When Andrew Hill began taking therapeutic riding lessons at Windrush Stables in Milton three years ago, he was a timid child.
Like most children in a new situation, the seven-year-old Mississauga resident, who has cerebral palsy, was a little hesitant. A little quiet.
But as Lesley Ridout-Gauer, who owns the farm with her husband Bruce Gauer, points out, Andrew’s shyness didn’t last too long.
He warmed up to staff, made a connection with the horses and animals who live on the farm and has shown remarkable personal growth.
She said he now rides with confidence, laughing and interacting with trainers. He also sits tall and proud.
Provincial, regional and municipal elected representatives and members of the Halton Agricultural Advisory Committee were among those invited by Halton Region to see Andrew’s more confidence self first-hand as part of the 32nd annual Halton Farm Tour yesterday.
They watched as he went through a stretching exercise with trainers at the stables, which offers children and adults with a physical or developmental disability a chance to be successful in a unique setting.
It was one of several stops of the tour, which takes place annually to highlight Halton’s agricultural industry. Decision makers get the hands-on experience to better understand the agricultural sector and learn about their importance to the local communities and economy.
Ridout-Gauer explained to the crowd the nurturing and supportive environment of a farm and the impact it has on the students like Andrew.
Not only is it a physical work out, with many of the core muscles being used just to keep balance on the horse, but the developed relationships between students and their equine and trainers also promotes emotional and social growth, she said, adding that most of their students are on the autism spectrum.
She said it’s inspiring watching the progression of wheelchair-bound students who learn to stand and walk and other students who never used to speak, say their first words.
“It’s incredibly rewarding,” she told the Champion. “It just makes me feel this is the place I was meant to be in. This truly was my calling.”
The farm tour also highlighted issues surrounding the agricultural industry.
Halton Regional Chair Gary Carr said this year’s theme, ‘Horsepower in Halton’ is particularly relevant now with uncertainty surrounding the horse racing industry.
In March, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) announced all payments made to the horse racing industry through the Slots at the Racetracks program would come to an end on March 31, 2013 — a partnership in place since 1998 that saw 20 per cent of slots revenue split between the tracks and the horsemen’s purse pool.
The news sent the industry into a panic, with many people scaling back their operations because while the government has offered up $50 million for the over the next three years to help transition the industry, it’s only a fraction of what it was getting from the slots-machine revenues. In 2011, the tracks and horseman received $345-million.
A few months after canceling the deal, the government engaged three former cabinet ministers to work with the horse racing industry to develop a vision for its future and plan the transition to a more sustainable business model. An interim report by Elmer Buchanan, John Snobelen and John Wilkinson was released in August concluding that while reinstating the Slots at Racetracks Program would be a mistake. “Without slots revenue or a new revenue stream, the horse racing industry in Ontario will cease to exist.”
The full report is expected to be released at the end of this month, further detailing recommendations on how the government and the industry can work together to move forward.
The impact on the industry so far was discussed after participants toured the backstretch of Mohawk racetrack, which recently announced it was closing as of December 15 because of the uncertainty surrounding the industry.
Participants sat down to hear the presentation by Dr. Bob Wright on the economic impact of Ontario’s horse racing industry, followed by a panel discussion where many stories were shared about the economic importance of the thriving equine industry to Halton.
Wright, who had worked for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs for more than 20 years and worked to improve the economic impact of both the Ontario and Canadian horse racing industry in his time there, said when the government made the decision to shut down the slots revenue-sharing program, he believes it didn’t really understand the implications.
“If you look at the sales records in the last couple of weeks that little announcement by the OLG decreased the average price of the thoroughbred yearlings being sold by 50 per cent,” he said. “If you look at the total number of thoroughbred yearlings produced this year, which is about 1,300 yearlings, they’re down about $5,000 per horse, that’s $6.5 million the industry lost because of that announcement.”
Wright said if the horse racing industry doesn’t receive the support it needs from the government, its “world class” status will disappear.
He added a viable industry will be shut down and significant damage will be done to the agricultural industry.
“I feel like I’ve been living a nightmare that started in March and I keep hoping I’ll wake up and that I just dreamt this, but it seems to go on and on,” Anna DeMarchi-Meyers, president of the Standardbred Breeders of Ontario Association, said during panel discussions.
DeMarchi-Meyers, who breeds horses at Emerald Ridge Farm in Rockwood, said the announcement is affecting 60,000 people’s livelihood.
The uncertainty about what’s to happen with the horse racing industry, she said, is really wreaking havoc.
“Standardbred breeders and thoroughbred breeders are feeling the brunt of it and it started off with bookings being cancelled,” she said.
She said people have stopped breeding their horses, thoroughbred yearlings sales are significantly down because there’s no buyers’ confidence and in return farms are already having to start laying off people because they aren’t making money on the sales of the yearlings.
“It just saddens me,” she said, adding she believes it’s an unjust and unfair position the government has put the industry in.
Milton Equine Hospital co-founder Dr. Nathalie Cote and veterinarian Melissa McKee, who services the Mohawk backstretch, said everyone in the industry is extremely worried because for many people, this is their life’s work.
“If you were here earlier in the day and walked along the backstretch you would’ve met a lot of individuals who have worked with horses their whole lives,” said McKee. “They are skilled and excellent at their jobs. Can they transfer their jobs over to some other type of employment? I’m not so sure.”
She added that the future for yearlings is “incredibly bleak.” While some will find new homes others will be euthanized.
Earlier in the day, at the private broodmare farm and public stallion station Sam-Son Farm stop, manager David Whitford said he’s hoping level heads will prevail and the government will come up with “a plan that will fund a successful industry that creates a lot of jobs and a great part of the economy.
“Horse racing is not for the faint-hearted,” he said. “You don’t go into it thinking you’re going to make money. It’s really for the love of the game. There are not a lot of wealthy get-rich-quick schemes in horses.”