Caring for horses during a public health crisis: are your workers a critical workforce?

As I write this, we are in the midst of a global health pandemic – COVID-19.  Anxiety is high and executive orders are being enacted almost daily ranging from the local, state and all the way to the national level.  On March 24, 2020, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt enacted the Fourth Amended Executive Order 2020-07[1].  In this executive order Governor Stitt recognized the 109th case of a novel coronavirus “COVID-19” and declared an emergency in all 77 counties of Oklahoma.[2]  In addition to this statewide executive order, numerous municipalities have also enacted proclamations that may impose additional restrictions on residents within their city limits.

How are all these executive orders and proclamations impacting the horse industry?  Specifically, are horse stables that employ workers to assist in caring and keeping horses part of the critical infrastructure and thus exempt from business closures?  Are the workers exempt from stay at home orders?  Unfortunately, the orders and their guidelines are unclear on all three of these questions.

Related to business closures, the Fourth Amended Executive Order 2020-07 (EO 2020-07), paragraph 20 states “[e]ffective at 11 :59 p.m. on March 25, 2020, all businesses not identified as being within a critical infrastructure sector as defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and located in a county experiencing community spread of COVID-19, as identified by OSDH on its website, shall close.”[3]  In other words, your business is subject to closure if 1) your business is located in one of the counties designated by the Oklahoma State Department of Health as having community spread of COVID-19 and 2) your business is not listed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as being within a critical infrastructure sector.  However and importantly, if your business is not designated by Homeland Security as being within a critical infrastructure sector, Governor Stitt’s office is accepting requests for designation through the website –  Further, this required closure is set to expire on April 16, 2020.

So, is your horse operation impacted?  To answer this question, you will need to review not only the state EO 2020-07 but also any municipal proclamations that may govern in your community.  Under EO 2020-07, you must visit the OSDH website to determine if the county where you operate is listed as having COVID-19 community spread. If your county is listed, go on to the second step of determining if your horse operation is designated as being within a critical infrastructure sector as defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  Now, I’ll be really honest with you folks this is where things start to get confusing!

First, let’s take a look at the relevant section of the March 23, 2020, version 1.1 of Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce: Ensuring Community and National Resilience in COVID-19 Response – Food and Agriculture, page 6, published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.[4]  Certain sub-sections and bolded text relevant to horse operations and related industry service providers are as follows:

      • Workers supporting groceries, pharmacies, convenience stores, and other retail that sells human food, animal/pet food, and beverage products
      • Food manufacturer employees and their supplier employees—to include those employed in food processing (packers, meat processing, cheese plants, milk plants, produce, etc.) facilities; livestock, poultry, seafood slaughter facilities; pet and animal feed processing facilities; human food facilities producing by-products for animal food; beverage production facilities; and the production of food packaging
      • Farm workers to include those employed in animal food, feed, and ingredient production, packaging, and distribution; manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of veterinary drugs; truck delivery and transport; farm and fishery labor needed to produce our food supply domestically
      • Employees and firms supporting food, feed, and beverage distribution, including warehouse workers, vendor- managed inventory controllers and blockchain managers
      • Animal agriculture workers to include those employed in veterinary health; manufacturing and distribution of animal medical materials, animal vaccines, animal drugs, feed ingredients, feed, and bedding, etc.; transportation of live animals, animal medical materials; transportation of deceased animals for disposal; raising of animals for food; animal production operations; slaughter and packing plants, renderers, and associated regulatory and government workforce

As you can see the “Food and Agriculture” section does reference “raising of animals for food [and] animal production operations.” Even though the “Food and Agriculture” section does list the “raising of animals for food [and] animal production operations” as critical infrastructure, this designation cannot practically apply to horses in this country.  For nearly a decade, the US Congress has consistently defunded the USDA inspection of horse slaughter plants which constructively prevents the slaughter of horses for consumption in the United States.  Having said that however, a very broad interpretation of “animal production” could encompass horse breeding facilities.  Nonetheless, taking the entire section of “Food and Agriculture” and interpreting the section as a whole, horse breeding facilities were likely not considered for inclusion where the main themes of the Food and Agriculture section are geared towards protecting our food source – food production, food distribution and veterinary care services for the animals raised for human consumption in the United States.

Other states have recognized the horse industry has unique challenges when dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. For example, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Office of State Veterinarian has issued guidance via the Kentucky Horse Council “to adjust equine activities to better protect public health during this time.”[5]   The guidance acknowledges the necessity of a workforce to continue to care and keep horses during this public health emergency but makes recommendations for protecting the health of both the horse owners and barn workers.  Oklahoma should adopt Kentucky’s guidelines immediately.

Oklahoma horse industry participants must have clarity on how best to comply with public health orders and also safely take care of the horses stabled on their property.  Furthermore, failing to recognize workers who care for horses, as well as other animals kept but not raised for food consumption, as critical workers will have an absolute negative impact on animal welfare, environmental quality, disease prevention and economic investment in Oklahoma.  Clarification on how horse operations fit within a critical infrastructure sector has been sought through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and a critical worker designation for those caring and keeping horses has been made through the Oklahoma Governor’s office.  Moreover, a recommendation that the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture adopt the guidelines published by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Office of State Veterinarian has also been proposed to the Oklahoma Governor.  We will get through this current crisis, but we must learn and adapt for future situations. I will update if and when I get responses to my questions and recommendations!

This article does not constitute legal advice and is intended to be used for educational purposes only.

About the Author

Mary Westman is an Oklahoma attorney with an MBA, Morgan horse breeder and registered nurse.  A native of West Virginia, she now lives with her husband, David, in Norman, Oklahoma. She can be contacted at

© Mary Westman 2020.  All Rights Reserved.


[2] Id.

[3] Id.




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