Patience in the Pandemic: A Lesson from Horses

Dressage Today blogger Carolyn Healy shares a recent lesson from her life as a horse owner amidst a pandemic.
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As horse owners and riders, I don’t think we’ve ever encountered such a weird time as we are in now during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve only been separated from Gemini for 10 days in nearly 11 years together before this pandemic, and that was to visit my immediate family in the UK a couple of years ago. We’ve been pretty entwined together since he was 5 months old. This was most certainly the biggest separation so far. And the worst part? There was absolutely nothing we could do about it. Nothing. We knew earlier on in the year that the pandemic was coming, but not ever having lived through a pandemic we didn’t really know what it meant for us. Back in the UK we had a gas/ petrol strike many years ago, where everything came to a standstill for weeks and that was the closest I think I have come in my lifetime.

Where I live in Ottawa, Canada, we are much integrated with the city of Gatineau, Quebec, which is the other side of the Ottawa River which separates the Ontario and Quebec provinces. I live in Ontario and my horse lives his best life at a wonderful facility on the Quebec side just northwest of Gatineau. It’s a beautiful spot close to the foot of an escarpment known as the Gatineau Hills. It is incredibly picturesque and I have to say my absolute happy place is hacking in the back hayfield, riding along our small creek and looking back to the Gatineau Hills. It’s a view that every time I see it, it feels me with complete awe and a sense of being at one with my horse in nature. That feels about as close to perfect as it gets.

As my husband and other friends started to be instructed to work from home, everything became that much more real. A few days later, my work instructed the same and the directive came down that only essential staff/ workers were permitted to look after the horses or those responsible for providing immediate care. This meant that I couldn’t visit my beloved Gemini. During this time, I was buoyed by regular updates, photos and even FaceTime calls with my horse. I can’t thank the team enough for providing this lifeline to our horses and looking after them the way they do, which offered a huge sense of relief for their day-to-day care. 

About a week in, I drove up to the farm and just sat on the road and watched Gemini play with his herd friends in the field. It’s quite far from the road and hard to make out the individual horses, but from his reactions to other horses’ antics, I soon worked out which one was my boy! His body language gives him away. I couldn’t call to him. If he had reacted, I would have been left in a puddle emotion so I held back and just observed. The next day, the interprovincial bridges were closed, so I was extremely glad my gut instinct was to make that visit. About seven weeks in, Cheval Quebec announced owners could visit their horses, which was fine if you resided in the province but not so much if like me, you lived in Ontario. Even now, when Ontario opened up to coaches teaching limited numbers of students , trainers in Quebec still had to wait until this past Monday to resume lessons. It does feel a little crazy given we don’t have much contact and can be on the end of a Cee Coach or equivalent device.

We’ve all felt for the riding schools and the barn owners who rely on their lesson income. The riding schools are the way most of us started out and their lack of income has surely put in jeopardy the future of many of the school horses.We all know just how much it costs to keep each individual horse in just basic care, and without the seasonal business their very futures have been threatened and those of the riding school operators and their staff.

In the middle of all this, I tried to stay as active as possible keeping up and adding to my off-horse workout program with regular workouts at home, cardio sessions and free online yoga practices, all with a vague hope of trying to keep my riding body going…. I also spent a bit more time reading horsey articles, watching training videos and going over some of my videos as well with a more objective eye. One thing that stood out more than ever, was the need for a better connection with my horse in our riding, which will also address some of the other issues, I believe.

carolyn and gem 1

Some sense of relief lifted when the interprovincial bridge blockades finally lifted a couple of weeks ago. Visiting my horse felt surreal and I didn’t get that sense of gratitude and relief I expected. For sure I was overjoyed to be reunited with him. In the back of my mind, it just felt it was going to be so easily snatched away again so I think I held back as a form of self-preservation or a mild depression caused by the situation. Only now, a few weeks later is it starting to feel more real and more relaxed. Of course we have to adhere to a lot of new protocols such as staggering our visits, grooming in the outside paddocks, separate clothing and footwear for visits and no stops to and from the farm. I wear gloves all of the time and use alcohol-based sanitizers when entering and leaving the farm, as well as frequently in between. The horses have given me some very questioning looks when I came to the paddock and put Lysol spray on the electric braided fence handles, rather than come with a carrot! So, of course I came back with the aforementioned carrot delivery and Lysol-ed again after.

carolyn and gem 3

Riding Gem again is a delight. He’s been in full training during our time apart and he feels awesome. There have been a few rusty spots to knock off with the few months of not riding—like hands moving with the rising trot, etc.—but all in all it hasn’t been too bad. My core is definitely much stronger from even more exercise than usual, which is always a good thing for a rider! I look forward to the day when we can have proper training sessions with our coach again. These can’t come soon enough. I adore my training sessions with our coach. They are the highlight of my week. 

For now, I’ll just have to exercise a bit of patience, not something I am terribly renowned for, as I am a kind of “Want-It-Done-Yesterday” person. But, with the horses I know nothing can be rushed and everything is on their timeline and not ours. Maybe, just maybe, I should learn and live by their example?

Click here to read more articles with Carolyn Healy.

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