Where Do We Go From Here…?
The Changing Face of Canada’s Horse Industry
By Margaret Evans
In 2010, the Canadian Horse Industry Profile Study was undertaken by Equestrian Canada (formerly Equine Canada). The mandate was to define the state of the industry at that time, and the issues that could direct its future.
When introducing children to the world of horses, parents should ensure that their child’s coach is certified and competent so riding experiences are safe and positive. Photo: Canstock/RTBilder
A summary of the information gathered in the summer of 2010 and presented in the Study is listed below:
- There were 963,500 horses in Canada owned by 226,500 households, resident on 145,000 properties.
- Approximately 855,000 people were active in the horse industry, comprised of 59 percent adults and 41 percent children.
- The horse industry contribution to Canada’s economy was pegged at more than $19.6 billion annually, supporting more than 154,000 jobs in Canada.
- The industry investment in horses, tack, equipment and improvements was estimated at $29 billion.
- Selling prices of horses was down significantly, attributed to increased imports from the US for processing and the economic recession.
- Annual foal production had decreased 50 percent between 2003 and 2010, while costs of horse-keeping increased more than 70 percent.
- The number of horse-owning households increased by 79,000 between 2003 and 2010. Expansion was attributed to increased participation from the baby-boomer generation.
- Horse owners were aging, with median age increasing to the 50 – 59 year-old range, and 24 percent of horse owners were 60 years of age or older.
- Entry level participation was down by approximately 50 percent. A key priority identified for long-term industry sustainability and growth was attracting new participation and revitalizing the customer base.
The results were aptly described by Akaash Maharaj, former CEO of EC: “Our report confirms the enormous – but too often underestimated – contribution made by Canadian equestrians to our country’s economy and quality of life.”
The Study was published in 2011 and the statistics took some by surprise, while others nodded in affirmation that the results matched their instincts. In the 2012 edition of this Guide we summarized and discussed the results of the 2010 Study.
Now, eight years on, where does the industry stand and to what extent have the concerns of the 2010 survey’s participants materialized? In many ways, the aftermath of the economic recession of 2008-2009 accelerated the changes in Canada’s horse industry. In the absence of an updated nation-wide study to identify and measure the ensuing changes and their effects, this magazine conducted a reader survey in late 2016, and also contacted a number of key members of the horse industry across Canada. Our research was intended to identify the top issues facing the equine industry today, and gather additional perspectives and detail relating to major issues and concerns.
The answers were understandably many and varied depending on each respondent’s specific focus and participation, but top-of-mind concerns included costs (from buying a horse to owning land, board, feed, vet, farrier, coaching, show fees, and travel), training, breeding, horse health, horse welfare, horse abuse, and concerns about fewer people getting involved in riding.
This article will share these results with our readers.
“Although hay costs are cyclical in Alberta there has been a noticeable trend upward in feed costs over the past five years,” says Les Oakes, President, Alberta Equestrian Federation. “This along with boarding fee increases, [and] increased vet and farrier costs, have made an already expensive sport become costlier for the average person to participate in. Fuel prices are up in Canada, therefore, it is more expensive to travel to shows and, although my comment is based on anecdotal evidence, I have noticed boarders making fewer trips out to the barns where their horse resides. Although the AEF’s membership numbers are up substantially over the past five years, I do believe that this is a result of the AEF focusing on membership growth, not a growth in the number of people who participate in equestrian events or recreational use of equines. The average age of participants in the equine world has continued to increase with over 17 percent of the AEF’s membership over the age of 56 years old in 2016.”
Perhaps, too, the approach to enjoying horses has changed.
As horse owners age, we are losing the most experienced horse people who are the real mentors of our industry. Photo: iStock/CGBaldauf
“It seems as time has passed that horses are now viewed as either a commodity or expense, and less of a partner in sport,” says Mark Halliwell with Richmond Stables, BC. “There will always be an aspect of buying and selling, breeding and trading, but now competitive horses are being loaned out on paid leases once their principle job is completed, and income is derived from this. In the past, horses that weren’t being used to their full potential just needed a job to do and if there was a rider willing to take that horse on, then everyone was happy. Now it seems horses are being used to their full potential well beyond their years, expected to make an income while doing so, and medicated and maintained to ensure they can. Once they have outlived their usefulness, they are sold as companion horses.”
In Nova Scotia, changes in the industry have also been seen at various levels.
