Despite COVID, Organizers Plan for the 2021 Show SeasonMarch 26, 2021
The COVID pandemic forced equestrian organizations across the country to cancel scheduled activities for at least a portion of 2020. Here in the Northeast, state travel restrictions, quarantine requirements, and our short season all combined to further limit participation.
However, bolstered by guidance from national federations as well as the practical experience of other show organizers, several New England-based groups believe they are ready to resume hosting in-person activities in 2021. Over a year into the pandemic, Northeastern equestrians can finally look forward to seeing several of their favorite competitions return to the calendar.
But organizers remain concerned about long term pandemic-related impacts on the horse show industry. Some are feeling pressure to produce shows this year to prevent any further reduction in income, both to their organizations and the trainers who bring clients to their events.
“We have lost people because of this,” says Bill Ritchie, president of the South Shore Horseman’s Council (SSHC). “There are people who just financially couldn’t have horses anymore, or board them, or train them. It’s going to be different. You try to anticipate, but it’s hard to do.”
Weathering the Storm
Many Northeast competitions were still months in the future when the announcement came in March that COVID had become a global pandemic. Organizers struggled to make good decisions with limited information.
The non-profit New England Dressage Association (NEDA) board of directors voted to cancel the entirety of NEDA’s 2020 calendar of competitions and educational activities. This included three multi-day dressage shows, two breed shows, and the US Dressage Federation (USDF) Region 8 Championships, as well as a much-anticipated clinic with Olympian Carl Hester. NEDA relies heavily on volunteers for all aspects of its activities, and group leaders were especially concerned about reducing their members’ chance of exposure to the virus.
“I think if we had waited maybe two months, we would have made a different decision,” says Beth Jenkins, competitions coordinator for NEDA. “But the primary matter was keeping our membership safe.
“A lot of us are in the age group under a higher health risk for COVID,” continues Jenkins with a laugh. “So that was the driving force. We were not going to put our membership at risk. We were out of the show business this year.”
Meanwhile, the board of directors and employees of the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA), a non-profit organization in South Woodstock, Vt., spent the early months of the pandemic shifting events scheduled for April and May to open weekends later in the season. Normally, GMHA hosts a full calendar of activities catering to equestrians in multiple disciplines, starting in late April and running through late October each year. The organization derives 82% of its annual operating budget from entry fees, so competition cancellations are particularly impactful.
“In March and April, it was certainly up in the air as to whether we would have a season at all,” says Bruce Perry, executive director of GMHA.
When it became clear that, at a minimum, early season activities would be cancelled, GMHA applied for state and federal grants to support operating expenses. Restrictions on cross state travel imposed by the Vermont government further delayed GMHA’s season, but staff used that time to develop a facility-specific COVID action plan. When GMHA finally received the green light to resume operations in mid-July, they were ready.
“We originally limited the size of competitions and events, because it was all new to everybody,” says Perry. “We ended up having competitions at about 70% of what we had forecast for the year.”
The South Shore Horseman’s Council (SSHC) has roughly 200 members who regularly participate in their three show series of pleasure and hunter/jumper competitions held in Raynham, Mass. The organization offers members year end awards and a banquet, as well as affiliations with other regional horse show entities such as the Massachusetts Horseman’s Council and the New England Horseman’s Council. SSHC’s entire show series was canceled in 2020.
“It’s almost like South Shore didn’t even exist last year,” says Ritchie. “We were thinking we were going to move our June show, hoping that we could salvage the year, but in the end, everyone did the same thing. There were no pleasure shows at all in Massachusetts.”
No shows meant no expenses, so SSHC chose to simply sit tight on existing resources and hoped for a better 2021. In addition, they offered anyone who had renewed their membership the choice of a refund or rolling the fee forward to the 2021 season.
“We wanted to be membership friendly,” says Ritchie. “Since they weren’t getting anything for their dues, we just thought it was the fair thing to do.”
Organizers are relying on the experience of those who hosted shows over the past 12 months in making plans for their own competitions this season.
Tom Struzzieri, owner of the HITS Saugerties (New York) showgrounds where NEDA usually holds the USDF Region 8 Championships, opted to pick up the license for that show once NEDA decided to cancel. The competition drew 350 horses, compared to a typical 600 or more.
“They ran a really streamlined Regional finals, and it worked out really well,” says Jenkins. “It is clear there are some diehards, and the diehards basically made it happen.”
But seeing the success of a smaller version of the Regional Championships encouraged NEDA to move forward with its own slate of shows for 2021, with the goal of keeping plans flexible based on demand.
“NEDA Fall is budgeted as another skeleton show, with the idea that by the end of spring we’ll have some feeling of how the competitive world is going,” says Jenkins. “We talked to our friends in California and their entries are overflowing. So, it might be that way here, or we might be down some. It’s hard to know.”
