COVID Impacts Midwestern Collegiate Equestrian Programs

By Megan Berg

In the face of COVID-19, the University of Findlay’s equestrian program is continuing in person, with specific guidelines and precautions in place to keep the students safe.

Other midwestern collegiate equestrian programs have had very different responses, including Michigan State University.

According to Meredith Marsh, the Director of Equestrian Studies and Equine Management at the University of Findlay, Findlay’s equestrian programs are strictly adhering to the campus’s “Oiler Start Safe/Stay Safe” campus plan.

“All protocol was discussed within the programs between the faculty and staff,” Marsh said in an email interview. “Farm Business Manager Jake Bowman and I, the Director of English Riding Rusty Miller and Director of Western Riding Art O’Brien, worked closely with the University administration and our representatives on the subcommittee of the Emergency Operations Task Force to determine the best and most appropriate responses”.

University of Findlay’s equestrian program’s protocols were developed directly by the people overseeing the program, according to Marsh, ensuring that the precautions were feasible and thorough. Some of these include meeting in areas where appropriate physical distancing is possible, avoiding sharing equipment as much as possible, and thoroughly disinfecting shared surfaces and objects, even in the barns.

Marsh does state that students are not mandated to wear face coverings while riding horses, as recommended by the United States Equestrian Federation. In an email interview, UF equestrian student Kate Howe described some other specific precautions developed with the students in mind.

“To ensure students are still able to have access to water at the barns, use of the water fountains has been restricted to only the instructors filling up water bottles for the students,” Howe said.

However, other schools have reacted differently. Michigan State University’s equestrian program has followed the lead of most of the university’s other programs by not allowing students to return to on-campus instruction. One exception has been made: the Horsemanship class is still allowed to be delivered face to face. Besides that, D2L is the main online platform being used to deliver content to students.

Michigan State University’s Horse Management Program Coordinator, Karen Waite, is optimistic about the future, expressing hopes that teaching and learning may be better in the long run because of the changes being made now, and that she feels comfortable teaching online. However, she follows by highlighting the main feature missing from online course delivery–

“I don’t think we can ever replace the importance of face to face human interaction in an educational environment,” Waite wrote.

The location of both schools is a primary factor for the difference in responses according to Marsh.

“UF, as a small private college, located in a semi-rural area that has not yet seen a major COVID outbreak, has very different factors and measures to consider in comparison to schools that have decided to not reopen face-to-face learning this fall,” Marsh said.

Waite seems to agree that location is a major deciding factor.

“The fact that we are located in Michigan’s capital, within five miles of the governor’s office is part of it,” Waite writes. “In addition, it’s a densely populated area and a very large school.”

While both schools are dealing with concerns about “when” learning circumstances will change, the questions are very different between the schools. Waite says she has no idea when Michigan State will return to normal.

Similarly, much is still up in the air at UF. However for the University of Findlay, when students will need to transition to remote learning this semester is the main question. While the university is planning for students to stay home and complete classes online for the remainder of the semester after they leave for Thanksgiving break, the ability to continue face to face instruction until then depends heavily on whether students adhere to guidelines and take appropriate precautions to keep one another safe. While instructors have made plans for the possibility of remote learning, both instructor Marsh, and equestrian student Howe, express hopes that UF can remain in-person until Thanksgiving.

“We certainly hope that all UF students and the community as a whole adhere to the safety guidelines and put their best effort into containing COVID on our campus so that we do not have to go remote prior to Thanksgiving as we have planned,” Marsh said. 

“I am hoping that we won’t have to go online before that scheduled time or stay online through the rest of the semester,” Howe said. “I have no worries that the professors will be committed to the best education that we can possibly receive.”

 However, similar to Waite, Howe views the in-person experience as irreplaceable.

“There is simply no way to receive the same level of hands-on education as in the barns themselves,” Howe said.

Whether or not University of Findlay students will be able to cooperate to successfully contain COVID has yet to be seen. There is no clear end date to this pandemic, thus, no clear indication of when schools can return to their normal methods of teaching. The question of “when” is plaguing all of the campuses across the nation in different ways. The way that universities are responding to COVID-19 now will likely determine when things “return to normal” (if ever), but there’s no obvious answer to which schools are doing it “right”.

Howe is impressed with the faculty response to COVID-19.

“I am so thankful for how UF has handled every part of this new situation,” Howe wrote. “UF has proven that they will do everything that they can to have students on campus.”

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