“Lower level competitions are tending to move away from the EC Bronze level, rather finding affiliation with local or provincial organizations,” says Roz Moskovits, director of industry, Nova Scotia Equestrian Federation. “Others choose to operate as non-affiliated ‘stand alone’ competitions. The reasoning for this seems to be a justification of both cost and red tape. [There are] fewer riding schools offering structured lesson programs. Many new riders and horse owners are moving into the industry without the guidance of a professional coach or instructor. Education of these individuals is gained in a haphazard fashion from friends and social media.”
Moskovits says that, in fact, Nova Scotia has seen a large growth in horse ownership. They are still seeing the results of the decline in the PMU (Pregnant Mare Urine) industry with many displaced horses ending up in the Maritimes. While more people are able to purchase these bargain-basement priced horses, often poorly bred or inadequately trained or both, the growth in ownership is not paralleled by growth in knowledge or skills. On the plus side, she notes, the prices of quality horses have risen significantly. But it doesn’t help, she says, that interests and affiliations in the industry are seemingly more fleeting. This creates uncertainty for groups and organizations when planning events, competitions, or business investments.
While PMU horses are being traded on the east coast, it is interesting that the PMU industry is having somewhat of a revival on the prairies.
“PMU is increasing after an all-time low,” says Carolyn Lintott with the Manitoba Horse Council. “Apparently the synthetic hormone has more side effects than natural replacement. [But] it is nowhere near as much as in the past. The number of strictly breeding facilities in Manitoba remains stable.”
In our readers’ survey, many responded with concerns over horse welfare, the lack of education or plain ignorance of owners leading to poor outcomes for horses. One candidly commented there are too many keyboard commandos and Facebook vets, while another sited too little education of the horse and rider using wrong training techniques.
“The Internet is a problem,” says Dan Wilson, owner of Woodmont Canadians in Ladysmith, BC. “While Facebook can sometimes be helpful, it often has negative information that can be misleading, not factual.”
At every level of horse care and performance, education is central.
“I think the industry, as a whole, must look at trying to involve the youth even more than it has in the past,” says Lianne Knechtel, conference coordinator, Horse Industry Association of Alberta. “The different groups, e.g., 4-H, engage in trying to educate young people about the horse industry. However, 80 percent of the people now live in urban dwellings. That means the exposure to the equine industry can be quite limiting. Kids grow up with no knowledge of what a horse can do for them, recreationally or otherwise. So, to me, education is the number one thing that must be addressed when looking at the future of the horse industry.”
Of high concern to many of our survey respondents was horse welfare, or more pointedly, the lack of it.
Today, fewer children are riding and horses must compete with many other less expensive activities. Yet when people are exposed to horses at a young age, they are more likely to stay involved. Photo: Shutterstock/Brad Sauter
“[For issues] I would say firstly the welfare of horses, and if it isn’t it should be,” says horse owner April D. Ray in Sidney BC. “Unfortunately, when things get tough horses seem to suffer. You don’t have to look any farther than the many auctions all across Canada to know there is a huge problem. When a horse is no longer useful or the owner is no longer able to care for them, often their fate is the meat truck. A lot of people want to stop slaughter but I think the solution needs to be less of Band-Aid and more of a systemic approach. If we didn’t have an overabundance of horses in the first place they wouldn’t be clogging up the market and meeting an untimely and often inhumane end.”
That position is echoed by Kevan Garecki, manager, Circle F Horse Rescue Society in Abbotsford, BC.
“The breeding issue has become excessive to the point of insanity, which will of course cause slaughter to increase as steadily as it has over the previous five years,” says Garecki. “I see no evidence of a downturn in this trend. The more responsible breeders are continuing to exercise their own trademark morals, and enjoying increasing popularity for doing so, as this behaviour is favourably in the spotlight at present. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the equine versions of puppy mills are producing higher lots, evidently in the hopes of playing the numbers bet; a proverbial shotgun approach as it were.”
The breeding issue was a major concern among readers. One commented that breeders are very fractured with many out-of-country breed registries now doing business in Canada. There was support to build a stronger breed/industry relationship with more support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Some also recommended better marketing to the equestrian community. As one breeder says, “We are the best buy and not enough know it.”
But the perception of breeding differs in different parts of the country.
“I think backyard breeding is way down,” says Mark Nelson, president, Ontario Equestrian Federation and owner of Oakhurst Farm in Ashton. “So, I think the number of animals we are going to see over the next few years will decrease in that middle range. There is always going to be the high-end bred horses. They continue to breed while the backyard ones are not.”
On the prairies, the trend toward breeding has diminished according to Knechtel.
