High on Horses

As Caledon prepares for the 2015 Pan Am Games, Headwaters Horse Country is saddling up for the ride of its life.

March 31, 2013 | | Leisure

Photo by Ellen Cameron.

Last October 18, about 150 horse lovers gathered at Hockley Valley Resort for the Headwaters region’s first Equine Forum. Local politicians sat down with landowners, and bureaucrats broke bread with business owners, but they all had one thing on their minds: horses.

The keynote speaker at the day-long affair was John Nicholson, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park, the publicly owned, 1,229-acre (497 ha) equestrian competition and theme park that is the centrepiece of a state that has become globally synonymous with all things equine.

His comments were heady stuff for the audience assembled to assess the opportunities for tourism and economic development as Headwaters emerges as a major equine destination in its own right.

The forum was hosted by the Headwaters Equestrian Leadership Group (HELG), a committee formed by The Hills of Headwaters Tourism Association to support, grow and advocate for the local horse industry. For HELG chair Ross Millar, the event marked a breakthrough. “The response,” he says, “was wonderful. We found a lot of common ground.”

Of course, there have always been horses in Caledon, Dufferin and Erin, and local municipalities have long seen potential in developing the equestrian sector. But “common ground” has been another matter.

The trouble, says Millar, is that the horse world is so segmented by loyalties to breeds and disciplines. What do dressage riders have in common with barrel racers? Belgian breeders with miniature horse farms? Hunt clubs with rodeos? “There are so many horse lovers here,” he says, “but they’re all doing their own thing.” Still, he notes that for those who provide direct support services – the veterinarians, blacksmiths, feed suppliers and the like – a horse is a horse.

Now, with the news that the 2015 Pan Am Games equestrian events will be held in Palgrave at the Caledon Equestrian Park (CEP), all those disparate interests are beginning to realize they have one important thing in common. And if they can all find a way to pull together, the region seems poised to become a major equestrian centre, not just for the duration of the Games – July 10-26, 2015 – but for decades to come.

Photo by Ellen Cameron.

Photo by Ellen Cameron.

It’s not only horse people who stand to gain, Millar says. Business interests and services, from fuel dealers to restaurateurs to contractors, have a stake too. They just need to see themselves as part of the picture.

HELG’s mandate is to provide that unifying force. And the Equine Forum brought together for the first time a cross section of property owners, business people and politicians. People such as Roy Bryan of Bryan’s Fuels sat on a panel with realtor and Royal Winter Fair president John Dunlap and horse lover/children’s author Shelley Peterson to discuss the impact of horses on the local economy.

This kind of enthusiasm plus a $119,000 Trillium grant has enabled HELG to hire Kelly Counsell as project co-ordinator. One of her first tasks will be to put together a full inventory of local equine industry participants – stables, services and events. “We are trying to get the industry united and collaborating instead of working in their own silos,” she says.

All this activity is now assembled under the new umbrella brand of “Headwaters Horse Country.” And it comes with a new website: headwatershorsecountry.com.

The immediate impact of the Pan Am Games is already evident at the Caledon Equestrian Park, where the dressage, Grand Prix and stadium jumping will be held. Operated for the past 30 years by the Equestrian Management Group (EMG), the park currently holds an average of 16 equestrian events annually – including eight international competitions, the Canadian Show Jumping Tournament in September, eight dressage shows, as well as Trillium and quarter horse events. With five international competition rings and involving 10,000 horses a year, it is one of the top competition venues in Canada.

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  • Nevertheless, EMG managing partner Craig Collins admits the 98-acre facility had been in its “twilight years” and sorely in need of an upgrade. Now, as a result of its selection as the Pan Am site, it’s getting just that.

    The existing Grand Prix ring will have new synthetic footing to bring it up to international (FEI) standards. The existing stabling will be relocated and improved, and 200 new permanent stalls added. It will also get new warmup rings and training areas, as well as infrastructure improvements such as grading and converting the well system to regional water. Additional audience seating and 140 temporary stalls will also be added for the duration of the Games.

    Photo by Ellen Cameron.

    But it’s not just the CEP that stands to benefit. It is anticipated the broader community will also see significant economic development both during and beyond the Games. A November 2011 report by the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance on the economic impact of the equine industry on Caledon predicts that over the 11 days of equestrian events at the Pan Am Games, 88,000 people will come to watch some 140 competitors from more than 40 countries. It’s anticipated they will drop almost $9 million in Caledon over that short period.

