'The social side of meeting and chatting to breeders has gone'
Industry members tell us how they are managing in self-isolation
Peter Hockenhull of Shade Oak Stud in Shropshire tells us about how he is managing – both personally and professionally – with the UK government's lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
How is life at Shade Oak Stud ticking over?
We are now well into the foaling and covering season, the busiest time of our year. We have increasing numbers of mares with foals, those due to foal and barren mares awaiting covering; and all of these have to be looked after. This is the case every year and looking after the horses is a priority here as it is at every stud.
My particular world hasn’t changed that much, since in the stud season I'm always busy and I hardly ever go anywhere else. Much of the day has a certain normality, being busy with the horses in the morning and sorting out the fields and farm in the afternoon.
Driving around the fields the problems outside can seem a million miles away and life seems almost relaxed, with the biggest issue I have to deal with being when the roller gets stuck. Then I get home in the evening and the problems of the world outside come straight in through the TV screen.
What new measures have you brought in to deal with coronavirus and the lockdown?
We're following the guidelines laid down by the TBA to implement government rules on social distancing, so people bringing horses have to stay in the cabs of their lorries and we do all the handling of the horses.
The social side of meeting and chatting to breeders is gone. I usually enjoy talking to clients over a coffee or showing them foals around the stud, but this cannot happen. Obviously, we can talk on the phone and we are sending increased numbers of photos of new-born foals to breeders that would normally come to see them, but of course it's not the same.
Life on the stud has changed somewhat too. Normally we are like a big family, with several of our staff living on the farm and everyone interacting with everyone else, but socialising has had to stop. People drink their coffee in cars or on their own outside, not in the luxury canteen/tack room that I personally installed 18 months ago and that I always loved to show visitors around despite their protests that they really didn’t need to see it in order to assess our stallions.
I guess the one benefit of all this is that I have more time to do the jobs I’m supposed to be doing around the farm, as well as to respond to journalists wondering how we’re passing the time.
Has the crisis affected how many mares you're covering, and getting mares covered elsewhere?
The level of activity seems similar to last year, but this is relatively early in the National Hunt breeding season and we’ve recently had a spell of nice weather and that helps things move along.
Our ‘strike rate’ of getting mares in foal has been brilliant this year, although since I don’t believe the lockdown has had too much impact on the how the stallions and mares are behaving I put that down to us being quite good at what we do!
Since we have both an excellent choice of stallions and knowledgeable clients that believe in them, very few of our permanent boarders go to outside stallions anyway.
However, ‘walk-out’ activity has dropped, with at least one owner wisely deciding that it is more cost-effective to walk his mares across the yard to be covered rather than send them to Ireland and worry about getting them back afterwards.
How hard is social distancing when dealing with horses?
Fortunately we don’t have to keep socially distant from the horses, just their owners and the other people working here! Generally dealing with horses is a job that people can do individually, but if there's a foaling problem then saving a foal’s life means we have to work more closely than is ideal, but good hygiene is a key factor in that case anyway.
The people we're most serious about are my parents as they are certainly in the at-risk group. My father is 86 and my mother could well be over 80 too, although I can’t quite remember; I was very young when she gave birth to me.
We are very careful not to allow them to come into close contact with the other people here. Mother has always been involved with foaling – they live 50 yards away from the foaling unit – but this year the only help she can give is to view the closed-circuit tv screens and call me if there’s a problem.
Dad is rather deaf and this is causing one slight issue. The other day Mum came out for a ‘safe distance chat’, telling us: “I had to come out as I can’t talk to David. I have to repeat everything three times and it makes conversation really difficult!”
On a personal level, how are you keeping yourself busy during lockdown?
As I said earlier, I’m doing jobs I’m meant to be doing anyway and I might even catch up with the list my wife Emma kindly prepared for just such an emergency, so it’s not really a problem.
Any film, TV or book recommendations to share to get through quarantine?
The lack of racing to watch on TV is a real ****** so I tend to watch films I’ve seen before. Being something of an intellectual I particularly like old John Wayne movies such as Rooster Cogburn; and I like the woman in them that holds her head to one side. I thought she was called Audrey Hepburn but apparently her name is Katherine. I do hope she and John are doing okay in all this.
As regards reading material I can strongly recommend the annual Shade Oak Newsletter, of which we still have a few copies available. It contains lots of information about the stud, the stallions and life in general. It's a great way to spend an hour when you have nothing better to do and I hope to get round to reading it myself sometime.
What is the availability of groceries and essential products around you like?
We live on a farm in the country, with lots of well-stocked deep freezers so it's not really a problem. When I last went to the local shops there were no queues at all, although admittedly that was 15 years ago. However, Emma tells me things are still pretty good with no real issues in obtaining the supplies we need.
According to a local friend of mine we are fortunate that we don’t need Haagen Dazs ice cream.
What are you most looking forward to when racing returns?
I’m looking forward to seeing my mare Absolute Jaffa racing again. She has been placed in her last four races and we hope to have a full season of novice hurdles featuring super-duper new British-bred Premium Scheme prizes (convoluted title isn’t it, wonder if they’ll come up with a simpler name?).
But more than anything I’m looking forward to normality. Seeing horses race on TV; chatting to people at the stud and showing them round; going to the races; and getting my stores and foals to the sales – hopefully finding buyers whose businesses are recovering and are starting to feel a sense of optimism that things are back to what they should be and this was all just like a horrible dream.
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