Has Ontario condemned thousands of out-of-work racehorses to slaughter?
What were assets a year ago are now liabilities.
Without the opportunity to make money on the racetrack, race horses that once wore impressive price tags are now just costing their owners money — money they will likely never make back.
The general manager of the Ontario Harness Horse Association said he is trying to stay optimistic, despite having little reason to.
“We're still hopeful under a new leader in the provincial government that they will realize the mistakes in their decision and the impact it is going to have,” Brian Tropea said.
“We still don't believe there has been a proper cost-benefit analysis done on the decision to end the Slots at Racetrack program.
“We're not giving up at this point, but there's not a lot of reason to be overly optimistic at this point either.”
Tropea said if figures were calculated, the investments made into the industry would have been returned to the government multiple times through jobs, taxes and other avenues by now.
Keeping the industry alive would mean continued jobs for thousands in the province, and hundreds in Greater Sudbury. It would also see thousands of horses avoiding untimely deaths.
There will be about 30,000 standardbreds out of work when the racing season ends in March.
“A lot of them will go to market — a sales yard — and the hope will be somebody will be at the sale and buy them and re-home them,” Tropea said.
“But the reality is many of them won't find homes, and will go to slaughter. Some people will euthanize their horses, but that's an expensive proposition.”
A report by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs said the province should be prepared for dealing with the influx of unwanted horses.
“If the industry closes, the panel has received expert advice that provision should be made for the humane dispatch and disposal of 7,500 to 13,000 horses in early 2013,” the report stated.
“Regrettably, initiatives to encourage euthanizing horses while supporting horse owners and other industry participants in emotional distress would be imperative.”
While an awful concept, it may be better than the alternative.
“The panel has been warned that owners may put off the humane dispatch of horses, particularly yearlings and weanlings, but leave the animals in distress from inadequate care and feeding or outright abandonment,” the report stated.
Anita TenBruggenchee, adoptions co-ordinator at the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society, said it's a busy time for the society, despite only dealing with a few dozen of the horses in such dire need.
While the organization doesn't support the idea of having horses put down, TenBruggenchee said it's a better option than letting horses suffer on their way to slaughter. Still, she thinks there is another alternative.
TenBruggenchee said “there needs to be something more” done to help the influx of under-wanted horses coming off the track.
Funding for retirement home facilities is one option she suggested — certainly a better option than funding humane euthanization. As long as the horses are happy, sound and safe to handle, they should be allowed to live, TenBruggenchee said.
“It's a crime to have to euthanize them,” she said.
Local standardbred owner and trainer Brittany Robertson said the idea of pooling money to euthanize horses was beyond ridiculous.
“Do they honestly think the public wants to fund a program to kill horses?” she said. “We should have never been put into a situation like this, where we are talking about killing thousands of horses.”
According to Tropea, it's not something anyone wants to do. It's an awful, painful necessity.
“It's the only other alternative,” he said. “If it comes down to the position where people have invested all their savings into buying race horses, racing equipment and racing facilities and there's no chance to get a return on those investment, the government decision has forced many of them into bankruptcies.
“As much as it pains people to do it, they're going to have to get rid of (their horses).”
We should have never been put into a situation like this, where we are talking about killing thousands of horses.
Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society adoptions co-ordinator
Robertson has already downsized her herd. She went from having 12 horses this summer to now owning four. Two of them are racing, one is recovering from an injury, and one has earned a forever home with her.
Making the decision to downsize is never easy, but Robertson understands the reality of it.
“That was my first lesson in harness racing — never get attached,” she said. “Throughout the years, my dad has had hundreds of horses, and I have had my fair share of favourites, but at the end they all go. We are here to run a business.”
However, the current state of the industry makes it more challenging for Robertson to put her horses up for sale, since she doesn't know where they are going.
“Some that leave will stay racing and some you won't ever see or hear of again, which hits the heart,” she said.
Bill desBarres, chair of the Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada executive committee, said there are currently four slaughter houses in Canada processing horses — two in Alberta and two in Quebec. Two more are expected to open in the United States in the near future.
DesBarres said each slaughterhouse is subject to follow handing guidelines to minimize stress on the animal. Industry guidelines must be followed, as well as those set out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Much like other livestock, horses are allowed to co-mingle with each other as they approach the “knock box,” where they are killed by either a penetrating captive bolt gun or gunshot.
According to desBarres, horses experience “no more stress there than in the corral.”
Once processed, horse meat is used for zoo food, pet food and even human consumption.
There is some argument over how stressful the process actually is, though.
The Canadian Horse Defence Coalition's Eastern Regional Director Shelly Grainger said shipping horses for long periods is enough to cause them stress, as is the climates inside trailers. Horses are often cramped together, with limited to no access to food and water.
Since the end of August, the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition has been tracking the number of horses going through the Ontario Livestock Exchange.
Reports state 196 standardbreds have been brought to auction. Of the nearly 700 horses of all breeds that went through the auction, 529 went to slaughter houses.
A nine-year old gelding who last raced Oct. 12 was sent to bought for slaughter Oct. 16. A 15-year-old mare, who earned $30,598 over her racing career, was bought the same day by the same slaughter house.
It's a harsh reality, but its one some horse owners will have to take. Had they been given more time to begin downsizing, the predicament might not be so troubling.
“The announcement was made in the heart of breeding season,” Tropea said.
“Now foals are going to be born, some of them are probably being born as we speak, and people have financial commitments to pay for those foals when they're born. They will have very little possibility of ever getting a return on that investment.
“The fact of the matter is we continued to do business as usual, up until the day they made the decision,” he said.
“That's probably the most disturbing thing — the fact that we were allowed to continue to invest in horses and equipment and operations with the assumption that the revenue sharing agreement was going to continue. There was no reason to think it was going to end.”
“(Government) had never indicated at any point — up until the day they gave the announcement — that is was anything but a successful program.”