CENTRE WELLINGTON – Horses still need to be fed, stalls mucked and barns maintained.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to non-essential business closures, the equine industry throughout Canada is feeling ripple effects.
And Wellington County has more equine farms than any other county in Ontario.
“It gets so lonely out there,” said Travis Hall Equestrian Centre owner and riding coach Cindy Johnson.
“You’re walking around and everything’s different. It’s just so surreal … it’s really depressing.”
She hasn’t had boarders or lesson riders out to the Centre Wellington facility since non-essential businesses were shut down in March.
Johnson said the farm lost 60 per cent of its income due to a cancellation of riding lessons, but still has some boarding revenue.
However, she said some facilities don’t have any income other than lessons.
“There’s instructors and schools out there, they don’t own their own place,” she explained.
“They’ll rent a place and then they’ll bring in a tractor trailer once a month with hay and then at the end of the month they get another tractor trailer, the guy just rotates the trailers for them.
“So that’s a monthly expense for them.”
Farms and horses need help because they’re slipping through the cracks with no income from regularly scheduled lessons.
“The cost of feeding these things is a lot more than people think and their daily maintenance,” Johnson explained.
When the province shut down all non-essential businesses, riding instructors still had to look after their horses.
“Everything else that closed they can shut the door and go away,” Johnson said. “We just have such added expense all the time.”
On April 24 Ontario Equestrian launched a fundraiser called “Helping the Schoolies.”
“Ontario’s riding lesson horses are at risk, as public riding stables have been classified as non-essential services due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Ontario Equestrian website states.
“Lesson horses, or ‘schoolies’ as they’re referred to, are used to teach people how to ride in a safe and progressive way.
“These incredible animals are the feeder system for our sport and the pillars to our industry. Without the revenue from lessons and camps, riding facilities are unable to provide the basic care for their beloved lesson horses.”
Ontario Equestrian is asking for donations in the form of supplies, services and/or fostering a lesson horse.
For more information or to register a riding facility to receive benefits visit ontarioequestrian.ca.
The relationship between barn owner and boarder could also become strained as boarders are asked to stay home and stop visiting their horse.
“A lot of the barns that board horses, initially they weren’t deemed essential,” said Wellington Federation of Agriculture president Janet Harrop.
That meant horse owners couldn’t go to the farm and help with the horses, putting a lot more work on the stable owners.
“Now that has changed, but we still have a lot of owners that are not going on-farm,” said Harrop.
“They’re self-isolating out of fear – and that’s what they’ve been told and that’s what they should do – but some of them have lost their income and now those (stable) owners are doing sometimes three, four, five times the amount of work because a lot of those (horse) owners would help look after those animals.
“So the equine industry is getting hit particularly rough.”
Johnson said her boarders have been understanding. She is caring for 50 horses, 20 of them she owns and uses for lessons. The remaining 30 are boarded and their owners can’t come out to the barn.
“We’re taking care of the boarders,” Johnson said. “So those horses are looking for their owners and they don’t understand what’s going on.”
But she hasn’t experienced any pushback from boarders who aren’t able to see their horses.
“Everybody knows. Everybody understands,” she said. “We get calls from them, ‘Is there anything we can do to help? Can I drop anything off?’”
“We’ve had porch drop offs and I send them pictures. You just keep sending them pictures and letting them know how their babies are and try to do the best you can.”
She also ensures the horses get their dose of carrots and apples. That’s not the case everywhere.
Equine Guelph director Gayle Ecker said boarders are struggling with not being able to see their horses.
“There are people who can afford to board,” Ecker said. “May still have their job or may not be able to afford it as easily as they could, but they can still pay it.
“But the problem is that now they’re not allowed to go see their horse and some places that’s absolutely fine, in other places not so good.”
She said that if boarders have concerns about their horses they have to try to work with the facility owners to deal with it from afar.
“So legally, what can they do is something that they have to find out because if they’re concerned about their horse can they go on the property?” Ecker asked.
“I can’t answer that; that has to be answered by somebody else.”
Ecker and Harrop also said it’s a reality that some horse owners won’t be able to pay their board.
“There’s still a horse there that you’re supposed to care for,” Ecker said.
Johnson has actually taken in horses that could not be cared for during the pandemic.
“I do have two horses that were brought in here because the people couldn’t afford them anymore,” she said. “We’re trying to help those that we can, but we can’t help anymore.
“I can’t bring any more horses in. I have to make sure I’m okay with the ones I have.”
She also has about three horses whose owners have lost their jobs and cannot afford to pay board. But Travis Hall is being lenient and working with those boarders.
“So as that happens … the belt’s going to get tighter again,” said Johnson.
She’s already found ways to decrease costs. She extended the time between ferrier visits, with horses’ hooves going from six to 10 weeks between trimmings.
“Their feet are getting a little longer but we’re making sure everyone is kept decent, they’re just a little bit longer,” she explained.
“If a horse needs to be done in six weeks, if we look at it and it’s causing any issues or problems we look after that right away but we’ve pulled all the shoes off the horses, nobody has shoes on. We can’t ride, so why have shoes on?”
The facility also has its own supply of hay, but this year it will be short and will need to purchase hay to get through to the first cut, usually sometime in June.
At the beginning of the pandemic Johnson held a buy-a-bale program for the barn and received 315 bales that will help get the horses through these tough times.
Exercise is another concern. With owners and lesson riders unable to attend the facility, barn owners don’t have the time to exercise every individual horse.
In fact, many have been advised not to ride.
“What if you’re riding and you come off, and you have to go to the hospital? You’re taking a spot that could be used for somebody else,” Johnson said.
However, all horses at Travis Hall are either turned out into their paddocks or have time in the arena to get their own exercise.
Ecker agreed turnout was enough.
“If you can get those horses outside they’ll keep themselves active as they need to,” she said. She also agreed riders should weigh the impact on the health system every time they get on a horse.
“One, there’s enough pressure on the health workers right now because there’s just so many needs of people, and two, you have to think about yourself,” Ecker said.
“If you end up going into the emergency wing, is that not increasing your risk of infectious disease? And the answer to that is yes.”
Not being able to ride, get to the barn where their horse is boarded or bring their coach in will also have an impact on riders who are training for the upcoming show season.
Many shows have already been cancelled, but it gets complicated when riders are trying to earn points for qualification in future shows.
“That all has impact on your ability to move up in the sports levels; it may have an impact on the breeding potential of your horses because you’re going to breed to winning horses and if you lose a season of winning on your horse that affects stud price and the broodmare, etcetera,” Ecker said.
She added the welfare of horses becomes a concern when boarding facilities need to cut back on staff because they either can’t come to the facility or the barn can’t afford to pay them.
However, for Johnston, her son and daughter came to stay with her on the farm and are helping her out with barn tasks.
They also have a few people coming onto the property to help care for the horses at various scheduled times throughout the day.
However, in order to do that, the entire barn is disinfected after each group leaves. This is why Ecker said it’s so difficult for boarders to get out to see their horses.
While visits could be staggered to maintain physical distancing, it would be impossible to fully disinfect the whole barn.
Coming out the other side of this pandemic, Johnson said she will wait to open until it is clear and safe.
“We’re not quite sure exactly how we’re going to do things yet, but as soon as we get the go ahead the first thing we’ll do is bring in riders and get our horses back in condition. “The welfare of the animal comes first.”
Johnson is looking forward to the time when her lesson riders can come back out to the barn.
“Just getting some of my kids back would just be utopia for me,” she said. “I’m very much missing my kids.”
– With files from Patrick Raftis