Brandon’s heavy horse show faces extinction

Only two hitches were entered in this year’s event at the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair; a variety of factors are blamed

Only two hitches competed in the heavy horse show at Brandon’s Royal Manitoba Winter Fair this year, raising concerns about the future of the event.

The Mark Messenger Memorial Hitch from Wyoming, U.S., and Johnson Belgians of Unity, Sask., were the only two that took part in the March 25-30 event.

It marks a drastic decline in entries from the fair’s heavy horse shows of previous years when organizers sometimes had to draw from a large number of applicants for the limited spots available.

Many reasons have been cited for the decrease in entries.

More than 50 exhibitors and draft horse enthusiasts attended a meeting organized by the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba during the fair to discuss the future of the show.

“There is no doubt we (the Provincial Exhibition) are here to work with the heavy horse industry to solve this situation,” said fair co-chair Wayne Buhr.

“I am 100 percent confident that together we can work to come out with a better show for everyone.”

Scheduling, workload, lack of communication, management concerns, treatment of exhibitors and issues with security were all points raised by those at the meeting, but the recurring theme was money.

According to some long-time exhibitors, the payouts have changed little in the past 25 years but the expenses involved in showing have greatly risen.

“The show has got way too expensive for some exhibitors to attend,” said Mark Bourns, president of the Manitoba Percheron Belgian Club and spokesperson for the Bourns family of Cartwright, Man., who exhibited Percherons at the Brandon fair for more than 20 years.

“It costs us more to come here every year.”

Doug McGibbon of Carlaw Clydesdales from Cranbrook, B.C., said although he has never exhibited at the Brandon event, he has helped organize shows in other parts of the country and has shown a hitch across Canada and the United States. He said the money issue must be addressed.

“You have to support the locals. They are the backbone of the show. They need the money in order to keep coming. Many are taking their holidays to do this. The cost of everything has gone up and nothing is going down.”

Bourns said most local people involved in the event do it out of passion.

Brad Delgaty of Delgaty Clydesdales of Minnedosa, Man., agreed.

“Most of us are doing it (showing drafts) as a hobby. We don’t do it to get rich, but we need to cover some of our costs,” he said.

Gord Ruzicka of Viking, Alta., a long-time draft horse exhibitor across Canada and the U.S., said he has helped organize shows and has seen things from the perspective of showing his own horses as well as being employed by a hitch.

“I love coming here; it is a great venue, a great atmosphere, a great building,” he said.

“It’s just that you (the Provincial Exhibition) have got to make your entry and stabling fees cheaper and you’ve got to get money into everyone’s hands. You’ve got to pay the locals to keep them here, and that keeps the numbers up and attracts the bigger outside hitches.”

He said that if the Provincial Exhibition wants to keep the heavy horse show as part of the winter fair in Brandon, it needs to take immediate steps or risk losing it, as happened with the Canadian Western Agribition in Regina, which discontinued its heavy horse show in 2011.

There are other factors too, such as the downturn of the equine ranching industry, fewer hitches involved in showing, harsh weather, event timing, previous commitments and the rising costs of preparing a hitch.

Numerous costs are involved to prepare a hitch to show, and preparations must be made three to six months before the event:

  • $10,000 to $15,000 for farrier, equine dental, equine chiropractic, veterinarian and vaccination costs, feed programs, and heating costs for barn.
  • Entry, stabling, environmental and other fees for six horses works out to $1,000 to $1,500. Most hitches take an additional horse or two, which is not included in this accounting.
  • Fuel to get to the show, depending on distance.
  • Living expenses for the week of the fair (lodging and meals) will cost $1,000 to $2,500.
  • Participants must take vacation or other time off from work.
  • It also takes hours, weeks and months of additional labour and time.

Meanwhile, the prize money for a six-horse hitch class ranges from $600 to $1,000.

Slightly more than 15 years ago, heavy horse entries were so plentiful at the winter fair that a draw was made to determine who would be let in because stabling and ring space was limited to 16 six-horse hitches.

“The heavy horse show continues to be an integral part of our show,” said Ron Kristjansson, general manager of the Provincial Exhibition.

Many are wondering now if it is too late to save it.

“We want draft horses here, but we have to make it work for everyone,” said Brent Miller, president of the Provincial Exhibition.

McGibbon is optimistic.

“It’s going to take the right people with an open mind on both sides to sit down and come to an agreement. There is definitely a solution to be found.”

Bourns agreed that with a bit of care, collaboration and change, the show could be great again.

A committee is being struck to develop a plan.

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