“It does not matter what breed, what they are being used for, or who owns them, the trend has still continued to grow smaller,” she says. “The cost of breeding, as well as the timeframe to maybe get a small return on investment, is so long. It deters a horse owner from investing. I do believe, however, people look for quality over quantity, if they make the decision to breed an animal. The horse industry needs a sound breeding program in order to ensure the horse population continues to grow and prosper.”
Lack of access to coaching and training and a lack of knowledgeable trainers with a credible background were also concerns among respondents. Halliwell says that, indeed, the industry in many areas is saturated with self-proclaimed trainers. In the past, horse shows clearly set apart those who can and those who cannot. Now, he says, everyone gets a ribbon. The talent, skill and experience needed to get a horse or rider to place has been watered down.
“While there are various certification programs in place to certify and verify coaches, any person can teach riding lessons and run a barn with or without the necessary experience and qualifications,” says Ray. “I see a lot of backyard barns and teachers who of course have their place, but hopefully not at the expense of the horses and their clients. I’m not sure if it’s possible to enforce some sort of required certification process to operate a barn, but when you think about other industries you would never send your child to have swim lessons with an uncertified coach.”
Ray rightly points out that in equestrian sport a major part of the equation is the horse itself, an animal with a mind of its own. The need for safety is huge and it is the driver behind the commitment to developing quality riders who adhere to standards that should be encouraged industry-wide.
“My own work with new professionals/coaches in the industry, predominantly young people (20-plus), has illustrated to me an upcoming challenge,” says Moskovits. “This is the quick-fix generation used to results and answers being immediately available. Slow results are sometimes interpreted as failure. Work with horses requires time and patience. Success in business, especially the horse industry, takes time. While this seems to be an individual challenge I see it as an industry challenge as good horses and good trainers/coaches are not reaching their potential. We need to address this issue and encourage all horse people to embrace the process rather than just the results. I would like to see a stronger spirit of internship and mentorship with experienced professionals educating the new professionals.”
The issue of expert coaching has even greater concern when applied to working with children with disabilities.
“As far as therapeutic riding is concerned, there are people offering the service with insufficient qualifications,” says Daphne Davey, past president of the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA). “That is dangerous. There are safety standards. Our instructors are certified and our centres are accredited to ensure consistency and quality of instruction and operation across the country. Appropriate qualifications are especially important in the related field of Equine-Facilitated Wellness where clients are survivors of trauma (such as PTSD or abuse). Bringing them together with horses for emotional and mental healing requires a high degree of expertise. There are important things that have to be learned when serving people with disabilities.”
Many respondents and those interviewed for this article commented that the demographics of the industry continue to get older with fewer new young people and fewer people as a whole entering the industry. And that fact is also reflected in the leasing sector.
Many in the industry are concerned about irresponsible breeding and lack of education, leading to welfare issues and more horses going for slaughter. Photo: Canstock/LincolnRogers
“My numbers are anecdotal but as I travel around the province and talk to trainers, owners of boarding facilities, I see less and less people who are leasing horses and especially horses that are leased by multiple people,” says Oakes. “I believe if this trend continues we will see those owners of previously leased horses sell their horses because the lease market is not as strong as it was in the past.”
Kelly Coglin, senior program director and manager of agriculture and industry with Horse Council BC, says that there has been a steady disengagement of people from the horse lifestyle.
“The industry is very insular and it is hard for entrants to break in and find where and how they can make horses part of their lives,” she says. “The lack of a strong, knowledgeable, cohesive voice at the national level has hurt our industry and weakens its ability to respond to activist pressure and inaccurate public perception.”
As for breeding, Coglin has seen a few who took a break from breeding over the past few years return to breeding their mares last year and will do so again this year. But she is concerned that, overall, people are not educated in proper broodmare and stallion selection. The information and the art of nicking [compatibility of stallions from one male line with mares from other sire lines] is being lost due to the demographic getting older and no one is interested in truly learning.
“So, I would say in general the commitment to producing quality performance horses that have good temperaments and physical ability is not here. People may think that is what they are doing but they are not educated or experienced enough to make that judgment.”
The racing community has issues that, while specific to their sector, reflect some of the worries of those in the broader equestrian community. Racing is very labour-intensive requiring experienced, skilled workers willing to work the demanding hours.
“Most of our good young grooms have either moved to provinces where there is more racing such that they can ply their skills all year long, or have left the industry entirely to take other jobs,” says Heather Davies, Standardbred owner, breeder and trainer in the Lower Mainland, BC. “This makes it very difficult for owners to have their horses looked after with the best possible of care. Too much of the time, trainers are forced to job out parts of their stable. Someone just does stalls, someone only looks after horses during the actual race, someone only jogs (exercises) horses. All of this makes it more difficult to ensure that the horse is getting the best daily care and maintenance, which results in more health and injury issues and higher costs to owners. At the other end of the spectrum, the older grooms now in their 60s and beyond have health issues that often need benevolent intervention. And when they pass on there is seldom a younger groom to take their place.”
