Day At The Track

Horses in the heart of Halifax

10:48 AM 01 Dec 2020 NZDT
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Halifax Junior Bengal Lancers historic stable in Halifax, NS, temporarily closed due to the pandemic, Harness racing
Halifax Junior Bengal Lancers historic stable in Halifax, NS, temporarily closed due to the pandemic
Melissa Keith photo

One of Canadian horse racing's original cities has been without a racetrack since the 1980s, when Sackville Downs shut down on the outskirts of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Yet horses have always been at the heart of the largest city on Canada’s east coast, from the military-sponsored races first held on the Halifax Commons in 1768, to today. The Halifax Riding Club revived racing in 1881 after a temporary slump, and harness racing gradually replaced the runners as the preferred style of local racing, beginning in that era. Although the downtown Halifax racetracks for both breeds have been gone for considerably longer than Sackville Downs, the city's interest in horses has never died. 

Angela Holt is Executive Director/Head Coach of the Halifax Junior Bengal Lancers, Canada’s only urban non-profit riding school. She says it’s a relatively-small leap between youth participation in harness racing and equine disciplines as diverse as the Bengal Lancers’ riding lessons, therapeutic riding, and musical ride. “I don’t think it's too much of a stretch, as far as the overlap goes, because everything we do here is about developing well-rounded horsepeople who are good citizens,” she explains. “The kids do go on, after leaving here, to work at racetracks, or be show grooms, or whatever they can get their hands on in the equestrian world. I don’t think it’s far-fetched, at all.”

Holt says that while areas near Halifax currently offer many opportunities for youth to enjoy time with horses, they are scarcer in the busy downtown. “We’ve experienced kind of an explosion of interest in the last few years, here,” she adds. “Everybody wants to get their hands on a horse! I imagine that’s happening elsewhere, as well.” She sees social media as possibly driving the trend, because “horsepeople kind of have this opportunity to share that special kind of horse experience” with those for whom it is unfamiliar. “A lot of people share on these platforms a lot of the passion that goes behind it, you know, and I think anybody can relate to passion, even if they can’t relate to some other aspects of it.”

The Lancers’ stable closed to the public November 25, when the province announced new COVID-19 restrictions. These public health protocols “had an impact in two ways,” says Holt. “One, in the number of stables that have had to change the way they operate, which has made things more limiting in many ways. On the other hand, with people losing the ability to travel, it seems to have created more of an interest for people who might have felt like they just didn't have time in their life to commit to a horse. Now, all of a sudden, they can make that commitment because they’re around all the time.” 

Her brother's stable in Quebec saw an increase in the number of people looking to purchase horses, and Holt says she’s witnessed that trend in Nova Scotia, too. “Even here, I’m always keeping an eye out for useful school horses, and I’ve certainly noticed that people seem to be buying horses more than I’ve seen in the past, or putting word out there that they’re looking for a horse. I thought that was a very interesting and unexpected response to the pandemic.” The waiting list to ride at Bengal Lancers has increased dramatically during 2020. 

While Nova Scotian harness racing has been able to continue at rural Truro Raceway through November into December, the urban riding school has found its own downtown location weathering new challenges this year. Fundraising has gained importance: “Lesson barns, ourself included, rely on people paying to come ride the horses, so when you can’t provide that service, you lose a way to pay for your expenses.” Holt notes that public response has been strong in support of the facility and its horses. “We were able to get through our initial [COVID-19 protocol] closure through essentially asking our current membership if they were able to consider donating whatever they would normally spend on riding lessons toward helping to feed the horses, etcetera. So we got through it, and we’re hoping this second closure is short-lived, but we don’t really know, so it’s stressful for sure.”

The new COVID-19 restrictions unfortunately came during the last week of the facility’s “No Stirrups November Ride-a-Thon” fundraiser, which concludes today (November 30). Even so, supporters contributed over $31,000 towards the original goal of raising $25,000 to support the costs of care for the 27 horses who reside on site. Ongoing fundraising via the website supports operations and keeping riding lessons in the city centre affordable for all. 

Before the pandemic, the stable was able to preserve its riding ring from a proposed parkade that would have taken away valuable space. “We don’t actually own this land; the city owns the land and we lease it from them. Fortunately between the city and the province they were able to resolve that and find a different area for the parkade,” explains the Executive Director. “A number of years before that, at the original location, the barn extended further and was twice the size it is now. We've been around for 85 years now, and over the years, we’ve gradually had bits and pieces taken away from us. We’ve been working on a little more public education of who we are, so we do have support if anything like that were to happen again.” 

Olympic show jumping riders, equine veterinarians, and professional caretakers have all had early educations at the Halifax Junior Bengal Lancers. “Our first lesson with everybody doesn't even involve getting on a horse,” shares Holt. “It’s all about how to handle the horse and groom the horse, tack up, etcetera.” Their multi-breed stable doesn’t currently contain any Standardbreds, “but mostly what we're looking for is a kind horse who is adaptable to city life. Not all horses are going to work out here or be happy here,” she notes.

The skills learned from lessons with the Lancers are applicable to diverse careers with horses, which sometimes overlap in a distinctly Maritime style, observes Holt. Regional riders frequently also work with or own Standardbreds, come from racing families, or just enjoy harness races in a place where Thoroughbreds no longer take to the track. There’s no need for mutual exclusivity, adds Holt. “Even if somebody has an inclination for one [equestrian] discipline or another, I’ve known quite a few kids or young adults who really want to just experience another aspect of the sport, and spend the summer on the racetrack or something like that.” 


Melissa Keith

Chair, US Harness Writers Youth Membership Committee

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