Editor's note: After the reporting of this story, Old Salm Farm canceled its spring horse shows. 

NORTH SALEM, N.Y. - Financially, it could be a very rough ride for many equestrian-oriented businesses if the coronavirus crisis continues to rip the U.S. economy apart.

Nationwide, the horse industry contributes a galloping $50 billion to the economy a year. According to a 2017 study by the American Horse Council Foundation, the industry generates close to a million jobs, which affects other sectors of the national economy to the tune of $122 billion a year.

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The deep-rooted American horse culture is undeniably reflected in North Salem’s picture-perfect private farms; boarding, teaching and training enterprises and nearby therapeutic businesses; bridle trails and manicured, multimillion-dollar show venues.

One of its most elite venues is Old Salem Farm, site of such prestigious competitions as the American Gold Cup, which drew a reported 6,000 spectators last year. That’s more than North Salem’s entire population, which was 5,104 in 2010, said Deputy Town Supervisor Peter Kamenstein.

If the ban on large gatherings isn’t lifted by May and the farm’s spring horse show can’t go on, the ripple effect on competitors, trainers, vendors, caterers, support staff, local restaurants—and the venue itself—could be tremendous.

“It’s a very, very big deal,” said Kamenstein, a horse owner himself.

While it’s still possible to go for a ride—as long as state and county health rules are followed—some local horse farms are starting to get skittish about the possibility of unpaid boarding fees. Said one owner who asked to remain anonymous, “People have to realize, if they don’t take care of their bill, the burden is going to land on the trainer and the farm. It’s not like anyone is going to stop feeding and taking care of the horses.”

On March 20, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the PAUSE executive order, a 10-point policy that directed all nonessential businesses to shut down.

Animal care operations are exempt. These include horses, livestock such as pigs and cows and “captive cervids,” aka deer and elk.

Feeding, barn or facility maintenance, stall cleaning and enclosure repairs are allowed, as are turnout and exercise, hoof maintenance and veterinary care. Transportation to any of those functions also is allowed. And agribusinesses that support them are OK, too.

Boarders must adhere to the client use and visitation rules set by each business.

At present, there is no evidence that animals, including pets, in the U.S. might be a source of infection or can spread the new coronavirus.

North Salem mom of four Brandy Keenan let her daughter, Eowyn, a competitive rider, go to her lesson at Zephyr Farm in nearby Brewster last week. Since the kids are all home because of school closures, Keenan thought it was important that things go on “as normally as possible.”

The farm is being hyper-vigilant about spraying down saddles, reins and other things riders might touch, so when the 13-year-old got back in the car, she reeked of disinfectant.

That was the one post-lesson smell that could make moms really happy. 

“I was like, ‘Yay!’ ” said Keenan, a North Salem Board of Education trustee.

Eowyn, she said, frets about what may happen to her Zephyr family should the farm take an insurmountable financial hit because of the crisis.

Students, trainers and teachers are a tight-knit bunch, said Keenan: “They all cheer each other on.”

For some, riding is much more than a lifestyle, sport or a way to exercise; it’s a lifeline.

The state of emergency has forced Pegasus Therapeutic Riding to postpone all spring programs until May 4. Its certified instructors, physical therapists, occupational therapists and licensed educators provide equine-assisted activities to people with special needs and individuals at risk, including disadvantaged youth and veterans with PTSD.

Until that time when it can get fully back in the saddle, the Brewster-based nonprofit told clients it plans to continue fundraising, developing programs and planting “seeds for the future.”

According to director of development Candice Sciarrillo, 80 percent of its 250 clients are under 18. Many are autistic.

Therapeutic riding can improve mobility, balance, posture, coordination, language development and behavior control.

Participants also get to groom, feed, tack up and lead horses. All of this takes a lot of concentration on the part of the rider…and the horse. 

“Learning to be present is very calming,” said Sciarrillo.

“The great thing about horses is they’re very much in the moment. Unlike humans, they don’t think about what may or may not happen. If there’s no threat or danger or duty to perform, it’s back to grazing.”

Pegasus has three locations in Fairfield and Putnam counties, including its 20-acre facility on Peach Lake Road.
Knowing how important the connection with their four-footed friends are to clients, Pegusus has been sending them photographs and videos.

“We keep reminding them that the horses are here and being taken care of,” Sciarrillo said.

Many nonprofits such as Pegasus are hurting right now. Without federal or state funding, it relies on donations and grants to keep going, including paying employees and filling 13 feedbags.

“We’ve been very lucky to have great supporters,” Scarrillo said.

But even with a little extra TLC from their caretakers, the herd is getting antsy.

“They know they’re here to work. Honestly, they miss it.”

Meanwhile, North Salem has dozens of bridle trails linking it with Fairfield County in Connecticut. There are currently no restrictions on tramping them as long as common sense and the practice of social distancing prevail.

Connecticut recently banned horse riders and dog walkers from its state beaches because of the pandemic. It normally shoos away those types of users in April anyway in order to prepare for the summer season.

Charlotte Harris of the North Salem Bridle Trails Association says she’s worried about those who make their living renting stables and giving lessons.

Smaller private barns still allow boarders to take their horses out for a trot but are following health guidelines and aren’t allowing people into common areas such as tack rooms.

“They’re all just being careful, just like when we go out to get groceries,” Harris said.

It would be “a very, very big deal” if the Old Salem Farm spring shows, which draw Olympic-level to amateur competitors, were to trot off into the sunset, Harris said.

The 120-acre boarding and training facility on June Road did not respond to several requests for information about the status of the events.

In a March 12 statement, Old Salem told clients, exhibitors and spectators that because their well-being is its “top priority,” it is monitoring the coronavirus situation carefully and is following recommendations issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Old Salem was still taking entries and stall deposits until the Monday, April 6, deadline. All deposits will be refunded if the farm’s management and health authorities feel it is necessary to cancel the show, its website said. 

On March 16, it suspended all licensed events for 30 days. It later extended that until May 3.

The Old Salem shows are set for May 5-10 and 12-17.

“That’s cutting it close,” Harris observed.

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