    The report noted the CEP currently injects about $11.5 million annually into the local economy. As a direct result of having the eyes of the world focused on Caledon and its first-class equestrian facilities during the Games, the annual economic contribution from the CEP is expected to double after the Games are over.

    With prospects like that in mind, in 2009 the Town partnered with EMG and Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA owns about a third of the property) to submit the bid to bring the Pan Am Games to Caledon. The parties also negotiated two back-to-back 20-year leases on the park land. Now that they have won their bid, Collins sees the arrangement as a win-win situation. “This is a great deal for the sport and the community,” he says.

    The federal government will pick up 56 per cent of the $11.7 million tab for the improvements to the CEP. The rest is split among Caledon, TRCA and EMG, with the Town’s portion totalling $1.7 million. The payoff, says Marc Seguin, senior capital asset manager for Caledon, is that the Town will have a real stake in the increased tourism, employment and economic activity that an international-level equestrian facility will bring to the community.

    Local businesses have been encouraged to register to provide goods and services for the event, and some contracts have already been awarded. For instance, Sierra Excavation of Caledon won the $1.275 million contract to design and install the new ring footing at the park.

    In another economic spin-off, Hampton Inn & Suites will build a five- to six-storey hotel with 93 rooms at the corner of Highway 50 and McEwan Drive to help accommodate the influx of visitors during the Games and beyond.

    And it is hoped that spillover effect will ripple through the rest of Headwaters. “From a tourism perspective,” says Michele Harris, executive director of Hills of Headwaters Tourism, “we are looking at a legacy of this well beyond the Games.” The association is working now with local art galleries, retailers, B&B operators and restaurants to help them take advantage of the expanded tourism opportunities. “The Pan Am Games is a short period of time, but we see it as a springboard into the future,” says Harris.

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  • The CEP notwithstanding, Caledon was not a shoe-in in the race to grab the Games. Cedar Run in Thornbury and Guelph’s Ontario Equine Centre, among others, were also considered. In his 2008 study of the horse industry in Ontario, Dr. Bob Wright, a lead veterinarian with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) reported that of the approximately 380,000 horses in Ontario, only about 22,000 are here in the Headwaters region – 6,496 in Caledon, 9,309 in Dufferin and 6,131 in Erin. Still, according to Wright’s report, Headwaters horses manage to pump some $40 million annually into the local economy.

    So what is it that makes Headwaters such an obvious candidate to become Ontario’s equine capital? One of the main reasons, says Ross Millar, is its central location – 72 per cent of Ontario’s horses are within a two-hour drive of Orangeville. And the region’s proximity to Toronto and the airport gives it the potential to draw unlimited weekend riders and equine tourists.

    Ross Millar with Frosty. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    Ross Millar with Frosty. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    Millar also cites the extensive network of trails in the area, horse-friendly sandy soil, beautiful scenery and hilly grazing lands. Proximity to the exceptional equine veterinary services at nearby University of Guelph is also a bonus. There is an existing critical mass of top-notch equestrian facilities and the hills are already home to many private breeding, boarding and training stables, two hunt clubs and three Pony Clubs. Along with all that, many of Canada’s top international riders live here, including Jim Elder, Jay Hayes, Torchy Millar (no relation to Ross) and eventer Peter Gray.

    Millar himself mounts the Ram Rodeo Weekend in Orangeville every summer, an extravaganza of bucking broncos and calf roping that draws as many as 5,000 people. “In the Orangeville catchment area,” he says, “there’s lots of interest in gaming events, including rodeo, barrel racing, pole bending and roping.”

    And this spring Millar migrated his annual Can Am All-Breeds Emporium from its original London venue to Orangeville. The Emporium (held March 28–31), which Millar describes as “like the auto show, only for horses,” is an educational weekend featuring talks and demonstrations by 35 clinicians and dozens of exhibits. The Can Am embraces many different equestrian disciplines with such events as farrier team trials, a horse anatomy workshop and a parade of different breeds. According to Millar, the weekend was completely sold out and hotels in Orangeville were booked up.

    “We moved it here because it is in the heart of Canada’s largest equestrian centre,” he says, “and we’re thrilled with the response.”

