Grounded

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

BY SISSY WICKES

The horse community stands breathless, lungs emptied by the shock of cancelled horse shows, the early end of winter circuits, uncertain travel schedules, and the threat of a pandemic in our backyards. For our community, travel is a staple and caravanning from event to event is our way of life. Plans are made in December for horses and riders depending on defined goals: Devon, indoors, Zone Finals, Horse of the Year points, equitation finals. So, now what?

Pause and patience are not a part of our makeup; it’s go and go hard every week.

For every one of us, the present feels like tremulous ground as we try to look toward a more stable future. Someday, and hopefully soon, our routine will recommence and life as we know it will be back. The trickle- down effect is vast. For some, it is an inconvenience. For others, it is financially devastating. If you don’t get to show your horse for a month, it is disappointing and disruptive. If you don’t get to work for a month, you have no income and the effects can be catastrophic.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

With every cancelled event are tens and sometimes hundreds of employees who are also cancelled. Ring crew, officials, show management, concession companies, grounds workers. Any employee who is paid by the day or the event is then unemployed and faces the hardship of loss of income. Whether we are talking about our relatively small horse show industry or the behemoths like Major League Baseball and the PGA, the sports industry is contending with major disruption of business relationships and contracts. Do the “day workers” have any legal grounds to uphold their contracts? Are refunds and contractual obligations possible discussion points?

Mr. Kent Schmidt is a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney in its southern California office who specializes in business litigation. He has been fielding inquiries from companies since the outbreak of the Corona Virus crisis about contractual responsibility in reference to sporting events. Schmidt states, “There will be years of litigation as courts and other tribunals sort out the legal ramifications of pulling the plug on these events and decide which party is left holding the bag. These issues come down to contract questions including the language in agreements, and applying contractual doctrines. But equitable considerations will also predominate.  Particularly for situations in which one party is better able to absorb the loss, the courts will apply a fairness principle.”

For sponsors and advertisers, also experiencing a loss of return, there may be little recourse. “In many commercial contracts associated with the sports industry, substantial consideration is paid well in advance of performance of the contractual duty. For example, licensing fees and advertising contracts are signed, sealed and delivered, long before the season starts. Since possession is nine-tenths of the law, there will be questions relating to whether licensing fees and other consideration already paid prior to the pandemic will have to be refunded,” Schmidt says. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

While most of us in the horse community are not looking toward legal action, it is interesting to observe the same issues that we face as individuals on a larger scale. The FEI World Cup, the Triple Crown, the Olympics are cancelled or endangered. There are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in the business of sport. How will disruption, the skewing of contracts, and return on investment affect the horse industry in the months and years to come? From fledgling or struggling show management companies to officials to daily jump and feed crews, from trainers to braiders to veterinarians to shipping companies, we all will feel the pinch of lost income. Optimistically, the virus will run its course and horse show competition will return to normal soon. If not, it is highly possible that we will see a Darwinian shift in our equestrian sport schedule. Which shows or events will survive the drought and which will not?

As we stare at our calendars with remorse, as we cancel flight reservations and hotels, as we look at our p&l sheets or personal budgets and shudder, let us all remember that staying home is for the good of the whole. Disappointed, inconvenienced, and financially hurt, our community must once again pull together in support of each other. Be kind, be generous, and appreciate your horses and each other as we weather the maelstrom of the virus as a team. 


About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist, an autism advocate and Editor of The Plaid Horse. Her illustrious resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She lives with her family in Unionville, PA and Wellington, FL.

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