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JOURNALISM: Horses in London [Download .doc version]

London: City of Horses, by Jeffrey Reed


You’ve seen them many times, perhaps while enjoying a leisurely Sunday drive in and around the Forest City. They’re everywhere you look – tall and majestic, peaceful in nature, yet strong, and possessing beautiful features. You see them in the downtown core, and in London’s surrounding countryside.

While this discussion could very well involve London’s sprawling tree line which aptly gave the city its visual identity, it is actually all about the thousands of horses which call London home. Whether you’re jumping excitedly as world-class pacers and trotters circle the track at Western Fair Raceway, or out on the farm, riding an Appaloosa or Quarter Horse, fact is, London is the centre of the horse world in this part of Ontario.

Some of London’s most celebrated citizens have involved themselves deeply in the equine community. Martha Blackburn, the late publisher of The London Free Press, was a devotee and patron of dressage competition – in the equestrian world, the prime test of discipline and balance for horse and rider. In 1985, Blackburn founded Kilbyrne Farm, northeast of London near Thorndale. A gorgeous facility, Kilbyrne Farm has hosted the Canadian Dressage Championships. The London Dressage Association honours Blackburn’s contributions with the annual Martha Blackburn Memorial Pas De Deux Challenge.

Blackburn’s involvement is just part of London’s deep horse history. Long before four wheels became all the rage, four hoofs hustled Londoners to destinations such as the London Courthouse, completed in 1829. Captain John Harris rode a horse to and from his 1834-built Eldon House. In 1843, with much pomp and ceremony, London staged North America’s first Grand Military Steeplechase on the grounds now claimed by historic Labatt Park. And even in 1874, the year London Life was founded, a good number of London’s 20,000 population rode horses when not on foot.

Today, London and horses still go hand in hand. Harness racing at Western Fair is an institution, contributing deeply to the city’s coffers, and attracting riders and horses from around the world. There are numerous horse farms encircling the city, thanks to a populous rural community in southwestern Ontario. Many farms, like Fox Hollow Stables on Bradley Avenue in east London, and Janger Arabians at the outskirts of west London, add an equine flavour within city limits. Special groups, such as SARI Therapeutic Riding for children and adults with special needs, and D’Arcy Lane Institute’s equine massage therapy program (one-of-a-kind in North America), all contribute to this city’s horsey flavour.

During the 1990s, beginning in 1994, Labatt Park (arguably the world’s oldest venue used continuously for baseball, since 1866) played host to a world-class horse event: the Forest City Show Jumping Tournament. Paula and Rick Taylor founded the tournament, which attracted the world’s best show jumpers, including Canada’s Ian Millar (and his famous horse, Big Ben), Beth Underhill, and Beezie Patton from the U.S. Equestrian Team. Thousands of dollars in prize money, and thousands of spectators visited the forks of the Thames.

Despite its eventual demise, the Forest City tournament was a huge success for both the sport, and the city of London. While it attracted a targeted audience from abroad, it also gave London’s horsey set an opportunity to strut their stuff, as well as show their allegiance not only to their sport, but also their passion – their way of life.

The largest horse-related event to hit the Forest City since the show jumping tournament, the First Annual Can-Am All Breeds Equine Emporium, invades the Western Fair Grounds from March 13 to 16. The first show of its kind ever held in Canada, the Can-Am event has attracted interest from equine afficionados right across Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

"We’ve been overwhelmed with the response from organizations wishing to participate in the Emporium," said show organizer, Paul Maguire, from his Woodstock, Ont.-based Can-Am Marketing headquarters. Maguire called the show "a tremendous opportunity to bring together a large number of equine experts in one venue, to promote the horse industry in Canada."

The four-day Can-Am show will appeal to horse enthusiasts of all ages. More than 90 expert speakers, and 260 presentations covering a myriad of disciplines are on the show agenda. Panel discussions involving some of the world’s leading researchers, veterinarians and vaccine manufacturers will address topics ranging from West Nile Virus, to drug testing and nutrition.

Hall of Fame jockey Sandy Hawley, and training specialists GaWaNi Pony Boy, Clinton Anderson, and Chris Irwin are just a few of the high-profile participants. Numerous horse breeds will be showcased at the fair grounds. Maguire expects to draw up to 20,000 attendees, including exhibitors from as far away as England, Germany and Sweden.