Davies says that, for harness racing in the BC Lower Mainland, the two critical changes in the last five years have been the cut in the number of race days per year and the reduction in the viewing area of the Fraser Downs grandstand in Surrey, BC by some 30 percent. Short term, this has resulted in an increase in slot revenue as the number of slot machines increased by close to 50 percent, generating more funds than horse racing. In addition, there has been tremendous pressure put on land use in the Lower Mainland.
“As little as 10 years ago, there were close to a dozen training centres within driving distance of the racetrack, some able to house 50 plus horses,” says Davies. “Now we are down to three or four small places. It is even worse for broodmare farms - too many young horses are foaled and raised on too little land which again leads to health and lameness problems.”
She says that Standardbred racing used to have many owner/trainer drivers and, while there are still significant numbers, many have to supplement their incomes with outside work. More and more, the industry is becoming polarized with a few big stables controlling two and even three horses in the top classes. Racing cannot survive without enough owners to make the races competitive.
Similar concerns are felt in the Thoroughbred racing community. Cathy Reggelsen is a long-time breeder who sees all the challenges revolving around costs. Many racehorse owners cannot afford the day rates to keep a horse in training.
The expense of attending horse shows and competitions is taking its toll on participation. The core group of volunteers organizing horse shows and clinics is aging, with few younger people to replace them. Photo: Canstock/Labrador
“The issue that concerns me the most is the lack of new ownership, plain and simple,” says Reggelsen. “If we don’t have new owners, whether it is for pleasure, showing or racing, then we have no need for breeders.”
Reggelsen is hopeful that there will be more education on the merits of breeding a saleable, quality horse that can be sold within BC.
“I think there will be a lot more leased/partnership [arrangements] so that it is affordable to enjoy a horse. Until our market stabilizes, I believe and hope that breeders think long and hard about if they can sell their babies and we stop the need for rescues and unwanted horses.”
Davies says that, in North America, there is a real shortage of profitable race horses. But because costs are so high and breeders expect a good return on their investment, the breeding industry is polarized.
“Top broodmares, top stallions, command high prices, if they are even for sale, and the more ordinary mares and stallions tend not to get support from buyers,” says Davies. “Smaller breeders are being pushed out of the market, which means smaller trainers have no young stock to work with.”
The changing face of breeding has issues reflected by many breeders across the country.
“From a breeding perspective, [there are] more imported and frozen semen breedings with fewer owners keeping stallions,” says Marilyn Powell, owner of Mirrabook-Rafter 5 Warmbloods in Knutsford, BC. “This is partly because of the cost of purchase of a quality stallion, but also the ‘flavour of the month’ aspect of breeding meaning that domestic stallions often don’t see the number of mares to justify their importation or development. A general lack of respect for domestically bred stallions contributes. The large breeders are starting to downsize, breeding fewer mares each year, with few younger breeders filling the void.”
Powell says the older generation that could not afford a horse when they were younger now find that they have some discretionary income for horse ownership. The downside is that they need or want a ‘schoolmaster’ that is either very expensive or needs maintenance. Then there are fewer buyers willing to take on a young green horse.
Riders in Yukon are experiencing similar issues to those elsewhere in Canada, particularly with demographics. One reader commented that the only people putting in significant volunteer hours for shows and clinics are over 50 years old with no one coming up behind them. Fewer children are riding and their lessons must compete with soccer, dance, baseball, basketball, and many popular sports. And, the reader commented, it is no help when we seem to be living in a time of instant gratification. People seem to think that a horse can be trained by a professional in three days. When the horse can’t handle it, the horse pays.
“There has been a decrease in participation in horse activities especially in competitions,” says Les Burwash, retired horse specialist formerly with Alberta Agriculture. “There are exceptions of course, but in general a decline. I am hearing though that this may be starting to turn around. Overall, the [number of] people involved is decreasing. There are fewer people seeing the horse industry beyond their own special interests, so how do we try to appeal to new people coming in?”
The issue of aging demographics is also seen at the retail level where tack suppliers are acutely aware of who is active in the industry and what they can afford to do.
