Delight as sport restarts — but frustration over indoor arena omission

  • By Eleanor Jones and Lucy Elder

    RIDERS are delighting as the easing of England’s lockdown restrictions spell the restart of organised equestrian sport, but frustration remains over the Government’s late change to rules on indoor arenas.

    Competition and training, as well as lessons at riding schools, were allowed to resume across England today (29 March), following months of lockdown and restrictions. But the legislation governing current rules, under which indoor arenas are in the main not allowed to be used, was only released on Friday (26 March).

    There was confusion last year as indoor arenas were initially not allowed to open despite the fact they are far more ventilated and larger than shops and other permitted businesses.

    Defra and the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) finally agreed such facilities could be used from 4 July. At the time, British Equestrian (BEF) CEO Iain Graham said the BEF and others had “gone to great lengths to explain the nature of equestrian indoor schools and today we finally made the breakthrough”.

    Guidance that then applied for the rest of the year stated that indoor schools counted as outdoor for the purposes of the rules, and so could be used.

    A BEF spokesman said on 26 March: “This wording was introduced into the legislation, and equestrian activity and sport was able to resume under strict Covid protocols to ensure the safety of all participants without issue. The wording has been removed from the legislation published today.

    “British Equestrian has raised this as a matter of urgency with Sport England, DCMS and Defra for clarification because this change in situation is not justified or reasonable, particularly at such short notice. We know there will be a degree of frustration throughout the industry at this development, but we will continue to represent collective interests of the equine sector in England for a solution.”

    Association of British Riding Schools chairman George Baber told H&H the situation is not as dire for riding schools as it might first appear.

    He said that of course all schools with outdoor arenas can carry on; the “rule of six” does not apply to lessons, nor to the number of helpers, leaders or coaches, so these schools will be able to run as normal. The rule of six does come into play once riders have dismounted, so schools will have to be mindful of this guidance at that point.

    He added: “The legislation does allow under-18s to have supervised indoor sports. There’s a discrepancy between that and the Sport England guidance but the letter of the law is that under-18s can do indoor sports, so I can see no reason riding schools can’t give children indoor lessons, if Covid restrictions are in place, and that’s been my advice to them.”

    Mr Baber said although this means schools with only indoor arenas may not teach adults until 12 April, he hopes that being able to teach children will mean businesses are not too badly affected.

    “It’s not ideal but I think if schools operate sensibly, they can get back about 80% of their normal operation,” he said, adding that the fact the legislation was only released three days before the restart was an issue.

    “I can understand businesses were trying to plan ahead, and how can you plan when it’s Friday and you’re opening on Monday?” he said. “The frustration and anger is understandable.”

    Mr Baber added that the legislation specifically allows people to ride their own horses in indoor schools, which covers arena hire, and warned that parents may not watch their children’s lessons from the indoor arenas.

    Neither Defra nor the DCMS was available for comment.

    Elite riders have been able to continue their training and compete at specific events under strict “elite athlete” conditions and Covid-safe protocols, but for many – and venues not affected by the Government-caused “indoor” arena confusion – Monday marked the first resumption of organised sport for all levels.

    Little Downham was holding a British Eventing “train for eventing” fixture, and organiser Tina Ure told H&H it was “really enjoyable” to welcome people back.

    “We’ve been bowled over by the level of thanks and positivity of the riders,” she said. “We’ve kept everything relaxed and so far it’s been extremely well received and enjoyable all round.”

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    Rider Caroline Powell added she “cannot commend the train for eventing format enough”.

    There is no dressage, so competitors go straight from showjumping to cross-country course.

    “What a great thing [these events] are for fresh horses coming out on to the grass for the first time,” she said. “There’s loads of space, loads of time, nobody hassling you – it’s the best thing, and Tina’s done a really good course.”

    Owners and amateur riders have been welcomed back on racecourses, while point-to-pointing has also restarted. There were considerable entries across the three fixtures on Monday, at Charing, Revesby and Hurworth, followed by a full card scheduled for the Maisemore on Tuesday.

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