A World on Hold: International Course Designers Talk About the Impact of COVID-19

It is easy to think about how the cancellation of horse shows affects riders and trainers, but the impact of COVID-19 is widespread in the equestrian community and affects everyone involved in the horse show environment. Phelps Sports caught up with three of the world’s top international course designers, Anthony D’Ambrosio, Alan Wade and Olaf Peterson, to gather their thoughts on how they have handled COVID-19 so far and how it might impact their decisions when horse shows finally resume. Though all three hail from different nations – D’Ambrosio from the United States, Wade from Ireland, and Peterson from Germany – each course designer has been affected by the global pandemic in unique ways.

What was your reaction to the cancellation of many of the current and upcoming horse events?

D’Ambrosio: “My initial reaction was disappointment, although I was not completely surprised. The situation with the virus was deteriorating, and putting the competition season on hold was the prudent thing to do. I felt sorry for not being able to at least finish the WEF circuit, as everyone involved invests so much, and would have preferred to finish what they started.” 

Alan Wade at the 2017 American Gold Cup

Wade: “This was the only course of action that show organizers could possibly take. In the face of the current pandemic, sport had to be placed aside with the well being of the wider community much more important.”

Peterson: “At that time, I was in Wellington, designing my first week of two. I followed the news and the spread of the virus hourly and was afraid that there would be events that would have to be canceled. Then it was just the question of when it would happen. I was so very sad when it finally happened as some of my life goals disappeared from the list of shows this year, and I don’t know if they will come again. I know that at that time there was no choice, especially with all the travel restrictions. For me, the worst is that we all have to live with it until a vaccine is found, and that might take a while.” 

How has all of this shifted your focus temporarily?

D’Ambrosio: “My focus since our return to New York has been on the Mrs. and myself staying healthy, and making the best of a bad situation. On the plus side, I enjoy watching spring unfold, and there is always work to be done on our farm. I enjoy the time spent making repairs and improvements. On the other hand, I am as frustrated as most that I am unable to earn any income during this time and feel sympathy for everyone else who is negatively affected.”   

Wade: “My focus would always have been on providing for and protecting the health and well being of our family, and this has only been brought into a clearer focus with Ireland currently in lockdown. By obeying the law of the land, we are also helping by not endangering frontline staff and the community as a whole.”

Peterson: “I thought that it would be best to find the quickest way home to Germany to see my family. I even booked two flights, one through Canada and one through Washington. The airports at that time were already empty, but my flight through Washington went on as scheduled. Right now, I am again reading all the news worldwide to see when our lives will go back to the ‘new normal,’ and I am very confident national horse shows will start soon again with new restrictions by local health authorities. In Germany, we had the first horse show last week, only for professionals and with only two people per two horses as well as no spectators. I also have a 14-year-old daughter who is showing competitively at the 1.30m level, and our goal was the European Championships this year. Unfortunately, I believe those bigger events with more than 1,000 people will not happen simply because it will be difficult to get to as most of the borders are closed. Also, in Germany, only professionals may train or jump their horses until May 11.”

Which horse shows that are normally on your schedule will you miss course designing for this year?

D’Ambrosio: “To date, I have missed out on WEF 11 and 12, a training session in Woodside, California, for Oak Meadow Ranch, a competition in Monterrey, Mexico, and a competition for EMG in Ontario, Canada. Although I am hopeful for Tryon at the end of May, the Spruce Meadows summer circuit was canceled a while back, so I will miss those four competitions as well. My hope is that things get back on schedule in July.”

Wade: “As of today until July, my company has received the cancellation of course designs from shows in Ireland, the USA, Mexico, Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic. On a personal level, The Dublin Horse Show would be the main loss.”

Peterson: “I have already missed the World Cup Final in Las Vegas, the Pan American at Spruce Meadows, and several shows in California [Temecula Valley National Horse Shows] organized by good friends. Hopefully, I will get another chance to work at those events for the coming years. Nobody knows now when we can have bigger shows again this year, so it is unpredictable to say now how many shows I will miss. I just hope not many more, and I am very humbled to see what will happen. Sometimes I look to next year’s schedule already and pray that the shows that are marked in my calendar will really happen. That would be a dream!”

Do you think the cancellation of most of the early 2020 season will have long term impacts on the horse show industry?

