Horse industry collapsing, Hamilton area experts say

Hamilton-area equine specialists say the provincial government's decision to end the Slots at Racetracks program has done immense damage to the horse industry in Ontario.

Ending the Slots at Racetracks program causes outrage among equine farmers, vets

Hamilton-area equine specialists say the provincial government's decision to end the Slots at Racetracks program has done immense damage to the horse industry in Ontario. (Todd Hobley/Canadian Press)

Changes to horse racing proposed by the provincial government are decimating the equine industry in the Hamilton area, horse farmers and veterinarians say.

Uncertainty has gripped Ontario's racing industry and in turn, its equine industry as a whole since the province cancelled its Slots at Racetracks program on March 31.

"It's ruining our industry," said Susan Fish, who runs Twinholm stables in Burlington with her husband, Roy.

"There is going to be a big influx of horses and because of their value, you wont even be able to give them away."

Money generated from the program was split between the horse industry, track owners and the province. The slots program generated $345 million for the horse industry each year.

A transition panel has recommended the province slash the number of race dates in half. The Ontario Harness Horse Association told CBC News that the report marks the death of the industry.

The program's cancellation has wide-reaching economic implications locally, said Dr. Ken Armstrong, a veterinarian at Halton Equine Veterinary Services. Armstrong deals with racehorses that compete at Flamboro Downs.

Many trainers have left the province, he said. Manufacturers of horse trailers will suffer. Even hay farmers and barn builders are feeling the pinch.

There have been reports of more horses being sent to slaughter than normal, as well.

"I realize that killing horses is sensationalism, but there's a human and economic impact that is far greater than that," he said.

"Every aspect of this business is going to be hit, and that means labour and individuals, and with individuals come families."

Fish says there is just no value in horses in the Hamilton area, anymore.

"I don't know what the government is thinking," she said. "This is ruining our industry right down to the bottom."

"People are panicking, and everybody's a little depressed."

Fish has owned her farm for 22 years, and has been riding horses for over 35 years. Three years ago, she decided she'd had enough and put her farm up for sale. She's been trying to sell it ever since.

"I just don't want to pay less than I did 22 years ago," she said. "You'd even get more money for a horse 10 years ago over what you would today. There's no value in anything anymore."

Saving the industry

Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin says restructuring Ontario's horse racing industry was necessary, or it couldn't survive.

He says the current plan as outlined by the Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel was developed with the health of the horse racing industry in mind.

Currently, more than 60 per cent of purse money awarded in Ontario horse races comes from the Slots at Racetracks Program — something McMeekin says just doesn't make sense.

"Often at races, you'd see four horses racing for three prizes and empty stands," he said. "We can't be giving out $40,000 in prizes with no one in the stands."

He says the equine industry is having trouble all over, not just in Ontario. According to McMeekin's office, horse sales are down 28 per cent across North America. They're down 34 per cent in Ontario.

Price of hay has doubled

One of the report's authors, John Snobelen, told CBC Hamilton that there is also a strain on the horse herd overall because of a hay shortage. The extremely dry summer Ontario suffered through took its toll on the hay supply.

"The price of hay in Ontario right now is about double what it normally would be," Snobelen said.

Snobelen has been working on equine health issues for over 30 years, and was the director of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

He says without McMeekin's intervention, Ontario's equine industry would end up in disastrous shape.

"Really, if the horse racing industry is going to be saved, it has to save itself," McMeekin said.

Shayna Belanger has been involved with the horse racing industry for almost 20 years. She says the government's decision to cut the Slots at Racetracks program has decimated the industry.

"There was no transition period," she said. "They cut us off at the knees."

Belanger has rescued horses from Flamboro Downs destined to be sold to slaughter. Her husband has been racing horses since the early 70s.

"Now, I have to start saving money in case I'm not working and my husband isn't racing, " she said.

Gloomy predictions notwithstanding, Belanger says she hasn't been overrun truing to find homes for horses "just yet."

"But I've heard talk that pretty soon, even the meat guys won't be able to take them because there'll be so many."

"We've never been in a situation like this before."


Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

With files from Samantha Craggs