Downtown's horse-drawn carriages seized by tax agency

A familiar sight is missing from downtown streets after the Canada Revenue Agency seized horse-drawn carriages from Black Beauty Line because the business fell behind on back taxes, the company’s owner says.

The 34-year-old Victoria company is not offering tours and its 12 horses are now without a job.

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“This is really tough for us right now. The only reason I’m in this business is because of the horses,” Rebecca Spray said Friday. “Basically, I could not keep up with payments to satisfy the CRA.”

Metchosin-raised Spray has been horse crazy all her life. She became a part-owner of Black Beauty a decade ago and the sole owner in 2011. When she took over the company, she said the existing debt — mainly to the CRA for GST — was higher than expected.

A payment plan was arranged in April 2011 but not always met, Spray said.

This week, the revenue agency seized six of the company’s six-passenger carriages and harnesses, as well as two trolleys not owned by the company, Spray said, adding that a surrey, a smaller carriage, was also claimed by the tax collector.

Canada Revenue Agency officials said they do not comment on individual cases.

Spray would not say how much is owed. She remains hopeful about the future, however, and is open to taking on a partner in the company.

“I was hoping that with some smart management and a bit of downsizing and some really, really hard work, that we could manage. But the tourist dollars just aren’t there.”

At the same time, prices on everything from hay to sawdust and fuel have gone up, she said.

Spray and manager Robert Taylor are taking care of horses at a rented property in Central Saanich. Overall, expenses can run about $3,000 to $4,000 per month, including feed, hay, shoeing and vet bills, Spray said, noting that annual vaccinations due in July will cost about $120 per horse.

She has been able to afford to care for the horses so far, Spray said. “Every one is in great shape.”

Black Beauty operates on Menzies Street at Belleville Street, along with the two other local horse-drawn carriage companies.

Greater Victoria’s tourism industry is being dogged by economic uncertainty. Fewer Americans are visiting the city, and the trend in travelling is shifting to last-minute, short-term stays. Those tourists who do come are more reluctant to spend money.

Black Beauty has tried to be innovative.

Last year, it introduced a wheelchair-friendly trolley, which holds a chair securely in place, and it also ran a double-decker carriage for a time. This past winter, the company offered driving lessons and a half-day course on how to work with the draft horses.

Tourism consultant Frank Bourree said horse-drawn carriages are an “integral part of the fabric of the attraction of downtown for tourism.”

Patrons are often a better-heeled clientele, such as long-haul visitors from Europe, Asia, or the U.S., said Bourree, a partner in Chemistry Consulting.

Black Beauty’s website lists a 30-minute waterfront tour at $90, and a 45-minute tour through Beacon Hill Park at $130.

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