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Coronavirus Changed Life For Thousands Of Bay Area Horses And Their Humans

CASTRO VALLEY (CBS SF) - Eleven-year-old Rocky hasn't seen his family since the lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus began, on March 17. That's because he's an off-track thoroughbred, aka 'Rockzig,' and one of the hundreds of thousands of horses whose humans and handlers are sheltering in place across the Bay Area.

Ali Rockzig and Cashew
Ali Telatnik walks Rocky, with Cashew in tow, while Teddy looks on. (Photo by Ali Telatnik)

Second to Texas, California has more horses than anywhere other state in the country – some 700,000, in fact, and they live in backyard barns, at racetrack venues, at training facilities and pastures.

Many, like Rocky, are recreational animals. Their owners ride them on trails and in arenas for pleasure, or train and compete with them in shows. Some simply keep them as pets or so-called 'pasture ornaments.'

When word came Bay Area health officials were about to announce the shelter in place, trainer Ali Telatnik, who owns Landmark Equestrian at Canyon Creek Ranch, had to act fast.

"I started researching articles and websites to figure out how to allow clients out at the barn," said Telatnik. "Then the order came, and I gave the order we would be closing the doors."

Canyon Creek Ranch is one of more than a dozen barns and training facilities on Crow Canyon Road. Many homes on the road that stretches from Interstate 680 all the way to I-580, have backyard riding arenas and pastures.

Closing the barn meant Telatnik, along with trainers Lindsay Bowman and Lauren Gregory would be tasked with the complete care of some 20 horses, and owners, like Rocky's, would have to wait days, if not weeks to see their beloved companions again.

Ali on Sweet Teddy
Ali Telatnik on Sweet Teddy (Photo courtesy Ali Telatnik)

"The three of us have banded together to ensure the animals are getting just as much, if not more attention, than before," says Telatnik.

Social distancing is imperative at Canyon Creek Ranch, because owner Jim Grimes, is in his seventies, and part of the most vulnerable demographic for COVID-19. Cross-contamination could result in devastating consequences for him and everyone who relies on him.

"We make sure we don't touch the tractors, we don't touch anything where he is at the moment," says Telatnik. "Lindsay, Lauren and I wear gloves when handling things, we have separate lead ropes and halters, and we only touch them when we bring the horses in and out."

In-between caring for and exercising the horses, the three of them wipe down everything, from the stall snaps to the light switches, no easy task in a dusty barn, using aerosol sprays, handiwipes and bleach.

"More bleach than I've seen in my life," muses Telatnik.

As for other barns on Crow Canyon Road, Telatnik says not all of them have had to close down to boarders. Lessons and group activities, like Pony Club have been cancelled, but some stables still allow owners to come in shifts, for a limited time, to take care of their horses.

That's the case at Bright Future Farms, a breeding and boarding facility that sits at the foot of Mount Diablo, in Walnut Creek, where owners must come out daily and care for their horses. It's not as strict as some places, though, because there are so few boarders, so they can come when they want.

"We provided them gloves and hand sanitizer," said Johanna Constance, who calls herself the "self-appointed barn manager."

Constance has been working with owner Carol DiMaggio for decades, breeding and raising Arabians, Oldenbergs and other breeds for show. Many of Bright Future's progeny have become champion show horses, broodmares and studs.

yohanna 3
Johanna Constance, a broodmare and her foal, and Sienna leading the way. (Photo by Kat Walden)

Some 50 horses live on the property -- foals, mares, stallions and geldings -- along with a handful that belong to boarders. Since the lockdown, unnecessary visitors can no longer come out to pet and visit with the horses.

"There are some little girls who always come to see the horses," Constance says. "It's heartbreaking, because we have babies coming soon."

Veterinarians and farriers are among the people still allowed to work, and so far, supplies and grain have not been an issue because feed stores like Western Saddlery, in Pleasanton, are considered essential businesses.

"When they announced the order, I drove down to Western Saddlery and grabbed as much grain as I possibly thought I'd need for a month," says Telatnik. "Now, when you go, you have to call ahead, and in the parking lot, they bring your order out to you. You can prepay by credit card."

As for hay, both barns are in good shape. Telatnik says Canyon Creek Ranch has a 3-month stockpile and Bright Future Farm got a delivery just before the lockdown.

Telatnik trusts that hay deliveries will continue without interruption. She believes animal people always look out for each other.

"I don't think they (drivers) will take that duty lightly," she says. "I really want to have good faith people are going to come through for each other."

johanna constance
Johanna Constance with Tarim TZ aka 'Toni' at Yarra Yarra Dressage Show. (Photo courtesy of Johanna Constance)

Both Telatnik and Constance are accomplished riders. Telatnik and the horses she trains compete year-round all over California, racking up ribbons and prizes. Constance, an accomplished dressage rider who came to the U.S. from Finland some 36 years ago, also loves jumping and trail riding. Like Telatnik, horses have been her life, since she was a young girl.

Constance won't be showing any of Bright Future Farm's champions anytime soon, though. The U.S. Equestrian Federation has canceled all shows.

"I was supposed to show next weekend, and that was cancelled, everything was cancelled."

When Constance did venture out to exercise her horses on the nearby trails, she was shocked.

"I have never seen so many people on Mt. Diablo in my life. The lines to get into the parking lot were longer than the ones at Costco," she said. "Hiking, walking dogs, gathering, heading to the trails. The parking lot was overflowing. Never in my 36 years riding the trails have I seen that many hikers."

Sara on Rockzig
Rocky aka 'Rockzig' and his human Sara Sloan at his first show. (Photo by Jan Mabry)

Since the lockdown, many parks and recreational spaces have had to shut down or limit visitors. Constance confirms that the parking lots at the foot of Mt. Diablo have since closed, in an effort to discourage the crowds.

But for all the panic and havoc this coronavirus pandemic has wrecked on so many horse lovers lives, the horses seem fine. Rocky's humans miss him like crazy, but Telatnik can't say for sure what exactly he, and his barn mates are feeling.

"I cannot say without anthropomorphizing," she says, something horse owners tend to do – giving human emotions to their animals. "I'm sure they are wondering why they are not seeing their humans on a daily basis. But we are making sure they are getting out so their routines aren't changing. Hopefully, if they are missing their humans, we can ease that a little bit." writer, producer Jan Mabry is also executive producer Bay Sunday, Black Renaissance and host of Black Renaissance. She lives in Northern California. Follow her on Twitter @janmabr.


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