“I think a portion of the population is aging and not being replaced by the same amount of younger riders,” says Ann Bater with Victoria Saddlery in Saanichton, BC. What issue does she feel is of most concern to horse people? “I would say cost overall, to be able to participate in the sport. People are attending less horse shows, at least in the dressage world. Cost is going to take its toll on the amount of people able to participate. Land is getting expensive and horse boarding is too.”
Sabine Schleese with Schleese Saddlery Service in Holland Landing, Ontario, sees a number of changes happening, including the fact there are fewer suppliers of leather and that alternatives such as vegan leather (sourced from acrylic, vinyl, or nylon fibres) need to be found. The big issue of course is quality and the right fit.
The topic of breeding is a major industry issue, and opinions about breeding vary across the country. Photo: Shutterstock/Callipso
“There are more and more retailers and manufacturers ostensibly offering the same thing but perhaps without real consideration being given to quality,” says Schleese. “Marketing tactics need to be aimed at selling saddles to the younger audience by demonstrating how the right saddle early on can make a huge difference in a rider’s level of satisfaction and success, and creating products that appeal to younger audiences (ages 16 to 24).” She adds that products should be created for seniors, too. “Is there a saddle design that can help seniors be more comfortable as they age and still allow them the pleasure of riding?”
Schleese says that there still remains a strong gender bias in the riding demographics with females representing 74 percent of the riding population. But, she cautions, as the population ages traditional riding markets may decline as people downsize their lifestyles for retirement. Among the truisms of advertising, she says, is that younger audiences see themselves as more mature and older audiences see themselves as younger.
“One of the most noticeable changes is the effort our aging customers are putting into finding the reliable, safe equine partners,” says Howard Jackson, owner of BC Appaloosa Centre in Prince George. “Since the demise of the equine processor industry in the USA there has not been a viable market for unusable and unwanted horses in Canada, which has resulted in a lot of horse spaces being taken up by unusable costly-to-keep animals that folks are getting no enjoyment from. With the ever-increasing costs of everything, horse ownership could become the privilege of the rich and out of the reach of ordinary folks unless we do a better job of promoting and educating the real value of horse ownership. It seems a lot of the no-purpose breeders have gone by the wayside and hopefully the backyard breeders will not come back to life as the price of good purpose-bred, usable horses increases. It could be worth considering having to have a license to breed horses.”
Many in the industry worry about the growing urban mentality and the perception of horses and horse ownership. As Schleese sagely points out, “Unfortunately, most people don’t have a clue about horsemanship. We may have more horses, more horse owners, but fewer horse people.”
Going forward, how does the industry position itself to face its challenges and generate a sustainable future? Clearly there is a need to appeal to youth and the young rider. Oakes says that, with all the competition from other less expensive sports with less intensive time commitments, it is imperative that we change how we do things.
“At a younger level, we need to be more focused on fun rather than competitions,” says Oakes. “We need to find ways to appeal to the parents and grandparents of our youth and show them that there are less expensive ways of being involved with equines.”
He also believes the industry needs to be more professional with those providing services having credentials to back up their training. Associations need to raise the bar on having continuing education opportunities. A higher level of training and education will bring professionals together, a critical asset going forward.
“I believe the number one issue that needs to be addressed in the horse industry is the idea of combining a united front from ALL horse groups,” says Knechtel. “The idea that power in numbers needs to be addressed because right now each horse group is trying to be heard as an individual.”
Many would agree with the need for a national unity. Coglin feels that if we as an industry do not speak in a unified voice to government, horses will become more difficult for the average person to own. “We will lose the ability to do what we currently do with our horses, such as accessing public/crown lands, having regional and municipal governments supporting public riding facilities, owning horses on small lots, and the protections under various ministries of agriculture regulations and polices.”
The future must be a world of clear vision. Ray says she is hopeful for an industry that puts horses first and looks after their wellbeing before profit, before prestige, and before performance.
That need for unison is paramount in a world where many sports are struggling and competitively trying to bring in new members by appealing across the ethnic spectrum.
“One of the things our ministry in Ontario is starting to do is push minorities to try out sports,” says Nelson. “It’s something new for us. But I have found that there are so many kids that have no experience with any livestock, so a strong horse scares them. At the Royal Winter Fair, they put on all kinds of booths and all we are trying to do is get kids to see the horses and not be afraid of them. That’s a huge problem right now. If you don’t ride a horse before the age of 18, the odds of you doing it later in life are astronomically smaller. You need kids to try it and maybe they will come back to it, but if they don’t try they may never come.”
We extend a huge thank you to everyone who responded to our questions and contributed to this feature.
Main photo: iStock/Loshadenok