Lost among the discussion on what a downturn in Ontario’s harness industry will mean for people making a living in the industry is what the effect will be on the horses themselves.
Hundreds of mares, foals and yearlings are being sold off as owners and breeders search for any home that’s willing to take a horse.
Along with her husband, Anna Meyers runs Emerald Ridge, a 134-acre breeding farm near Rockwood.
She left a job in another industry about a decade ago, believing there to be long-term stability in horse breeding.
But with horse tracks losing a significant amount of revenue from slot machines, they’ve had no choice but to lay off some employees. And that has caused a ripple effect reverberating all the way down to the breeders.
“The way things currently stand, there’s still a lot of uncertainty. It’s got people scared to death,” Meyers tells CTV.
“When something happens, you basically need … a five-year window, and we were given a one-year window.”
Breeders like Meyers typically take care of horses for three years or more before a horse begins racing.
It can cost owners into the tens of thousands, and with uncertainty looming about what sort of racing opportunities there will be three years into the future, horse owners are hedging their bets by staying away from the breeding game.
Bookings at Emerald Ridge were down 30 per cent last year, and early signs point to 2013 being an even worse year.
Meyers says if things continue at this pace, the final blow against horse racing in Ontario might not be financial problems, but difficulties finding enough horses to race.
Some horses may even be pulled out of breeding programs and never find their way to the racetracks they were once destined for.
“Unfortunately, some of those may go on and end up at slaughter plants,” says Meyers.
“That really just breaks my heart, to think that we find ourselves in this kind of predicament.”
But at one of the province’s largest breeding facilities, Seelster Farms near Lucan, Ann Straatman says no matter what, horses won’t pay the ultimate price for poor conditions in the racing industry.
“It’s not something that we would ever consider, euthanasia or slaughter for our horses. Relocation is what we’re focusing on,” she says.
Seelster has been hit by the downturn too, and Straatman is in the process of selling horses off to new, safe homes.
She says she understands why owners may have to divest themselves of their equines, and doesn’t consider it abandonment.
“Everyone needs to make a choice sometimes between feeding their family and feeding their horse,” she says.