    The Can Am Emporium also provided HELG with its first opportunity to introduce the new regional brand – handing visitors buttons bearing the slogan “Welcome to Headwaters Horse Country.”

    But Millar isn’t the only one who has recently shifted a major event to the region. Two-time Olympic equestrian and Mono resident Jay Hayes moved his $75,000 Grand Prix jumping competition, now called the Orangeville Show Jumping Tournaments, from Ottawa last August to take advantage of what he describes as “the great facility” at the Orangeville Agricultural Society Event Centre in Mono, and to be part of what he says is already the “epicentre” of show jumping. Hayes hopes to draw some of the international field of Pan Am competitors to the tournament in 2015, and realizes if ever there was a time to attract sponsors and spectators, this is it.

    Also in Mono, Will O’ Wind Farm will host the cross-country portion of the Pan Am three-day event. It has previously hosted numerous cross-country and horse trial events, and like the CEP, the venue will be brought up to international (FEI) standards for the Games.

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  • Meanwhile, the Town of Erin has set up the Erin Equine Task Force, which, among other things, is looking into the benefits of a fully integrated trail system and a year-round equestrian centre for the Town.

    “The task force,” says co-chair Brian Gentles, “has completed a survey of the Town’s equine attributes, which it will use to build the sector in our own backyard.” Angelstone Farms is one of those attributes. The Erin-area farm has hosted hunter and pony shows since 2007 and held its first Grand Prix event in 2011.

    All in all, if you’re a horse lover, Headwaters is horse heaven. And, as no small bonus, Wright’s report points out, “The equine industry is environmentally friendly.” Rather than converting agricultural and ecologically sensitive land into quarries or other industrial uses, the equine sector has a happy marriage with the hills and valleys, forests and wide-open spaces of Headwaters. And because horses need room to roam, a horse-friendly environment is a hedge against urban sprawl.

    Photo by Ellen Cameron.

    Still, there are challenges. The region’s high real estate prices are an issue. John Dunlap, veteran realtor and son of Canadian equestrian team member Moffat Dunlap, would like to see smaller, more affordable land severances allowed for horse farms. He likes a model he’s seen in the U.S. where a large horse facility is shared by surrounding 10-acre horse farms.

    Then there’s the ongoing threat of urban sprawl. A 2009 study, “Rural Ontario’s ‘Hidden Sector’: The Economic Importance of the Horse Industry,” prepared by two University of Guelph researchers, found that loss of agricultural land to sprawl poses the greatest threat to the horse industry, greater even than rising overhead costs.

    Another blow to the equine sector was the decision last year to cancel the 15-year-old Slots at Racetracks program, a provincial revenue-sharing deal that pumped over $300 million annually into Ontario’s standardbred and thoroughbred racing industry, which is now feeling the pain with job losses, race track closures and the euthanization of as many as 13,000 horses.

    Photo by Ellen Cameron.

    “We all have one thing in common and that’s the good of the horses. If the horses are happy, we all will be.” Ross Millar. Photo by Ellen Cameron.

    An aging population is also affecting the equestrian industry. According to Vel Evans, a researcher with Newmarket-based Strategic Equine Inc., the median age of equestrians in Canada is between 50 and 59. In Ontario there are almost twice as many adults riding horses as there are children, and if the sport is to grow, more needs to be done to attract young people to it.

    In response, “a youth engagement program is a priority for this group,” says HELG’s Kelly Counsell, adding, “We definitely have plans to link the sport through school programs.” Millar’s Can Am Emporium is also doing its part: Friday, March 29 was proclaimed Youth Day at the event, complete with pony rides and Easter egg hunts for the kids. And at the CEP, Craig Collins is likewise taking steps to connect with young people. He envisions the park being used for young competitors as well as established ones. “You’ll see kids on the lead line right next to Ian Millar [one of Canada’s most accomplished show jumpers],” he says.

    With the impetus of the Pan Am Games and so much else going for it, Headwaters does seem poised to become Ontario’s horse central.

    “If we don’t capitalize on this opportunity now,” says Counsell, “we’ll have missed a once-in-a-lifetime chance to shine the spotlight on Headwaters’ equine sector.”

    Ross Millar is certain it will happen. “We all have one thing in common and that’s the good of the horses. If the horses are happy, we all will be.”

    – with staff files.

