As more people find themselves flocking to outdoor activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some local horse barns on the Delmarva Peninsula found creative ways to reap the benefits.
Almost as soon as restrictions began to ease and outdoor activities became the norm, some stables that offer lessons found themselves dealing with months-long wait lists. Meanwhile, others have found new ways to connect people to the equine world while standing on solid ground.
But all have noticed that the pandemic has offered a small silver lining not only for their bottom lines, but also for the new generations of future equine lovers.
“Now, those kids or parents who never thought they’d give it a try, even if they only ride for a little bit and end up going back to school sports and other activities, they’ll always have that experience in the back of their mind and maybe come back to it someday,” said Dawn Beach, owner of Winswept Stables in Millsboro, Delaware.
At Winswept, there has been a huge uptick in demand for lessons, Beach said. And it’s not just all youngsters. She’s had some older adults who found they could no longer work out at the gym safely during COVID, and instead decided to ride more or start riding for both the physical activity and social aspects.
“Of all the sports, it really is probably the most COVID-friendly because you’re outside,” Beach said.
At Airy Hill Stables in Chestertown, Maryland, after the very beginning of shutdowns and restrictions due to the virus, the demand for lessons also soared.
Barns like Airy Hill, which offers boarding, lessons and more, needed to be ready to meet the demand from all ages, especially school-aged children, to get outside and get active since summer camps, sports and many other recreational activities were still shut down last summer.
“We’re at our capacity with being able to take on new riders,” said Airy Hill Stables owner Christina Stinchcomb, noting that there is a waiting list for lessons. “I think it’s been so helpful, more than ever, as a means of unplugging and just getting off of the devices that the kids are on all day long.”
Because Stinchcomb’s operation is relatively small — they have about eight horses in their lesson program — she knew that to meet demand, she’d have to get creative. Luckily, she has already been expanding to more therapeutic and personal growth approaches to her equine offerings.
This fall she launched “Heart to Heart,” a program that allows a small group of people to get hands-on with the horses, grooming them, leading them and even meditating with them.
“It’s something that’s been really quite popular and very much appreciated, as an opportunity for someone who doesn’t necessarily want to take lessons, but wants that equine experience,” Stinchcomb said.
Stinchcomb also offers an “Equine Experience for Two,” that is akin to a trail ride with grooming and safety lessons, as well as hosting a rental property, all of which diversifies what her barn has to offer customers.
Over at Cozy Quarters Farm in Delaware City, Delaware, a new “farm experience” program bloomed due to the pandemic. By expanding her flock of chickens, adding a couple of goats and a pot-bellied pig to her herd of horses, owner Pam Collacchi found a new way to help people engage with her farm aside from horseback riding lessons.
She set up four separate areas for the program, so that multiple small groups could participate at the same time without ever crossing paths. It worked.
“I could barely keep up with the schedule,” she said, noting that it only took word-of-mouth and a little social media advertising to drum up a new clientele. “That’s when we had the blow up in business.”
But the new demand for horse riding and equine interaction driven by the pandemic may also be driving an uptick in horse prices, Airy Stables’ Stinchcomb said. It’s unclear now whether that trend will be akin to rabbits and ducklings at Easter time, and result in a lot of horses being on the market in the near future.
While many of those new, young students are now back in school, and may have to decide whether to return to sports or other clubs, the demand is still there.
As all equestrians know, the riding experience is about much more than the physicality. Horse farm owners like Stinchcomb and Collacchi are capitalizing on the equine experience by creating programs for everyday people to enjoy.
“Just like I am not proficient in, say, cattle raising, they’re not proficient in horseback riding or anything horses. So, when they come for the farm experience, and they start seeing how easy it is for their child to ride this pony, and how calm the pony is, then they have a different perspective,” Collacchi said. “The look on the parents’ faces, they’re amazed. They’re just in amazement at what these animals really are, as opposed to maybe what they thought.”