Organizers with SSHC, who is not affiliated with USEF, have worked closely with town and state administrators to craft a COVID management plan for their scheduled dates in June, July, and August. They have converted their traditional paper prizelist and entry form to an electronic one and are working to make the show facility Wi-Fi accessible so that adds and scratches to classes can be done via mobile device.
“Currently, the plan is that we are going to do whatever we have to do to keep everyone safe,” says Ritchie. “We might narrow entrance to the grounds to one, and we may need to be taking temps as people arrive.”
Ritchie, who is also a trainer and judge, admits that he didn’t make it to a single show in 2020 and therefore has relied heavily on advice from fellow professionals who did compete to guide his decision making.
“It’s going to be new to me,” says Ritchie. “I think the big shows have handled things quite well, and I’ve stayed informed on what they had to do. We are trying to eliminate the need to go up to the booths and because of pre-entries, should be able to hand a packet to competitors on arrival with their numbers.”
At GMHA, organizers learned a great deal in 2020 about running competitions under USEF and local COVID guidelines. Critical to their success was limiting competition size, although doing so came at a cost.
“Holding these competitions at a smaller size means that we don’t make any money on them,” says Perry. “But the Board felt it was important that if we could hold smaller competitions, we should. [In 2021], we are cautiously optimistic to match last year, or maybe be a little bit bigger. We know how to do it now.”
Overall, competitors seemed grateful to visit GMHA in 2020 and more than willing to comply with COVID-related rules.
“As a whole, competitors were wonderful and extremely helpful in following the rules,” says Perry. “A lot of the restrictions and following them are based on people’s personal responsibility. Horses teach you how to be responsible. We saw people taking a lot of personal responsibility to follow the rules and have safe competitions with us. We hope that is going to continue.”
Not all aspects of navigating the pandemic have been negative for show organizers. In particular, new rules from governing bodies designed to streamline shows may mean fewer volunteers needed and reduced expenses moving forward.
“Shows have developed all kinds of new techniques that are going to save manpower,” says Jenkins. “We don’t have to have so many people, so that saves a lot on the expense of volunteer staff.”
GMHA found that volunteerism was slightly down in 2020, and had to be creative to make up the difference.
“The biggest volunteer per day use is the cross-country day at events, because we need all those fence judges,” says Perry. “We had to use some innovative techniques to get through those days—some grounds people were fence judges—but everybody just did what they needed to do to help out.”
Despite positive attitudes and hope for 2021, uncertainties around the ongoing pandemic still leave questions for show organizers to navigate.
With COVID numbers on the rise this winter, Vermont’s government greatly increased restrictions on travel within the state. Until these restrictions are lifted, activities at GMHA are once again on hold; as of press time, though the organization has planned a full calendar, it is unclear if early season activities will be able to go on as expected.
“I strongly support the way the state of Vermont has handled this whole thing,” says Perry. “It has kept everybody safe. I’m not opposed to their restrictions, but tell me the rules and let me figure out how to do what I need to do.”
GMHA membership has remained robust, with many members even kicking in an extra donation beyond dues to support the organization while its activities remain limited. Additionally, the organization earned a $250,000 Manton Foundation Challenge Grant that is being used to maintain staff, complete scheduled capital improvements deferred during 2020, and to offset losses due to COVID.
“This year, we will be able to struggle through because of that,” says Perry, “But after that, we definitely need to get back to our regular size of operation.”
After a year off, SSHC leaders are working hard to communicate that their show series is back for 2021. Each SSHC show must pay for itself, so organizers are counting on robust participation to offset expenses.
“We need to think smartly,” says Ritchie. “If we have to cancel or have an off show, it hurts us financially. We have to be really careful, financially, what we do.
“We have built up our account to a healthy amount,” Ritchie continues. “But despite this, with three shows and a banquet, it could be gone with the snap of a finger if we are not wise about it. In the past, there have been shows that are undersubscribed or have lost money. This year, that would be a worst-case scenario, if we aren’t able to make that up.”
NEDA runs its shows as a service to their membership, and does not depend on them for revenue to run the organization. Membership renewals have been steady, and NEDA’s leaders are hopeful that strong COVID management guidance from USEF combined with increased access to the vaccine will mean that the majority of its membership will feel safe participating in 2021 activities.
“USEF has all kinds of regulations and they’ve been doing this for a year,” says Jenkins. “They know what they’re doing. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Despite the challenges, organizers believe that a return to competition for 2021 will be worth the effort.
“I think people have just said, ‘the end is in sight, let’s get on with it’,” says Jenkins with a laugh. “Everybody has sort of figured out how to live with this.”
And while GMHA must wait until Vermont travel restrictions are modified, organizers are poised for action the moment that happens.
“We’re ready to have competitors back,” says Perry. “People are willing to come out because they know we are working hard to keep everybody safe.”