    Finding Inspiration in Kentucky

    Since the renowned Kentucky Horse Park opened nearly 25 years ago, the state-owned, 1,229-acre (497 ha) equine theme park in Lexington has become the self-described “epicenter of equestrian life, sports and business.” Over the years, the KHP has developed attractions, programs and activities that may provide a rich source of ideas for similar initiatives here in the hills. So John Nicholson, the park’s executive director, seemed like a natural choice to deliver the keynote address at last fall’s Equine Forum organized by the Headwaters Equine Leadership Group to develop the local region as an equestrian destination.

    The KHP is home to the headquarters of more than 35 equine-related organizations, including the United States Equestrian Federation, the country’s governing body for equestrian sports. In 2010, the park was the site of the World Equestrian Games, and every year, it hosts many large and small events, from the prestigious Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event to hunter and show jumping competitions, carriage classics and even a steeplechase. It also provides venues for training clinics and judging seminars.

    But the KHP is also a working horse farm that is open to the public, who can stroll the grounds, visit one of two equestrian museums, take a tour in a horse-drawn trolley, watch a parade of horse breeds, and enjoy many other horse-themed activities. A campground, as well as on-site restaurants and a combined gift and tack shop, enhance the park’s image as a tourist destination.

    These attractions help draw nearly a million visitors a year to the Lexington area, and those visitors have, in turn, helped the Bluegrass State weather the recent recession. For more information, see kyhorsepark.com.

    Racing Toward an Uncertain Future

    A major challenge bedevilling Ontario’s equestrian industry is the province’s controversial decision to cancel the Slots at Racetracks program, which pumped about $345 million a year into the racing industry’s coffers. Though $50 million in public money has been promised to help the industry end its reliance on slot revenues, even the government-appointed transition panel, which endorsed the cancellation, warned that the sum is inadequate. In the meantime, racetracks, breeders, horse owners, workers and others who rely on racing are struggling to cope with an uncertain future.

    Introduced in 1998, the revenue-sharing SAR program placed slot machines at Ontario racetracks. Through the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., the government collected 75 per cent of the profits, which amounted to more than $1 billion a year. Of the remaining 25 per cent, 10 per cent went to racetracks, another 10 per cent to racehorse owners through enhanced purses, and 5 per cent to the municipalities where the tracks are located.

    Amid warnings that up to 12 of Ontario’s 17 racetracks could close, triggering widespread job losses and the destruction of thousands of horses, the OLG has recently reached new agreements with many tracks, including Woodbine and Mohawk. These deals mean that slot machines will remain at the tracks for a time – but under lease agreements rather than a revenue-sharing partnership.

    The agreements have done little to reassure the industry, said Larry Drysdale, manager of Winbak Farm’s Caledon operation. Based in the United States, Winbak is the largest standardbred breeder in North America and took over the Highway 10 property left vacant when the storied Armstrong Bros. farm closed shop in 2004.

    Winbak originally set up in Ontario because it was the best place in North America for standardbred racing, said Drysdale. But Winbak’s future here is now anything but assured, he added, noting that the OLG’s two-year agreements with Woodbine and Mohawk have not changed the outlook. That’s because it takes three years from the time a mare is bred until a foal is ready to start racing.

    Dr. Bob Wright, a Belwood veterinarian and equine consultant who has studied the economics of horse racing, said the uncertainty is already affecting the industry. More than 40 per cent of standardbred mares were not bred in 2012, he said, and the value of yearling sales was down by more than $5,000 a horse. This, he added, translates into an immediate $20-million loss for the horse industry.

    These losses have created a domino effect that is being felt in many quarters. “The racing industry wants the best hay, the best saddlery, the best vets, which benefits the entire industry,” said Dianne Graham, executive director of the Ontario Equestrian Federation. “We’re going to lose the best vets to the U.S.,” she added. “[Racing] is a huge industry, it’s environmentally friendly and creates a lot of rural jobs.”

    More information on the economic impact of horse racing in Ontario is available on Dr. Bob Wright’s website at horsenewsandviews.com.

    The report by the Ontario government’s transition panel on the horse racing industry is available online at omafra.gov.on.ca.

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    “We all have one thing in common and that’s the good of the horses. If the horses are happy, we all will be.” Ross Millar. Photo by Ellen Cameron.

    About the Author More by Nicola Ross

    Freelance writer Nicola Ross lives in Alton and is the author of the bestselling 'Loops and Lattes' hiking guide series.

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