Switching Coasts - Moving Across Canada with Horses
By Tania Millen
Horses and their people can be found almost everywhere in Canada from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the Atlantic Ocean in the east, and every region offers unique opportunities for riding, driving, and horse ownership. So, when adventurous equine enthusiasts move across Canada for work, lifestyle, or adventure, they will undoubtedly need to navigate a new horse fraternity. Planning a new life on distant shores can be a massive undertaking, but no amount of planning will answer every question, and sometimes just going for it — enthusiastically gambling that moving across the country will work out — pays off.
Sixty-year-old Elaine Abbott is a great example. She rode horses as a child in Scotland, then started riding again when she moved to Canada about 30 years ago, before a bad fall ended her riding dreams. However, in 2012 while living in Victoria, British Columbia, a work colleague told Abbott about holidaying on Prince Edward Island (PEI) and how inexpensive housing was. That innocuous chat got Abbott and her husband thinking about moving.
“We felt we were done with the west coast. I don’t know what it was, but we didn’t feel settled,” she says. “Here was this opportunity and we thought — what the heck, you’ve only got one life, let’s just go for it. I think you have to be adventurous. So, we sold our house [in Victoria] and hitched up the fifth wheel, then took our time going to the east coast.”
They were initially headed for Nova Scotia, but Abbott says PEI just felt like home, so that’s where they stopped and began building a new life for themselves.
When Elaine Abbott and her husband left Victoria, BC they were originally headed for Nova Scotia, but Prince Edward Island just felt like home, so that’s where they built a new life. Photo courtesy of Elaine Abbott
The move also provided an opportunity for Abbott to get back into horses. “It was always at the back of my mind to get a horse,” she says, and explains that with other life events the opportunity didn’t arise. However, at Christmastime about four years ago, a local stable that operates a farm animal rescue advertised that they would be teaching women’s riding lessons as a fundraiser. Abbott saw the poster and excitedly signed up. After the initial set of lessons, Abbot continued taking lessons for about five months before switching to another instructor for the following two years. At that point, she told her instructor that she was interested in buying her own horse. Fortuitously, her instructor was selling her family horse, Candy, and decided Abbott would be a great fit for her.
“I’ve had Candy for about a year now, and getting her was a dream come true,” says Abbott. “I still don’t believe I own a horse. It’s just a wonderful feeling. Once we were here [on PEI] everything just fell into place. I think it was meant to be.”
Elaine Abbott and her beloved Candy playing on the beach off PEI. Photo courtesy of Elaine Abbott
She says that she’s fortunate to have a supportive husband and the small, friendly horse community is welcoming, too. “There are lots of trails, plus beautiful beaches and heritage trails that are open to horses.” She notes that her $300 per month boarding fee includes the use of an indoor arena and is less expensive than many other places in Canada. There are lots of veterinarians on the island, and a local farrier. When asked what she’d tell other horse people who may be interested in moving east, Abbott doesn’t hesitate: “Definitely come to PEI.”
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Elaine Abbott and Candy living happily ever after on PEI. Photo courtesy of Elaine Abbott
It’s clear from Abbott’s experience that horses provide a common touchpoint for many Canadians — something that Hilary MacDonald has experienced, too. MacDonald is a 30-something equestrian who grew up in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia and now lives in Calgary, Alberta. She is a trained geologist but doesn’t own a horse, which simplified her move from Nova Scotia to Louisiana in 2015, for work. “I was hired as a hydrographer and we mapped the ocean floor. It was pretty neat,” she says. MacDonald was also fortunate to connect with a Louisiana-based jumper trainer, so when she wasn’t out on the ocean she was riding high-quality jumpers. Although it was tempting to stay in Louisiana when her work contract ended just to ride those horses, MacDonald says, “I was looking for something else, but the United States wasn’t where I wanted to settle, so I started considering other options.”
MacDonald moved to Alberta in 2016 and says, “I thought by moving to Alberta I would have a better chance of getting a position in the geology or geomatics fields. I also felt Calgary was a really good option as I knew folks there.” When she was unable to find a geology job, MacDonald used her equine experience to get work at Spruce Meadows. She has since moved on, but to date hasn’t worked in geology as originally planned. Instead, MacDonald has continued to work in the horse industry, and currently has a position at an equine sports organization.
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Hilary MacDonald finds the Alberta horse community to be quite different than that of Nova Scotia, but says no matter where you live, you’ll find an instant connection with horses. Photo: Shannon Kelly
When asked to compare the Alberta and Nova Scotia horse communities she’s familiar with, MacDonald says, “I find Alberta quite different from Nova Scotia.” She explains that, unlike Alberta, the calibre of competitions in Nova Scotia is not as high because the infrastructure and population aren’t there to support them. She says, “The Alberta horse industry is quite intense, which might be because Calgary is a big city and Spruce Meadows is close by, along with other large facilities.”
MacDonald has also found Alberta’s horse industry expensive, with boarding rates more than double those in Nova Scotia, which she says, “…was a bit of a shock to me.” Another shock was the price of horses in Alberta, which MacDonald says can be four times what riders pay in Nova Scotia. So, for horse people from the east coast who may be considering moving to Alberta, MacDonald advises that having a job that pays well is helpful. Alternatively, for Westerners who may be considering moving to Nova Scotia, MacDonald says, “If you’re looking to have a relaxing horse experience, pretty much anywhere in Nova Scotia is great.” But she notes that competitive riders thinking of moving to Nova Scotia should carefully consider where they want to live as some areas of the province simply don’t have many competitions. But she wisely notes that regardless of where you are in the world, you instantly have a connection with horses.
From both Abbott’s and MacDonald’s experiences, it’s apparent that moving from one side of Canada to the other can provide substantial personal and professional opportunities. But owning horses in some areas of the country costs more, and every horse community has its own unique flavour. So before pulling up stakes and moving across the country, it’s worth researching the horse activities that are prevalent in areas you’re considering, along with the costs of ongoing equine expenses and the availability of professionals to support your equine dreams. Fortunately, horse enthusiasts can be found scattered throughout the 7,000-plus kilometres of countryside between Canada’s east and west coasts, so regardless of where horse people end up, they will undoubtedly find others who share their language and love of horses.
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Main Photo: Hilary MacDonald grew up in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, and after working in Louisiana for a year, she moved to Calgary, Alberta, which she now calls home. Photo: Shannon Kelly