A report from Ireland - where many equestrian activities fall within a ‘farming’ classification.

The Irish are no strangers to adversity, writes Jenny Doran. But when I heard an expert on the radio on the morning of the 9 March saying that the coronavirus pandemic was the biggest threat to Ireland since the civil war and that a state of emergency should be declared, my first thought was “WHAT?” 

My second was this guy is overreacting… little did I know. Fortunately, our government did listen and acted swiftly and calmly. 

Social distancing and self-isolation entered our vocabulary, then on 12 March Irish schools were closed. Three days later all pubs across the country were closed (all pubs closed in Ireland… who’d have thought?) and thousands of people lost their jobs overnight. The St Patrick’s Day festival was cancelled. 

The Dáil [lower house of parliament] sat and passed emergency Covid-19 legislation to help workers and businesses affected by the crisis. Throughout all this our Taoiseach [prime minister] Leo Varadkar stood up regularly and addressed the nation with the sort of honest information flow that is essential in a time of crisis. 

And no, I’m not a card-carrying member of Fine Gael… I’m just seriously impressed with how our government has responded and acted in this time of crisis. 

However, many people ignored repeated requests for social distancing and to minimise social interaction; and since then, further restrictive measures have been introduced.

“Stay home”

On 27 March, Varadkar announced that the entire country had to stay home for two weeks until Easter Sunday (12 April). Everyone except essential workers travelling to work and other exceptions including to shop for food or household goods or collect a meal, for vital family healthcare or to take physical exercise individually or with children from the family.

As of Sunday (5 April), the Republic of Ireland had 4,994 cases of Covid-19, with 158 deaths. Numbers continue to rise, but it does look like the actions the government has taken is flattening the curve. It’s really too early to tell though. 

The government is doing all it can to avoid a crisis in our national health care service, so enabling the sick to receive the treatment they need. Our deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said last night that the highly restrictive measures put in place may well be extended beyond the initial deadline of 12 April, so watch this space. 

Economic impact

The economic impact of the crisis will be big, but no one knows just how big yet. There are now over 500,000 on the live register or claiming a payment due to the Covid-19 pandemic and reports say that the cost to Irish economy will be €30bn. 

However, among OECD countries, Ireland’s economy is predicted to be the least damaged by coronavirus containment measures. It’s early days yet, however. And there’s no doubt that the impact on the country and the equestrian industry is and will be enormous. 

If I’m being honest, very little for me personally has changed, so far. I have worked from my home-based office for the last 16 years. And I’m lucky enough to have my horses at home, so am able to continue to exercise and care for them as normal. Well, as normal as you can be as a dedicated competitor with no shows to go to… 

All sporting activity has been cancelled for the foreseeable future. And who knows when it will resume. All horse racing has been cancelled, Tattersalls International has been cancelled and we’re just holding our breath to see when the Dublin Horse Show will announce its cancellation. It’s inevitable, right? 

Show centres are consequently being massively hit and are facing very worrying times - despite government support, and many racing yards are facing a very uncertain future. Those with a secondary revenue stream, such as a livery yard, are counting themselves lucky, relatively speaking. 

Equestrian life carrying on

Behind all the cancellations, equestrian life is largely carrying on in Ireland. There has been no ‘official’ statement discouraging riding and, fingers crossed, it seems that people are using their heads and not taking unnecessary risks, such as hopping on a frisky three-year-old. 

Farming has been declared an ‘essential service’, so is an activity that is being allowed to continue under the current restrictions. Many equestrian activities fall within a ‘farming’ classification. 

However, not all horses or horse operations fall within the ‘farming’ category and clarity on what is deemed an ‘essential service’ within the equestrian industry has been a little slow in coming, which has been frustrating for many. 

Fortunately, just a few days ago, there was some clarification from HSI (Horse Sport Ireland) on this matter… There is no restriction on the movement of animals within the country for farming purposes, including for breeding, provided HSE public health guidelines are observed at all times. 

People can leave their homes for the purpose of caring for their animals (stated early in the current crisis). However, many livery yards have closed their gates as ‘non-essential’ businesses, and so those whose horses are kept at livery are finding themselves with severe equine withdrawal symptoms. 

The rest of us are training away as best we can in the hope of being even slightly more polished and skilful upon resumption of competition activities. 

No reports of panic-buying

Equestrian stores are closed, but many have solid online trade and so are continuing to promote and service online sales with skeleton staff and appropriate Covid-19 precautionary measures. 

Feed stores are still open. As in the UK, they are deemed to be providing an essential service, and quite rightly so. 

The Irish are generally a quite laid-back people and I have heard no reports of people panic-buying feed. However, many are thinking ahead and buying larger quantities than they may usually do, with the purpose of limiting the number of trips to the feed store required and the inevitable social interactions. 

So, there are some reported shortages of some products; but horses can and should only eat so much, so hopefully it will balance out over time. 

Support for business

The government has put support measures in place to help individuals and businesses who find themselves in difficulty as a result of the crisis. These include:

  • Temporary wage subsidy of 70% of take-home pay up to a maximum weekly tax-free amount of €410 per week.
  • Enhanced Covid-19 unemployment payment of €350 per week for those who have lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus, an increase from €203. This also applies to the self-employed. 
  • Covid-19 illness payment has been increased to €350 per week.

Despite the fact that the Irish economy is expected to shrink by 7.1% and fall into a recession due to the coronavirus pandemic (a warning from the Economic and Social Research Institute), the mood among horsey people remains relatively upbeat, so far. 

This is a situation not of our making and it will be temporary. We just don’t know how long is temporary, but no-one else does either!  

As a nation, we are willing to do our part to help slow and stop the spread of this terrible virus. Those of us lucky enough to either have our horses at home or to be able to visit them regularly know only too well the truth in that famous Churchill quote: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Or woman. 

About the author: Jenny Doran is the MD of Halcyon Days, a marketing agency based in Dublin that specialises in helping companies operating within the equestrian and pet care markets. 

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