Two special fundraisers will be held, with proceeds benefiting the Equine Research Centre in Guelph. On March 14, Horse Recognition Night will be featured at Western Fair Raceway during a live card of Standardbred racing. On March 15, a Celebrity Equine Sports Dinner will recognize equine greats from different fields.

Maguire is a long-time member of the local equine community, in particular, harness racing, and as publisher of the magazine, Track Times. He explained, "With an estimated 300,000 horses, and 50,000 farms presently in Ontario ... there is definitely a need for a high-quality show of this type. The demographics say, the London area is the fastest growing horse centre in Ontario, and the Western Fair, with its planned expansion, is a perfect fit."

In fact, the Western Fair Association is undertaking a $60-million expansion and renovation. Founded in 1867, and occupying space at its current digs since 1887, the fair grounds were long overdue for a facelift. The horticulture building opened in 1904, the grandstand in 1915, manufacturers’ building in 1923 and Confederation Building in 1927. In 1972, the Paddock Lounge opened for business. The IMAX Theatre arrived in 1996, and in 1999, Ontario Raceway Slots opened, changing the face of the Western Fair forever.

Gross revenue from the slots, and from horse racing, totals approximately $14 million annually. Concurrently, richer purses arrived at Western Fair, producing an over-population of horses, tight on-site stabling, and increased nightly cards. In early January, a night of racing at Western Fair drew over 400 horses for just 14 races with nine horses.

The multi-faceted Western Fair expansion will include: the replacement of the Special Events Building with a new, $7-million Expo Hall (completion spring 2006); replacement and relocation of Ontario Arena ($1.5 million), and Agriculture Pavilion ($3.5 million) to former McCormick property (completion spring 2004); complete Paddock Lounge makeover, $1.5 million (completion spring 2004); a $32-million slot expansion, more than doubling the number of one-armed bandits; the addition of a sales pavilion; and a $1 million addition of a track safety lane for horses and drivers.

"Our priority is to replace our existing facilities," explained Western Fair general manager, Gary McRae. "They are tired and worn." He called the Ontario Arena "a bit of an embarrassment. When we try to do horse shows, they barely have enough room to get turned around."

However, no more, with construction of new and improved facilities underway. That’s good news for groups like the Can-Am show; a North American Belgium Show and its 600 horses headed here in July 2004; Forest City Standardbred Sale, which runs an annual yearling sale; and Standardbred Canada, also running sales at Western Fair. With new and improved facilities, sales of thoroughbred and quarter horses are a real possibility, says Western Fair agriculture manager, Cheryl McLachlan.

"We are in one of the better geographical areas for horse sales," McLachlan explains. "If you chart London on a map, and plot all of the horse farms, etc., even in the U.S., you will find we are pretty much the centre of activity."

This is exactly the thinking behind a novel concept headed by London’s Sifton Properties Ltd. Already on the leading edge of housing development, with its RiverBend gated golf community in Byron, Sifton has acknowledged the urbanization of the horse industry.

A 40-hectare lifestyle community, just south of Parkhill, will merge 55 detached condos with a common equestrian area, including shared stables, paddock area, arena and riverside trails. The development – dubbed West Williams Equestrian Community – rests along the Ausable River. Individual lots will be sold beginning in spring 2004, and a variety of builders, including Sifton, will be available to construct homes which, combined with shared ownership of equine facilities, will cost a minimum $340,000.

This concept, catching on like wildfire all over the U.S., is a first for Ontario. Liz Nooyen, president of the Area 1 Quarter Horse Promotional Association (including London), says, "I think this area could really benefit from this type of community. The type of property in London and area which someone needs in order to keep a few horses on the property is very expensive. The rates for keeping a horse in the barn (at West Williams) would need to be compatible with other area barns. Also, a qualified riding instructor would be a big asset, as people with little experience would be attracted to (West Williams), and therefore could generate new interest in the horse industry."

Sifton VP Land, Jim Hebb, said a condo corporation will hire barn management and staff, and residents will enter into a boarding arrangement for their horses. Hebb said, during focus sessions with members of the local horse community, Sifton received "very positive feedback. There were a lot of comments such as, ‘Why hasn’t someone done something like this before? It’s about time.’"

It appears London’s time to be recognized as a leading horse community has arrived. Sometimes you have too look beyond the forest to see the trees – and in this case, the horses amongst us.


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