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COVID-19 is taking its toll on human life, but drivers still need to tend to their barns. Driver Kurt Bensmiller explains how he takes care of his horses every day.

It's no secret there's an eerie feeling in the air. The roads are quiet. Shopping malls are practically a ghost town. While grocery stores are running out of supplies faster than a chuckwagon driver gets around the barrels. Every day we learn something new about the coronavirus. And for the majority of us, we're able to self-isolate to protect our health and those around us. 

But for the over one thousand horses who are grazing on 36 WPCA participant farms, this virus doesn't mean anything to them. They still need to be watered, fed, pampered and anything else the drivers deem essential to their everyday care.

"Well 365 days a year we give them hay," describes four-time World Champion Kurt Bensmiller. "Depending on if they're competing they'll get a more complex mash with more vitamins in it. We only race for a couple of months, about 50 days, so the rest of the time they still get fed the same."

Bensmiller has 63 horses on his farm and taking care of each horse individually is a big task. He prefers to go feed his horses himself so he can check on them to make sure they aren't sore and haven't been fighting. "The old boys who've been around for a few years, we don't do a lot to them besides feeding them, give them big areas and make sure they have enough feed and water every day."

Since the arrival of the coronavirus, many events in our daily lives have been either cancelled or postponed. Thursday March 19th was supposed to be the Calgary Stampede Tarp Auction, which is labelled as the unofficial kickoff to the wagon season. Due to government restrictions about large gatherings, and for the safety of all the participants and guests, the Calgary Stampede decided to postpone the annual event. Recently the government has stated for everyone to self-isolate, which means staying at home unless you need groceries or healthcare.

However, Bensmiller and the other 35 drivers still have to do their daily routine with their thoroughbreds. Luckily, the "stay-at-home" rule will be easy to follow this time of year. As the snow starts to melt and the temperatures begin to rise, it's a sign spring training is quickly approaching. Drivers don't usually go on vacation now anyway. Pretty soon, they'll be hooking up teams of four horses to the wagon and get them back into the summer routine.

With so much still unknown about the virus, we don't know how or even if it'll affect the horses. But after some investigation work, Bensmiller isn't too worried about it. "In all the research we did, I can't find it going to the horses. But it's still pretty new to a lot of people, so there's really only one way to find out. But as long as we take care of ourselves, I can't imagine it getting to the horses."

Though this virus hasn't been linked to horses, they do get sick just like us. The only thing is, horses can't tell you they don't feel well. Bensmiller already knows the tendencies of his older horses and can tell right away if one or more isn't feeling good. But he says it's a bit trickier with the new arrivals. "The newer ones are a little tougher because it's all new to them. The whole training process and the barns, it's just a different process. But even then, you can tell when a horse looks sick."

Just like you and I, Bensmiller hopes the 2020 WPCA season will run this summer. The safety of the drivers, fans, sponsors, and horses are the top priority. Any decision made regarding the season will not be taken lightly. But until something is official, Bensmiller will begin his quest for a fourth-straight World Championship in the coming weeks.

-Nathan Bannerman

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