Canada's working horses struggling to survive COVID-19

Canada’s equine industry is asking the federal government to help protect the health and welfare of thousands of “working horses” as their owners struggle to cope with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this week the federal government pledged $252 million in various funding and credit programs aimed at agriculture. The announcement was met with collective disappointment from agriculture and food leaders with many describing it as a first step, but far short of the support required.

Equestrian Canada has expressed its disappointment that no help was offered to the struggling working horse industries that are now challenged to feed and care for thousands of horses as pandemic containment measures have closed these businesses.

Kristy House, Equestrian Canada’s (EC) manager of welfare and industry, explains that working horses include everything from breeding animals to schooling and therapeutic riding horses that work at equine facilities across the country.

A recent EC national survey identified 46,500 horses and 8,500 equine facilities with less than a month of financial reserves and supplies as of April 6, 2020. Many of the facilities offering public-facing services such as riding have been shuttered by COVID-19 and have lost 60 to 100 percent of their revenue, says House.

Equestrian Canada has requested $11.5 to $13 million to provide COVID-19 pandemic relief and ensure the health and wellbeing of horses. House says a recent Wilton Consulting Group report provides a snapshot of the economic importance of working horses — it pegged the annual demand for hay, grain, and bedding alone at more than $1.3 billion.

In this interview with RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin, House notes that government support is not intended to compensate for business losses, but will help maintain the animals until business operations and horses get back to work. (Story continues after the interview.)

“In addition to the uncertainty of horse care, we’re facing sector classification and program eligibility challenges with the federal government,” House adds. “We feel strongly that an opportunity to help our working horses and equine businesses was missed by the current equestrian exclusion from the AgriRecovery fund.”

House says many owners are already wrestling with the decision to cull and euthanize animals. Without help, she says, many horses with specific skills that have required years to develop could be destroyed. Without these equine assets, many of these family-owned operations will not be able to return to business when provincial or regional governments deed it safe to do so.

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