A group of protesters gathered with posters in front of the Prince of Wales in Old Town in June to protest the horse-drawn carriages.
The gathering was arranged by a group called At War For Animals Niagara and supported by members of Niagara Action For Animals.
Both groups wish to see the end of animals being used for profit.
“We’re here opposed to the property status of these animals,” said Adam Stirr, co-founder of AWFAN.
He said the group believes animals should be “free to live in a sanctuary setting or at least in a way where they’re not forced to work for their human masters.”
Stirr said the group hasn’t named any particular company which it is protesting, and is not opposed to any individual business or person, but to “the act of exploiting sentient beings for financial gain.”
“These horses have been claimed to have been rescued, but I would debate that heavily because of the fact that they’re used — we’ve been out here for seven months, we’ve been out here through snow storms, ice storms, -30 C weather, the hot pavement last weekend — all different temperatures they’re out here.”
“We have no problem with people rescuing animals, but when you rescue an animal from use, you don’t put them back into use again. If you have a pet like a cat or dog, you don’t expect them to work for you on a rescue basis.”
The carriages — not affiliated with the Prince of Wales — are run by Sentineal Carriages, which operate carriages in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls.
Laura and Fred Sentineal, who have owned and operated the Sentineal family carriage business for 30 years, said the protesters, while passionate, are ignoring the truth about horses and the people who care for them.
“I think they are very passionate people with very passionate beliefs and opinions, but the things they put out there, nothing is based on fact or science or the reality of what we’re doing,” said Laura.
She said she's tried to have conversations with the protesters about the reality of her business, but they’re “just not interested.”
“They keep talking about this magical sanctuary.”
“Here’s our perspective, from people in the horse industry on animal sanctuaries — There are a handful of completely legitimate ones. More often they’re not, and they’re more of a fundraising scheme. Now with that, there are a few rescue or sanctuary places in Ontario, and when they end up with draft horses, they call us — because they know two things: they know that draft horses are happiest mentally and physically, when they’re working.”
A draft horse is a word for a heavy, muscular horse, Fred said.
He said the work Sentineal horses are doing is fairly light.
“The carriages roll very easily, we can pull them in and out of the buildings ourselves. It’s very light work compared to ploughing a farmer’s field or discing or something like that.”
“We’ve been doing this for 30 years or so — we did start out with standards and stuff, the English use to go along the roads, they were around 1,000 pounds, and we found at the end of the day they were completely spent … And we moved up to a bigger horse, commercial, so a combination of drafts and warm bloods, and they could work comfortably all day and at the end of the day still had lots of energy and were in good shape.”
Both Sentineals said they don’t force horses to work if they aren’t suited for it, and that they’ve had plenty of horses that didn’t work out.
“Not every horse can adapt to this. It takes a very level-headed trusting horse to do this kind of work,” Fred said.
He said a lot of the horses they use are bought from slaughter auctions through the Ontario Livestock Exchange.
Although horse isn’t popular on the menu in North America, there is a market in some Asian and European countries where horse meat is a delicacy, Fred said.
“A lot of times we will go to these slaughter auctions and we’ll buy potential horses that we think are suitable for our kind of work,” he said.
From there, they introduce the horses to the work and see if they're a good fit.
“Horse people are very passionate about their horses, they develop a trust bond.”
“The driver acts as the lead horse,” Laura said.
Even when the horses don’t work out he said, they don’t often have trouble finding people to take them. Often they can still operate well on voice commands, and may just be a tad too skittish to be on the road.
“We’ve got about 25 employees and the first thing we look for in an employee is someone that loves animals,” Fred said.
“Each horse has a unique personality, a lot like people, and they understand that, and they have training techniques to motivate a horse in a certain direction,” he said.
“We’re basically working with their natural instincts,” Laura added. “We’re not drugging them, we’re not beating them, we’re not forcing them,” said Laura.
“A lot of people don’t understand that,” Fred said.
It’s not true the horses are whipped either, they said.
Fred said the crack of the whip breaks the sound barrier, and that's enough to startle the horses.
“It’s a sound thing.”
He said they care for the horses better than themselves a lot of times.
Last fall, one of the horses contracted potomac horse fever.
“Our veterinarian of 28 years had never dealt with this before — it’s something that happens in the lower states. The horse got an extremely high fever, and our staff had to ice the horses hooves every two hours for seven days, 24-hours-a-day,” Fred said.
“That is so much work and so much dedication, and they did it flawlessly … It was all documented, the medications, the icing, everything. When the horse got to Guelph University, they were in awe of what we had done — and this is from people who would stay up all night to help a sick horse.”
“And then these people, who have nothing to do with animals, come and criticize people that love them and will work day and night for them. I wonder where they think they have the right to speak for a horse.”
“You know, they claim the horse is a slave to people, and I think they have no right to talk for a horse, because they weren’t there when the horse went for slaughter, they’re not there in the morning when you feed the horse or water it or take care of any health needs it has. They’re never there to pay the vet bill or the farrier bill, and they’re not involved in the training and don’t even know the personality of the horse, yet they feel entitled to criticize all the people that do that. And that irritates me.”
“If I could speak for the horse, I’m sure they would say, “we appreciate the day that Fred came and saved us from slaughter, took us home and loved us and taught us that everything isn’t scary.”
