Working horses in Ontario live in some of the best conditions and are protected by some of the most stringent animal welfare laws in the world, says a University of Guelph veterinary expert.
And removing a horse as a working animal also diminishes its importance in the history of human culture, said Dr. Luis Arroyo, of Guelph’s equine studies program.
Animal rights protesters have become almost as much of a Niagara-on-the-Lake fixture as ice cream shops and vineyard visiting cyclists over the past three years.
On any given weekend or holiday “carriage-free by 2023” banners can be seen adorning the intersection of Queen and King streets. With the rise of a pro-carriage protest movement, The Lake Report sought out an expert on equines to offer insight on the difficulties and strains that horses experience pulling carriages and working in other roles.
Arroyo has been a veterinarian with the Ontario Veterinary College for over 20 years, mainly taking care of working equines such as horses, donkeys and mules.
He also works with the Equitarian Initiative, a group of veterinarians and equine experts who travel around the world giving medical care to working horses and providing owners with the education and resources they need to ensure the best quality of life for the animals.
When it comes to the horse as a working animal, Arroyo stressed the special relationship they have had with humans for thousands of years is not something that can be overlooked.
“It’s a very precious animal. If you travel the world in any important city that you go to in Europe, North America or Asia there is somebody on a horse.”
At the heart of the relationship, Arroyo sees the horse as one of the prime shapers of human life across the world and throughout time.
“Horses have been crucial to human culture. The horse is a very special animal because there is a very close connection, humans get very attached and it is a very noble animal,” Arroyo said.
Horses are not like other animals and cannot be compared on the same level due to their heightened level of importance in human history, Arroyo said.
“They have names, they appear in our books, in our histories, in our poetry and in everything else we know.”
Arroyo said removing the horse from its integrated working relationship with people diminishes its history as one of mankind’s closest companions.
“Some people spend all day with their horse. These animals are their partners, their companions.”
“I have seen grown men, when I have to euthanize their horse because of a condition, bawling, crying like a baby on top of their horse because they love their animal.”
That emotional bond is not one-sided, Arroyo said.
“The animal responds to you, too. You see people who can whistle and their horse comes running over. Sometimes the horse may get a treat or whatever but some of them just like their owner.”
Arroyo grew up on a horse farm on the pacific coast of Costa Rica.
“I had a horse. We would go for a walk at the end of the day, every day and I hope he enjoyed it as much as I did.”
“It was really special to get on the horse and go for an hour ride and then come back and I’d bath him and feed him. I hope that was as good for his mental health as it was for me because that was wonderful. The connection can be extremely strong.”
Arroyo has treated working horses all over the world, recently working in the Philippines. He said he has never heard of horses suffering from injuries that are particular to the carriage industry.
“It’s not an overexertion for them. They are not really working super hard to pull a carriage. I’m not aware of any particular injuries that these horses would sustain doing that particular job,” he said.
The gear and the bit that go in a horse’s mouth have never been cause for health concerns, he said.
“You don’t see any lesions in there, or damage to the gums or bones or anything like that. They’re fairly loose.”
In an earlier interview, animal rights protester Run Smith repeated a frequent argument cited by protesters: that horses are prey animals and are therefore prone to fright when surrounded by cars.
“They don’t belong working every day in traffic, in busy busy vehicle traffic. I have so many pictures of horses literally nose to tailpipe with cars,” she told The Lake Report.
Arroyo said that argument ignores the horse’s intelligence and adaptability to new environments, pointing to police horses working in major cities all over the world as an example.
“Horses can get very used to conditions like that. They’re highly trained,“ he said.
He also said horses’ long history as animals of war demonstrate their resolve and adaptability.
If a horse was not mentally comfortable with the job they needed to do, the owner would not force them to do it, Arroyo said.
A horse’s quality of life is up to its owner. If they are overworked, underfed and suffer from exposure that lies on the shoulders of the owner, he said. Luckily, Ontario has some of the strictest animal cruelty laws anywhere, Arroyo said.
“To find a skinny horse in this country is very hard. The law here is very strict. People who mistreat an animal or don’t feed them – they will go to jail, I’ve seen it,“ he said.
“The Humane Society and Ontario law is not forgiving. Anybody who abuses an animal, whether it’s a dog or a horse or whatever, they will face consequences. I can attest to that.”
Carriage companies have said they rescue their horses from meat auctions, a claim that Smith took issue with.
“Once the horses aren’t profitable, for whatever reason, they get sold at these auctions. (Carriage companies then) go to these auctions, which is another way for them to pick up the horses for cheap,” she said.
“They call it rescue but we call it recycling.”
A true rescue would be purchasing the animal to live in retirement on a horse sanctuary, she said.
Smith expressed frustration that working horses are dumped by their owners once they can’t perform their job.
“Once the horses aren’t profitable, generally speaking, they sell them to the auction.”
But life doesn’t usually end so bleakly for horses in the province.
“I live in Ontario, a lot of the horses here actually get retired, and will only be euthanized if they are suffering chronic pain and their quality of life is impeded,” Arroyo said.
Retirement for a horse means living its days out on a farm, work-free.
Smith told The Lake Report that one of her main issues with the horse-drawn carriage business is its frivolous nature as an entertainment industry. She said she has less of an issue with Amish communities using horses as plough animals even though the work is much more difficult because “that’s their lifestyle.”
“(Carriage companies) are also somebody’s way of living,” Arroyo said.
“It’s their bread and butter. There is harmony and they treat these animals like family. There is no difference (between carriage horses) with the Amish or the Mennonite horses working on the farm.”
“Either way, it’s a way of life and we have to ensure there is good treatment for these animals.”
Though carriage companies say their horses can be enthusiastic about their jobs, Arroyo thinks the truth of the matter lies in self-reflection.
“They’re doing their job, just like you or me. I don’t know if you’d rather be at the beach or the office, but there is a job that needs to be done and the horses do the job,“ Arroyo said.
“People might not like this but these animals were domesticated for a purpose, like dogs were. Sometimes we have to encourage them, make them work. But I do think many horses do things with a willingness.”
Arroyo said horses are such an important part of cultures all over the world they will never cease being our companions.
“They’ve played an essential role from humanity’s darkest days, to our pleasure and joy, from the richest people to the poorest, they have been there,“ he said.
“These animals are amazing. In my opinion, horses are here to stay.”