be OK? Will she recognize me? I miss her so much.”

Smith recognized the impact that keeping barns open has had on people. She says it’s been an opportunity for people to get out of the house and stay active. 

She also points out that even if the income from boarders or lessons drops, her overhead costs are the same. 

“I was disappointed last year that we didn’t qualify for any aid. You had to be down 70 per cent in your income and at 70 per cent I’d have to close my doors. Sacrifices come from somewhere, so I personally was out of pocket a lot of money last year. And I can’t raise the board to cover it,” Smith said.

Calgarian riders are waiting to hear if they will receive exemption from the tighter restrictions, something Smith hopes will happen.

“That blanket restriction doesn’t work in our scenario of 30 acres,” she said.