NORTH BAY -- As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the horse industry is the latest to receive assistance from the Ontario government.

The province has announced a three million dollar Equine Hardship program. It's designed to provide up to $2500 per horse with a maximum of $20,000 to help cover costs like food, vet care and farrier services for businesses who made less then 50% of their revenue from 2019.

"This is a program for the equine industry that seems to have been just somewhat falling through the cracks between the ministries responsible for agriculture and the minister responsible for the horse racing industry," explained Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Erine Hardeman. "No one was there for the equine industry for the riding stables and the entertainment type activities or the exercise type activities with horses."

Applications are available through the ministry as of Jan. 18.

"Horses aren’t just going to stop eating because we’re shut down,” said Elana Von Doeler, owner at Von Doeler's Ranch in Rutherglen, east of North Bay. "So if we have a month or two without income that’s huge. The bills add up pretty quickly."

Many stables were forced to adjust their programs on March 17th when the pandemic first hit. Horse shows went virtual and lessons, camps and trail rides were extremely limited.

"Obviously even though you can’t have any customers come into riding stables, the horses still need to eat," said Hardeman. "I think there’s a lot of people having troubles making ends meet to keep those horses going."

The minister added that many barns had a year's worth of food already arranged for 2020 and the program comes out now to help for 2021.

"I think it’s important that we look after [it] before the need really becomes evident. Obviously when we’re talking about feeding livestock we can’t wait to see how much livestock didn’t get fed," Hardeman said. "I think it’s become very clear in the discussions we’ve had with the association that a lot of people without the revenues from the summer of business, without that revenue they’re going to be unable to buy the food to feed the horses."

"I think there’s no doubt if we don’t do something the producers are going to have to look at reducing the amount of livestock that they have," he added.

Hardeman said the new program will be funded as applications come in, meaning eligible businesses should receive money in a timely manner.

"A lot of times in agriculture we have programs where we have an intake period of time and then we evaluate all the applications against one another to the highest priorities ones," he said. "This one will be one that they make an application, the ministry will review the application and then send out cheques based on the eligibility."

According to the Ontario Government there are approximately 150 stables across the province that rely on horses for income and were impacted by the restrictions tied to the pandemic. This is a similar story for Von Doeler's Ranch which had to restructure many times throughout 2020.

"We did online training for quite a while," said Von Doeler. "Virtual lessons and a program where people could learn rider level activities. Then when we opened back up [after the spring lockdown] it was very limited. Small groups and everything was private, lots of spacing between things. It was very time consuming and again we just had to keep restructuring as the year went out."

Von Doeler's Ranch is open right now with COVID-19 protocols in place including masks, social distancing and much smaller groups then what is normal.

"Anyone who’s been able to come out, they’re very happy that they’re still able to get some fresh air and do an outdoor activity," Von Doeler said. "I know with a lot of their normal activities being closed, people are getting a bit stir crazy. So I think when we are able to be open, people are enjoying it."

She added that the ranch couldn’t welcome their international clients this year, but saw a lot more local traffic. Although open right now to some degree, Von Doeler is hoping that summer 2021 will bring some more normalcy.

"Summer is out high season. We need that time. I think you just have to be creative and no matter what kind of be going through different avenues and have different options. Options A through D. Again like the virtual stuff or having different sources of income that you can go to," she said.

Enrollment and claim forms for the Equine Hardship Program will be accepted until March 12 or while program funding remains available.

More information and to apply can be found here