As the Canadian economy starts to slowly roll out again following its shut down in March, many equestrian businesses that struggled to stay afloat during the closure are hopeful that things will turn around, especially with the summer weather. Riding schools are one such business; trail riding establishments are another. And as we all know, riding a horse is an easy way to maintain physical distance while getting the mental health benefits that horses and nature offer.

Niagara Escarpment Views

In Oakville, Ontario, The Ranch has been offering scenic trail rides through the Niagara Escarpment since 1980. While Covid-19 certainly dampens the 40th anniversary, owners Cary and Vanessa Warren have taken the lengthy closure and slow reopening in stride. The Ranch and their other property, Capstone Farms, offer boarding to individual horse owners and that side of the business, like most in Ontario, remained open during the stay-at-home order with restricted access. “I think it’s unethical to keep people away from their horses,” says Vanessa Warren. “I have one hundred horses between the two farms, it would have been impossible any other way to manage that number of animals responsibly, and we have always been set up to have the owners participating in their horse’s care.”

Safely social distancing at The Ranch.

The Ranch operates year-round and their trail rides are busy during all four seasons. “We missed March break and our lesson program is usually crazy, but it’s all been closed.” Because of the closure the trail riding portion of their business took a heavy financial toll. The Warrens participated in the government wage subsidy and small business loan to keep employees paid and horses in hay. “We are definitely in debt. But we are better off than most because we had our own hay and now summer pasture,” says Vanessa. “We’ve continued to do our equine dentistry, vaccines and worming and had to go into hock for that.”

Once the Ontario provincial government included horseback riding in its list of allowable activities for phase one of the reopening, Vanessa made sure The Ranch was ready. First, she created and published a Covid-19 protocol for guests to read beforehand on their website. Things like signing a waiver stating guests are not experiencing symptoms, rides are prepaid online, hand sanitizing upon arrival and disinfecting riding helmets with an anti-viral spray are some of the changes The Ranch has introduced. Tack is disinfected before and after each ride as well. Vanessa has also invested in silicone reins for easier cleaning. Guests must be able to physically mount and dismount with the use of a mounting block to avoid contact with staff, all of whom wear gloves and masks.

We first spoke over the phone the Monday before the first guests arrived on May 19th. At that point Vanessa wasn’t sure how it would go. Would guests cooperate? Would Warren and her staff have to be heavy-handed with enforcing the Covid protocol? “We want to offer a great experience and be an entertainment destination and not an exercise in fear.”

One week since reopening and Vanessa Warren is ecstatic. “We were slammed. We had over two hundred riders during our first week.” And how did the general public behave? “People were super careful and respectful,” she says. “Everyone followed instructions, my staff felt safe. A lot of guests wore masks during the rides. Customers were elated. Even my staff said that ‘people are never this happy.’ People were happy to be outside.”

(Photo courtesy Boundary Ranch)

Fun in the Foothills

The same vibe from customers was felt at Boundary Ranch, located in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary in Kananaskis, Alberta. According to ranch manager Haylie Guinn, Boundary opened May 16 for the season. They’ve implemented strategies for Covid-19 such as limiting rides to a maximum of six people unless the party is from one family. “Guests are asked to wear masks for checking in and while they load and unload from their rides,” Guinn notes. “Our staff are wearing masks and sanitize their hands in between loading and unloading each person. We are also cleaning and sanitizing our tack in between each person as well.”

Like at The Ranch, Guinn says that they’ve had no issues with bookings. “We are getting a lot of support from the locals of Alberta. Everyone seems happy and okay with the policies and procedures as it means they can still get outdoors.”

(Broken Rail Ranch Trail Rides)

Wonderful West Coast

On the west coast in British Columbia, non-essential businesses were allowed to stay open as long as they followed strict Covid-19 protocols outlined by the provincial Health Minister. That meant that trail riding establishments could decide what was best for their business. “We chose to stay open after discussions with our insurance company and changes to our routine,” Crystal Findlay of Broken Rail Ranch Trail Rides in West Kelowna, BC, explains. “Our guests are now mostly locals who are desperate to find an escape from the confines of their homes. However, it was a struggle in many ways as we are very personable people and had to constantly remind ourselves and guests to maintain distance.”

Like The Ranch in Ontario, The Broken Rail also sanitizes all tack before guests mount and when the horses are untacked. “We [also] wash helmets, boots, gates, pens, clipboards, saddle bags, and, of course, our hands multiple times a day,” Findlay adds. “We adjusted stirrups before mounting and we added an extra mounting block so that guests are basically able to step on the horses with little assistance from us. If we needed to adjust the saddle in any way, we crouched down so as to still maintain the appropriate distance.”

The Broken Rail offer rides to small private groups only and has separate orientation stations for guests of different parties. “It has been exhausting in many ways and our revenue has dropped significantly,” Findlay admits. “The costs of operating a business with horses continue regardless of the pandemic and there is no government help for the cost of hay and horse care. Our number one priority is the health of our horses,” says Findlay. “And we will do whatever it takes to ensure that they are perfectly oblivious to the pandemic that rages all around them in the human world.”