“And when they fit into society, they lose their fears. They work hard. We work hard, but we’re proud of what we do. We provide a wonderful service to the public. Everyone loves them.”
Laura said she thinks not having the horses in town would be a sad world.
“Horses have a relationship working with man, probably as long as dogs have. I mean there are polices horses … all throughout society. It’s a co-dependent situation really, where there’s just certain people they just love horses and want to be with horses … and the horses need us. I mean, there are times we forget to close the gates on the field. The horses don’t run away,” Laura said.
Fred said some of the arguments protestors are using are also based on a lack of knowledge about horses.
“They had a guy with a temperature gun, doing the temperature of the road, saying ‘oh it’s hotter than 23 degrees, they’re burning the hooves off these horses — horses don’t feel temperature through their hooves,” he said.
“When they’re hot-shod, they take a red hot steel shoe and they burn it onto the bottom of their hoof so it fits perfectly. I’ve been there when they do it. The horse does not flinch — it does not feel it.”
“There are horses that are designed to cross glacial rivers, and there’s horses that live on an island which is a sand dune,” he said.
“I’m sure the sand gets much hotter than asphalt, but they make an issue out of it, saying how cruel we are, when it’s not even an issue … The hoof is like our fingernail that grows out its dead material and it keeps growing and the end of it wears off. When they put shoes on they actually put nails through it and horses don’t feel that.”
“But they’ve made an issue of it, and they pick things, and they mislead the public for their own ideals, or want them to believe certain things. And that’s where I have a problem with it.”
“You know, we live in a democratic society … they are entitled to their opinion. I would like to give our opinion to the public so they can view both sides. And they should have the opportunity to decide what’s right for themselves — or if they don’t want to get involved and not even pick a side.”
While Stirr said the protestors have been peaceful and Laura agreed they were “on good behaviour” Saturday, Laura said they haven’t been so calm before.
She said it was likely because there were two police officers at the scene.
Stirr said he phoned the police himself today to ensure protestors and the public were calm in their demonstrations and not interfering with businesses.
The Sentineals said the week prior protesters made it so the carriages couldn’t get to the side of the road, and forced them to unload at the clock tower.
A video of the incident is online and Stirr said it sparked more people to get involved in the movement. He said up until last weekend it had been a relatively small group of people.
Stirr said the response from people has been “way beyond what we ever expected.”
“There’s people honking, giving thumbs up. A bunch of locals have come by and said they’re going to join the protest.”
He said the Prince of Wales originally complained that they were blocking customers to the hotel, but group members were not approaching anybody Saturday, and were leaving room for people to line up at the door of the hotel.
“Nobody’s bothering (the public),” Stirr said. “If they want ignore us, they’re free to ignore us … We’re always open to conversation with anybody to fully explain why we’re here and the reasons behind what we believe.”
He said more than 65 per cent of group members are locals from the Niagara region, and a lot of people came from further out of town in response to online threats from carriage supporters.
“There were people saying they were going to come and throw eggs and tomatoes at us and stuff like that, and run us out of town … It’s like, OK guys, this is 2018, this is Canada, this is a constitutionally protected freedom of expression. This is public property. That’s not really appropriate.”
Laura said the Sentineal family has also gotten a lot of support since protests began in NOTL.
She said she spent most of the afternoon around the carriages, and thinks “more people were just frustrated and disgusted.”
Police on scene said the group was peaceful and there is nothing they can do to stop them from expressing their beliefs. They noted the signs were not too explicit and said even if they were, it’s not against the law to express an opinion.
A representative from the Prince of Wales who did not want to be identified — though his name tag read Bill — said the hotel had no comment as it is not affiliated with “either group” in any way.
Jason King, one of the protesters who travelled all the way from London Ontario to be at the protest, said tourists from “around the world” were coming up to express support.
“I have to wonder how long are the council members of this quaint little town going to put up with pictures from tourists representing their town as a place where animal exploitation is happening,” he said.
“We can see already that Montreal, which is a huge tourism place, has made the decision that it's not something the world to see Montreal as representing.”
Montreal set forward to ban horse-drawn carriages by 2020 on June 14.
Laura and Fred said part of the problem in Montreal was accidents were frequent due to a bad system, and owners that wouldn't cooperate.
They said to operate legally in NOTL, Sentineal Carriages is given permission from the Town and acquires a license from the Niagara Police Services Board.
She said on annual basis the company has to provide a letter from a veterinarian proving the horses are in good health as well as proof of insurance.
“We just provided that when we first got licensed and they just adopted it afterwards,” Fred said.
“We have a pretty impeccable spotless record,” Laura also added.
“I guess the thing I take issue with, is they’ve told me at the end of the day that our horses would be better off dead. And that horses shouldn’t be bred, and I don’t know, I can only draw from that is they’ll be happy once all horses are extinct. And to me, that is so incredibly sad and tragic. And for anybody that’s ever worked with a horse and developed a relationship with a horse, I mean they’re as individual as you and I are, and they all have their own personalities, their own quirks, their own like and dislikes. A world without horses would be a very sad place.”
She couldn’t recall which protestor had said this to her.
The company does not claim to have rescued all of its horses, and said it does its best to ensure all of the horses have a good life.
Fred and Laura encourage anyone to stop by and see the horses on the farm for themselves.
Stirr said the protesters would continue and hope to see the carriages close.
He said if they did, the group would be willing to fundraiser to allow the horses to have a work-free life.