D’Ambrosio: “In trying to be optimistic, I would say the cancellation of most of the early 2020 season complicates matters, but shouldn’t have long term negative impacts on the industry. It will be different at first, as facial masks and social distancing will probably need to be maintained, and most likely, things won’t get back to normal until there is a vaccine. I would expect that the shows could be less well attended initially, but that management will adapt, and as confidence in health safety increases, so will the number of competitors. I am sure that there is a pent up desire to get back to competing, and the industry will recover completely before too long. Initially, we may not be able to have spectators in attendance. Unfortunately, I don’t expect International competitions to resume any time soon. For me, the impact on the horses is probably a good one, as they are getting some prolonged rest, which is uncommon nowadays.”    

Wade: “Long term, I’m sure that our sport will return as strong as ever, how long that recovery time will be, who knows, but as long as we remain healthy, we can reset and rebuild. As for the older horses, this enforced break will give them time to refresh while allowing athletes who normally go from show to show, time to train and develop their younger horses.”

Olaf Peterson (left) with Ali Nilforushan (right).

Peterson: “Yes, it will. I think all of the breeders, for example, as well as my friends who have sales barns, will be impacted as sales are decreasing and also prices for horses might decrease as horses can not get the results they needed. Lots of companies have suffered a financial loss during this time, people have lost jobs, and in those times it will be more and more difficult for companies to sponsor events and for customers to buy horses. I hope everything will be back to normal as soon as the economy is back on track.” 

When horse shows do resume, and you are able to go back to work, will you take this downtime into account when designing courses? 

D’Ambrosio: “When shows do resume, I will take into consideration the prolonged downtime with regard to my course design. Initially, my courses for any category will be less demanding in terms of dimensions and time allowed, in order to allow the horses and riders a chance to get show ring fit.” 

Wade: “Naturally, there will be an easing back into competitions at all levels, beginning at national levels, and my courses will be designed to reflect this. It may be some time before we are back to top-level FEI classes, so the athletes will have their horses fit and ready to perform when given a chance to do so.”

Peterson: “Of course, we have to take into consideration the training level of the horses. Any event I will work for just after this long period of no shows, we will have to take it very easy. We will have to see the level of education. I would rather be too easy in the beginning and slowly go from there. For me, it is not the time and not fair for the horses to ask the highest level. I would start with easy lines and distances.” 

How have your feelings regarding COVID-19 changed as it has progressed?

D’Ambrosio: “My feelings toward the COVID-19 virus has changed in the sense that what I initially thought was a serious health emergency seems even more critical as we learn more about the symptoms and the ease of transmission.” 

Wade: “No, we went into lockdown very quickly in Ireland, and the serious nature of the disease was quickly brought to reality in Italy and Spain, so I have never had any doubts as to the severity of what we are facing.”

Peterson: “In the beginning, of course, I had big respect for this virus and not much knowledge about it. The unusual situation was that even the scientists don’t have the same opinion. Most countries have had the same approach, the total lockdown, but I always felt for the economy and believe this is the engine of our world. Sweden instead had a totally different approach and did not do the lockdown, and the numbers were not so much different than other countries without closing their economy down. Of course, they have a very big country for only 10 million people, so in my opinion, the rules should be different depending on the population density. I personally don’t fear the virus anymore and even believe that more people might have had it than we know. As soon as there is an antibody test available, I will do it. In general, I used to travel 300 days per year for more than 30 years, and I have a very good immune system. I trust my body when it comes to that. Of course, I follow the instructions by social distancing and wearing masks, but I would not be afraid to enter a plane, for example.” 

What do you feel the equestrian community can do or continue to do to minimize the risk of the spread of COVID-19?

Anthony D’Ambrosio

D’Ambrosio: “The equestrian community has to be careful to open up the competitions incrementally, and start in the least affected areas of the country. Face masks and social distancing will most likely be mandatory for a period of time. Only when the hardest-hit states recover should their competition resume, as further outbreaks could derail the industry’s recovery.” 

Wade: “Do not do anything that may contribute to the spread of the disease in your community until the advice from the medical professionals allow us to ease back restrictions, and there is a safe way forward to restarting our great sport.”

Peterson: “The good thing is that we do have an individual sport and when we are sitting on a horse the distance between people is there anyway. I personally think we are on a good track to come back as long as our sport keeps with social distancing. This will only change if there will be a vaccination against COVID-19. Let’s hope we see each other at the next horse show soon.”

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