OTTAWA — If you spot a damaged farm fence along a highway, call the authorities or the affected farmer as soon as possible. Lives could depend on it.
A 73-year-old Ottawa man died in a late-night collision with two horses on Highway 417 after the animals escaped through a fence that was wrecked two and a half days earlier by a hit-and-run driver operating a transport truck. The involved truck driver didn’t notify police after the rig careened off the highway, east of the city, and plowed through the fence sometime on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 30. The trucker managed to drive away without telling anyone. But the act didn’t go entirely unseen. At least a couple of people later acknowledged on social media that they had noticed the flattened fence — and even the truck in the field — long before the horses got out.
The animals were struck together and killed on the highway around 1 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 2, by the 73-year-old motorist who later succumbed to his injuries in hospital. One of the horses flew up and over the man’s car, striking a second car whose driver sustained minor injuries, says Stephanie McWatt, owner of McWatt Family Farms, where she runs a riding program for disadvantaged youth under the name Ottawa Community Farm.
“The knowledge that something so beloved of mine caused the death of another, I struggle with that quite a bit. I don’t have words,” says McWatt, a tech worker and former sheep farmer who also serves as an Anglican priest and is a 1999 equine sciences graduate of Kemptville College.
She says the tragedy could have been avoided if only someone — starting with the absconding truck driver — had let her or the police know about the damaged fence, which remained open for about 40 hours.
The downed 170-foot section was not noticeable from her farmhouse, located a kilometre away, but the damage was visible from Highway 417. “Many people showed up (later) on Facebook to say, oh, I saw the hole, I saw the truck, but no one picked up the phone to call the police or the MTO,” she says. “No one tried to find the farmstead and the house.”
She says all seven of the farm’s horses were accounted for when they were fed Sunday night and turned out into the field at 8 p.m., five hours before the tragedy. Two of them, black Bella — the “gentle giant” half-Percheron matriarch of the herd — and chestnut Indy found the gap in the fence and entered the highway. The other horses fortunately remained in the field.
Replacing the duo will be difficult because of the combination of age and skill those horses brought to the program, which has so far benefited 200 youth. “How do I replace what was so versatile and so calm and so trustworthy? We can’t put a dollar amount on that,” she says.
Police are investigating the original fence collision and are asking anyone with information or dash cam footage to come forward. Police say it was a full-out tractor trailer that breached the fence. The truck performed a u-turn in her pasture while returning to the highway and left half a bumper behind on her property, according to McWatt.
However, she acknowledges feeling some compassion for the truck driver, noting any number of reasons could have sent the vehicle through her fence — a medical emergency, a momentary distraction, or a deer on the highway. “I think jumping to anger and accusation is selfish. Yes, I’m upset that I lost my two horses, but I’m not the only person impacted by this.”