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Where are all the heavy horses?

The RMWF’s iconic heavy horse show is in serious decline

The iconic heavy horses of the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair have been disappearing in recent years.

Just 15 years ago the heavy horse show at the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair was so popular that there had to be a draw to determine who would be awarded one of the 16 coveted show slots.

Last year however, just eight teams participated in the show. This year there could be even fewer, disappointing fair attendees who expect the majestic animals to play a major role in the afternoon and evening main arena shows.

Historically, the RMWF heavy horse show has been a pinnacle show with exhibitors from near and far competing against each other for the coveted red ribbon. The only issue was stabling and ring space limiting participation to 16 six-horse hitches.

There are many reasons as to why entries have steadily declined since then. The decline of the equine ranching industry has meant fewer farm families are competing in draft horse shows. Brandon’s geographic remoteness relative to other shows in Canada have made it a bit of a “stand-alone” show requiring more commitment to attend. Entry fees and other costs from the Provincial Ex and Keystone Centre have steadily increased, among other issues.

Ron Kristjansson, general manager of the Provincial Exhibition, concedes it has, over time, taken a toll on participant numbers.

“The Royal Manitoba Winter Fair draft horse division entries are down for the 2019 fair,” he said. “Prior commitments, rising costs along with a long, harsh winter has taken its toll on the six-horse hitch entries.”

In 2018, there were still a total of eight hitches competing, with half of them locally owned and owner driven, and the other half attending from Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario, with professional teamsters and barn staff financed by external employers, as is the case with the two hitches attending this year.

The lower participant numbers doesn’t surprise Mark Bourns, president of the Manitoba Percheron Belgian Club. His family, from Cartwright, has been exhibiting at the RMWF for 20 years.

“The show has got way too expensive for some exhibitors to attend,” he said. “There should be enough sponsorship dollars to keep the costs down for the people showing but what we see is how much it costs us to keep the show running.”

Exhibitors say cold winter and rising costs are just part of the problem, however. They say cold weather hasn’t stopped competitors before and that there are always other shows to go to. Some of them say relations with the Provincial Exhibition board have soured over time, and many of the regular competitors have felt edged out of the decision-making process.

In the past, representatives from the local draft horse associations were invited to meetings of the draft horse committee, as it was once known. They had input and were consulted on prize money, pool (heat) splits and judging. They say that consultation came to an end a few years ago.

The exhibitors say they now feel as though their voices are not heard, and suggestions to help improve the show have fallen on deaf ears. In addition, rising fees and a prize list that has not followed suit at the same rate, coupled with the expense of showing a hitch in general have added to exhibitor concern, making them more reluctant to participate.

“For most of us local people, this is not a business but a passion for the draft horse breed,” Bourns says. “Your exhibitors are what make your show happen, no matter the discipline.”

As individual competitors have pulled out, it’s had a cumulative effect on participation and attendance.

“Every hitch has followers,” said Jim Lane of Lone Oak Percherons in Birtle, who has attended the RMWF almost every year since the late 1980s. “When those hitches don’t attend, they (Prov Ex) risk losing those people from the stands.”

The good news is that the Provincial Ex has a plan for attracting more heavy horse exhibitors in the future. “A large group of individuals involved with the show have been working hard and have meetings scheduled during the fair with many stakeholders to explore options for strengthening this vital component,” said Kristjansson.

Bourns agrees. “We feel that with a little bit of care, collaboration and change that this show could be great again!”

Kristjansson said heavy horses will continue to be an integral part of the RMWF.

“We are happy to have two exceptional hitches at the fair this year,” he said. “They have spent the winter showing in the southern U.S. and are excited for our show.”

What it costs

The costs of showing a six-horse team at the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair can really add up fast. Here’s how it quickly adds up:

  • Preparation costs – $10,000 to $15,000 (includes farrier, equine dental, equine chiropractor, vet costs including FluAvert and Coggins testing, show feed program, heated barn).
  • Most hitches have at least one or two spare horses which are not accounted for in above numbers.
  • Entry/stabling/environmental/additional fees for six horses: $1,000 to $1,500
  • Living expenses for the week of the RMWF.
  • (Not included are the fixed assets of harness, wagon, cart, equipment and the actual horses.)

Approximate costs:

  • Harness $15,000.
  • Wagon $10,000.
  • Carts $2,500.
  • Horse $8,000 to $12,000 per animal.
  • (Plus hours, days, weeks, and months of intensive labour and time.)

Prize money up for grabs:

  • $800 per class (two nights).
  • $1,000 championship purse.

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