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Looking back at 2020 – with Michael Stone: “I think we all have had an opportunity to re-evaluate and reflect”

Tuesday, 29 December 2020
Interview

Photo © private collection "The biggest challenge was developing protocols that would actually work," Michael Stone tells as he looks back at 2020 and how the Covid-19 pandemic affected the sport. Photo © private collection.

 

Text © World of Showjumping

 


 

WoSJ asks chef d’equipes, grooms, riders and show organisers to look back at 2020 – a year out of the ordinary for absolutely everyone. Next up is ESP president Michael Stone, who has had a year full of challenges at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Centre in Wellington, Florida and who now looks forward to a busy 2021-season. 

“We started off 2020 very strongly,” Stone tells. “We re-did all the footing here; that was a big success and the riders really liked it. The competition during the Winter Equestrian Festival was of a super high-level. At the end of week 10, with two of our biggest weeks to come, we had to shut down though. We could see it coming, but it still was a huge disappointment. At the time, it was quite confusing for everybody. A big challenge for us was that a lot of the horses live permanently on the show ground during WEF, so we had to find a way to keep open so that those horses could get exercise. We worked very hard with the local community – the Palm Beach County and the state – to come up with protocols that would allow us to continue. We were sort of the first ones, I would say, to actually develop protocols. It was mainly because we had all these horses here, but also because in the US everybody involved in the horse-show-world gets paid on day or hour rates so if there is nothing going on, they don’t have income. We could see this being a major economic disaster for people.”

“In April, once the horses started to leave and we went into full-scale lockdown, we spent the time working on more detailed protocols and how to implement these,” Stone tells. “We started up quite small in May. We were the first in the US to get going again and we were super strict. Then Tryon, our sister show in North Carolina, adopted our protocols and were able to get going there as well. Overall, we had an amazing summer and were up 20-30%. Some of the top riders, such as Kent Farrington, even made Wellington their home base for the summer.”

“We also learned a lot this year,” Stone continues. “For example, we utilized our grass areas much more than we have in the past – and the horses and riders really liked it. So, we are expanding that into the Winter Equestrian Festival next year and we are going to have more grass events.”

“We were also able to tweak on the details in the protocols, so we have systems in place to keep people safe – even when it’s much bigger events here,” Stone continues. “That does not mean there are no Covid-cases, because there are. I don’t think there is any possibility of any horse show existing without there being cases, but we have to do our best to make sure that they don’t originate at the horse shows. So far, the riders and trainers have been very responsible and anyone that have troubles at their barns pull their people off the showground. Those not abiding by the protocol have been evicted off the showground and they will not be allowed back – we are very rigorous.”

“The Covid-19 protocols have led to a significant increase in costs for the organizers though, and I am a bit disappointed that the FEI doesn’t recognize that,” Stone says. “It would help us to be able to put on a small Covid-fee, even if it’s only 20-30 dollars. It’s not much, but we’re not allowed to do it.”

“We’re trying to stay on a fine line where we keep the sport going and at the same time make sure everyone on the show ground is safe,” Stone says. “We have no spectators, we reduce the number of people that can come with each rider and we have limited our VIP by 50% of its normal occupancy – a big economical factor for us.”

When I look back, I would say that the low of the year was having to cancel in March and the high of the year was really opening again in May – when it looked like we were not going to be able to open at all for the summer. The biggest challenge was developing protocols that would actually work. Just to keep people six feet apart, it’s really difficult!

“There have been some benefits of this year though,” Stone continues. “First of all, I think a lot of the horses got a good break. Secondly, the quality of our events has been amazing – we have had top-notch sport with so many good riders. Thirdly, I think we all have had an opportunity to re-evaluate and reflect on what we are doing. With our hectic schedules, it’s so easy to get wrapped up and just move on from one day to the next but this year has allowed us all to take a step back and think. I would like to hope that we don’t fall back into our old patterns when this is all over.”

“Going forward, I don’t see any major shows happening in Europe until April. While the vaccination program has started here in the US, that’s not the case in Europe other than in England. I think it’s going to be April or May before you see a bit confidence coming back,” Stone reflects. “That does not mean there will not be shows, but I think the big sport – the five-stars – will have to wait in Europe. The LGCT have already pushed their start-up until March, and the first European event is scheduled for mid-May so that’s a good barometer for where the high-level sport is going to go. That’s going to create issues because there will be a lot of demand to jump at that level.”

“Then we still don’t really know what’s going to happen with the Olympics although they say there are going to go ahead. But how will this work? Will they insist on everyone being vaccinated? More specifically to jumping; how will riders get their certificate of capability with so few shows? That won’t be easy. I’m more optimistic with the Olympics going ahead than I was earlier, but I still think it’s a long shot,” Stone says. “I’m glad the FEI re-established the European Championships though, that was good news for the sport. The FEI has had a difficult job this year; juggling everything and then with revenues down – it’s not been easy for them.”

“We’re expecting a big season coming up at the Winter Equestrian Festival, because we’re already ahead of where we have been,” Stone tells as 2021 approaches. “We have had quite a few top riders from Europe inquiring about coming, so we have worked hard to get visa waivers for those riders and their teams. The difficult part right now is that so many US riders are coming to Wellington for the 2021 season, which means accommodation and barns are already full. Also, a big difference for the European riders is the expenses – it is very expensive to compete here in the US. On the other hand, we don’t restrict entries – and unlike in Europe we don’t have any OC invitations. We go straight off the ranking list, so we expect top sport here and tough competition,” Stone closes off. 

 

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