By mid-March, equestrian competitions around the globe had begun cancellations and postponements due to the concerns surrounding the life-altering challenge that has plagued the world in the early half of 2020, COVID-19. By March 21, just one week after the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Wellington, Florida, had ceased all horse showing two weeks ahead of its anticipated schedule, the Show Jumping Relief Fund (SJRF) was announced and operational. Intended to be a coalition to provide aid to those industry personnel who have been hit the hardest by the widespread show closures, specifically those individuals who have lost their usual source of income, the SJRF has managed to unify equestrians for the good of the group during a time when it is needed most. To date, donations have surpassed more than $66,000 and have been distributed to help more than 200 people, many of whom represent the integral members of the competitive community in the form of ring crew, announcers, horse show secretaries, braiders and judges, among others.
“I commented to my wife my frustration with the situation, and we came up with the idea of the fund. We have been blessed in life with a passion that has brought us lots of success and a thriving business. The pandemic has created huge damage to our industry and our people and I feel we must help as much as we can the people who lost their jobs and income as a result of the cancellation of so many horse show events,” commented Daniel Bluman, one of the members of the SJRF task force. “We reached out to others to get a better idea of the situation and who was in need of help, and from there it grew. It’s a great group of people that are volunteering their time and talent to help those in need.”
Bluman’s wife, Ariel, shares his sentiment, stating, “My motivation was to help the people who help us each week at the shows. We are always asking them to bend over backwards for us, whether it’s a late entry, moving in the class order, scratching a class or anything else. They are always willing to help! It’s now our turn to step up and help them.”
Led by a diverse task force of industry professionals, the SJRF is uniquely qualified to understand the needs of equestrians across numerous positions thanks to the various roles held by its members. Both Angela Pritchard and Liz Soroka work behind the scenes of horse shows to keep everything running smoothly, while Juan Fernando Palacio is a co-founder of Equo and Steven Wilde is a renowned announcer. The Bluman husband-and-wife duo of Daniel and Ariel travel the international circuit competing and operating a successful training business, and Megan McDermott balances her business creating media content with a professional riding career at the FEI level. Marion Maybank has served as a Director at US Equestrian and horse show manager, in addition to other roles, and Lourdes de Guardiola is a successful rider and trainer that also owns a lifestyle boutique. In part because of the task force’s widespread reach into every avenue of the competitive horse show world, the team has quickly been able to rally support for the cause and has used their know-how to conjure up multiple inventive methods by which to encourage donations.
“We are lucky to have an eclectic and experienced group. Each person has a different skill set that helps us to achieve our directive. Whether it be Megan and myself creating and handling social media content, Angela and Marion’s accounting skills or Steven and Daniel’s connection to athletes, we all have something to bring to the table,” remarked Soroka.
With a growing GoFundMe page serving as one of the major donation bases, the SJRF concocted a number of incentives in order to keep funds coming in while also contributing content and entertainment. One such method has been the Stay At Home Equitation Challenge, which allows for donators to submit their personal judging comments and scores for a professional rider’s posted video, with those individuals coming closest to the official judges’ scores earning quality prizes. Switching things up, individuals could also submit their own videos with a donation in order to receive critiques and suggestions from some of the sport’s best-known names, like Jimmy Torano, Lauren Hough, Lillie Keenan and others.
Thanks to the SJRF’s partnership with Perfect Your Ride, a site where benefactors can receive personalized feedback from some of the world’s top trainers in exchange for a low-cost fee that is split between the trainer and the SJRF, the organization has been able to raise funds by doing more than simply asking for it, but instead has proven that it’s willing to put in the work to help the equestrian industry get back on its feet. In addition to donations from individuals, the SJRF has been the recipient of funds from approximately 15 small businesses, including equine photographers, saddleries and treat shops, among others, that have pledged portions of sales to assist with COVID-19 relief.
“I’d like to say that the people that donate, they are so appreciated by the people receiving the funds. Donors have no idea how much a few hundred dollars means to these recipients. It puts food on the table, buys medicine and pays for insurance. It keeps families fed, and those people will never forget the kindness shown during this hard time,” reflected Pritchard.
Maybank echoed Pritchard’s words, saying, “We have received so much appreciation from the receivers. On the donors’ side, we have heard lots of ‘we couldn’t do what we do without the behind the scenes staff that make it possible.’ ”
The SJRF’s newest idea is perhaps its biggest one yet as the task force ups the ante and the reward. Setting a goal to raise an additional $30,000 to $40,000, the SJRF is aiming to successfully allocate funds to every single person who has applied for aid, which is currently hovering around 250 individuals and climbing. For a larger donation of $2,500 or more, riders of any age or experience level can sign up to participate in a 2021 WEF Kickoff Clinic with famous trainers like Daniel Bluman, Missy Clark and Brianne Goutal-Marteau. The clinic will be a 2-day event covering flatwork and jumping, as well as lectures and Q&A sessions by course designers, veterinarians and some of the world’s best riders and trainers. As a bonus, the SJRF is prepared to help participants to organize horse transportation to the venue or to find horses to “borrow” for the clinic, as needed. On the final day, a barbeque party will be held to celebrate the two days of learning as well as all the good that was done thanks to the funds donated by the participants. The exact date is still to be set, but applications are due by May 31. For more information or to reserve a spot, contact the SJRF at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For equestrians who may need more of a nudge to consider donating and applying for the clinic, the story of Cheryle and Raymond Francis may be a persuasive one. Active members of the horse world for over 50 years, the Francises owned Offington Stables, a successful hunter/jumper and hunter breeding farm in Pennsylvania, for 40 years before moving to Maryland. Cheryle has been a USEF “R” judge for decades and also serves as a horse show secretary at competitions that include the Devon Horse Show, Brandywine, Ox Ridge, The National Horse Show, New England Equitation Finals and several other major horse shows, many of which have already been canceled for the year, in addition to a role as an assistant secretary for the NHSA/ASPCA Maclay throughout the year. Without current or future income from the horse shows, the Francis family has been hit hard by financial, physical and emotional hardship, especially considering that Raymond is confined to a wheelchair and Cheryle is his full-time caregiver.
“Our livelihood has always been through the horse world and horse shows. The horse show extended family we have created through our work is amazing. We are all passionate about our jobs and the people we work with are the ones we spend the most time with, making them our families,” reflected Cheryle. “Many of us are independent contractors and, depending on state and job description, are not eligible for unemployment. The SJRF organized quickly and stepped up to help take care of their people immediately when we needed it most and I am forever grateful for our friends taking care of friends. Their grant helped cover bills, groceries and medications that I was struggling to cover. We are all struggling during this challenge and, until our horse world is back up and running, will continue to do so, but knowing our horse show family is strong and will be there for each other is a comforting feeling.”
Though the competitive equestrian industry is slowly starting to reignite and make preparations for the new normal, those affected by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent show closures will still need assistance for the foreseeable future. As a worldwide community that is strong in numbers and in influence, equestrians everywhere have already been stepping up to help their peers for weeks, and that call to action will continue to be made for the coming months by the SJRF and others.
“It’s undeniable that the COVID pandemic has hit the horse show industry very hard, and primarily the members of our community who we take for granted like jump crew, office staff and braiders, the numerous roles that are filled by people who have sacrificed a more stable life to keep our sport running,” commented McDermott. “In these unprecedented times, the very least we can do is to support our own, and to treat our community like the family that it is. We’ve been able to help a lot, but the unfortunate truth is that we’ve run out of funds and more people every day are struggling. If you can donate, please do.”
To donate to the Show Jumping Relief Fund, please click here.