Horses have a lot going for them. They're beautiful, no doubt about it. They look great in a pasture. And they've done wonders for provincial coffers — betting (wagering) on horses in Ontario alone generates $1 billion a year and a further $1.5 billion is generated from slot machines at racetracks. A sizable amount of the total of $2.5 billion goes to government.
But are horses "agriculture?" To some farmers, horses aren't in the same category as food animals. If livestock on a working farm needs to be fed, but doesn't have a function other than recreation, its economic value is questioned. But the reality is that horses and the horse industry contribute greatly to agriculture, when owners purchase feed and other supplies, not to mention rural development, job creation and tourism.
It's good for agriculture if urban people see horses, and think farming. It's an instant, positive reminder that animals need farmland, regardless of whether they're livestock, pets or animal athletes such as racehorses. A lot of the same pressures facing the equine industry for space are shared by other types of livestock farmers.
And there are a dwindling number of places left adjacent to big cities where horses and people can strategically coexist. But in our area, the industry's found a gem, and now it's developing big plans for it.
Right now, a proposal is being shopped around to create a state-of-the-art equine centre on 600 acres of gorgeous, highly visible land on the east side of Guelph, next to Arkell. This crown land is owned by the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario, following a recent land transfer from the Ontario Realty Corporation. For decades, it's been a University of Guelph-run poultry and hog research station, home to important studies in animal welfare, production and management.
But like other rural-urban fringe areas, subdivisions are closing in and the days that this land can be used for swine and other intensive agricultural activities are limited. If the Arkell station is to remain committed to agriculture, there are few uses, and species, which pass muster.
Equine is ideal. Not only do horses have esthetic appeal to an urbanized society, but they're also considered "green" — that is, they're not intensively farmed and their manure is hauled off site and composted. This is an important point, because the Arkell site sits atop an important drinking-water aquifer for Guelph. Building another subdivision on top of it seems like an unwise move. A feasibility study would show whether a well-planned equine centre was the right fit. But intuitively, a horse facility seems like a better fit than housing for thousands of people.
There are a lot of questions a study would help answer, such as the facility's research potential. The equine industry is woefully lacking in research support. Despite the $2.5 billion it generates annually from wagering and slot machines, a comparatively paltry $225,000 of this is earmarked for the direct support of equine research in Ontario. Part of the problem is that horses fall somewhere in between various government ministry's responsibilities.
It's anticipated, though, that the proposed Ontario Equine Centre, which would support the teaching and research mission of the University of Guelph while simultaneously serving the needs of Ontario's equine sector, would help change that.
Here's why. The University of Guelph is already home to Equine Guelph, a centre dedicated to improving the health and well-being of horses. The Ontario Agricultural College and Ontario Veterinary College have faculty members with a wealth of knowledge about horses, particularly in respiratory, reproduction and lameness problems, some of horse's biggest problems. Bringing the university's intellectual resources, along with more research funding, to bear in a strategic, methodic and high-profile way on equine education and performance would benefit horses and the entire industry. After all, healthy horses make for a healthy industry, not to mention the health of government coffers. Industry leaders and the university are working hard to get everyone onside for this venture. The site's topography is perfect for a variety of equine activities, such as training tracks and world-class show facilities. There are also plans for a multi-breed sales arena, equine organizations office complex, education and research facilities and a veterinary clinic. Some in the industry are already making comparisons to the Kentucky Horse Park, home to 50 different breeds and a major tourist attraction in bluegrass country.
Imagine such a facility in Ontario's heartland becoming, in time, a world renowned equine centre. Ontario is already the fourth strongest "horse jurisdiction" in North America — behind Texas, California and Florida. Doesn't an all-encompassing equine centre just make sense?
Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.