Horse industry affected by pandemic

From racing to riding lessons, horses are also out of work

Laine Brook Farm owner Karen Singer, on Naughty By Nature, posed with assistant horse trainer Alex Goins. (Photo provided)

The horses are still running at some racetracks in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

But no one is in the stands these days.

And at horse stables nationwide and locally, fewer people are taking riding lessons.

Karen Singer, 28, owner of Laine Brook Farm in west Yukon, said since the pandemic started in March she has horses who are now out of work.

“Our current situation is that we teach lessons, and all of the sudden we are out of a job. We have seven lesson horses out of a job. They earn their oats and now we need people to sponsor them,” Singer said.

It costs up to $200 a month to care for a horse, Singer said. She has talked to other friends and stables owners who are going through the same shortage of customers and riding lessons nationwide.

“You can’t just stop feeding the horses. They are animals and have to be taken care of,” Singer said.

The sport of horse racing has changed dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Donnie K. Von Hemel, 58, a Piedmont resident and world-renowned trainer.

Donnie Von Hemel, Piedmont race horse trainer

Von Hemel was riding a saddle horse named Rudy around the track at Oaklawn Racing Casino in Hot Springs, Arkansas Tuesday. He was just exercising the 15-year-old horse. Horses, not susceptible to coronavirus, have to keep moving and stay in shape, as humans face a health crisis. Races have been canceled nationwide. The Kentucky Derby is not even until fall now.

Von Hemel in 2016 had a fifth-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby with Suddenbreakingnews.

Von Hemel explained how life for those in the horse industry has changed due to the pandemic. Although he does not have a Derby contender targeted yet this year, he continues to race horses in the Oaklawn spring meet.

He said the online wagering continues for Oaklawn while no one can be there to watch.

“It’s a little weird without any fans,” Von Hemel said.

He started moving horses from Remington Park in Oklahoma City in December and arrived in Oaklawn in the middle of January.

The Arkansas Derby race was moved to the first Saturday of May. However, Von Hemel does not have a horse in the Arkansas Derby this year. But with the Kentucky Derby moved to fall, he could still find a standout contender by then, he said.

And in many stables across the country, horses used for riding lessons or for recreation are now losing jobs and attention, and some could become neglected in a pandemic, a Yukon stables owner said.

In Hot Springs, Arkansas, the Oaklawn track is open for racing four days a week, Von Hemel said.

Some of the precautions being taken include a daily check of the temperatures of those involved, he said.

“When we come through the stable gates in the morning, a crew takes your temperature, and if you don’t have a temperature you get a wristband for the day,” Von Hemel said. “Of course, we are pretty used to trying to keep everything cleaned up and disinfected any way because we don’t want to spread anything contagious from horse to horse, but we have a more heightened awareness of those things now,” Von Hemel said.

“We go through our morning routines and the in the afternoons on race days we only allow one person in the paddock. Jockeys have certain protocols as far as the precautions they are taking. Everybody is trying to be aware and practice the social distancing that you can do most of the time.”

The jockeys are not wearing masks because they are doing a physical activity, he said but other pony riders, or racehorse escort riders, have masks on while on the track.

There are only a handful of states that are still racing, Oklahoma Arkansas and Florida tracks are open and one in California is open. But most tracks are in a populated areas in big cities and have closed.

Horses do fly on chartered airplanes, and traveling can be a risk for crews. Oaklawn has put a restriction on how many people can arrive with the horses. All of the rules are subject to change daily, he said.

“As you know, every morning when we get up we are not really sure where we are at until everyone has reassessed the situation. In Oklahoma or Arkansas if things get worse the governors can ask the race tracks to discontinue, but we are hopeful to finish out the meets here,” Von Hemel said.

All horse owners should take extra time to spend riding or exercising to stay healthy, he said.

“The main thing is that if people are still able to care for their horses and horses depend on us, domesticated horses, for feeding and grooming, and this (pandemic) is probably a chance for people to get out of the house,” Von Hemel said. “And if it is just you and your horse you are not endangering any people so it is good therapy to get out with your horse and spend time with them.”