ERIN – For Gail Wood, operating a thoroughbred farm is all about doing a job that she loves.
Woodlands Farm on the 4th Line near Hillsburgh has raised some very successful horses, and Wood has been prominent in the industry, but she still takes great pleasure in the small details of farm life, like opening up the barns in the morning.
“I enjoy every part of it,” she said. “There’s a difference between working for a living and loving your work. I knew that if I could eke out a career in the horse business, I would be happier.”
She’s done more than just eke it out. After 22 years of managing Hindmarsh Farms for Harry and Lynne Hindmarsh, Wood started Woodlands Farm in 1996.
It is a full-service thoroughbred operation.
“Our staff is committed to giving the best care possible to horses in our care, allowing them to become the best that they can be,” she said.
Working at the Hindmarsh farm was a “tremendous education” that enabled her to go out on her own, she said, but that it can be a “brutal game” because of the financial risks and the uncertainties of raising and racing horses.
“You have to decide if you love it enough, so the downs don’t drag you down,” she said, noting one of her mares recently had a heart attack and died.
In 2003, she lost 22 horses in a tragic barn fire.
Her career has included being a director and chair of the sales advisory committee of the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society (Ontario Division).
She is a member of the Jockey Club of Canada, a past president of the Ontario Thoroughbred Farm Managers Association and was voted Farm Manager of the Year in 1990.
During a ceremony at the 2018 Erin Fall Fair, Wood was inducted to the Erin Fair Horse Heritage Hall of Fame for her leadership in the industry.
Presenter Alf Budweth, of Budson Farm and Feed, sponsor of the Equine Tent at the fair, said Wood “was not just raising horses, but raising people – a team of young people.”
She was also praised for her efforts to improve horse welfare and post-race horse activity within the industry.
In 2016, Gail sold a former race farm on the 5th Line of Erin to the LongRun Retirement Society.
Through fundraising and volunteer work, with assistance from the Ontario thoroughbred industry, LongRun evaluates retired racehorses, cares for them on the farm and works to place them in permanent, loving homes.
Woodlands promotes the benefits of the purse structure for Ontario-foaled horses, supported by the provincial government, which can be attractive to those looking to invest in breeding. Foals by Ontario sires, regardless of the country, province or state of foaling, are eligible for Ontario sire stakes races.
She said the government support recognizes the huge benefit that horse racing provides to the economy, trickling down to the purchase of feed, equipment and fuel, and wages for staff at farms and tracks.
Racing was once the only legal gambling outlet, she said, but now governments are “addicted” to the gambling revenue of slot machines.
By bringing slot machines into the tracks, the government “brought in an enemy,” she said. While traditional horse racing fans often put a lot of effort into their hobby, slot machine users are “gambling mindlessly.”
Other changes in the horse business over the years include the much higher cost of starting up a new breeding operation, making it almost impossible for younger people to get into the game.
Also, with the increased urbanization of southern Ontario, fewer young people spend time with large farm animals, resulting in fewer being interested in working on a farm.
Fortunately, the business has brought her some highs to enjoy.
With more than 40 years of experience in the industry, Woods can offer expert advice to her customers.
“It’s been a wonderful life – I’ve done exactly what I wanted to. The horses have been so good to me,” she said.
“I’m lucky to have been able to do the work I like.”