The City of Montreal plans to work with the owners of retiring caleche horses to offer the animals a chance to live out their days in the country once the industry is shut down at the end of this year.

The city announced Wednesday it will offer to buy the animals for $1,000 each and give them to the SPCA, which will work with a refuge to find them new homes.

Coun. Sterling Downey said the voluntary program will ensure owners have options other than sending their horses to slaughter when the caleches are taken off the roads.

"A lot of the owners of horses started to talk about how they would send their animals to a slaughterhouse and different things, or would be forced to, because they wouldn't be able to afford to maintain the animals," Downey told reporters at City Hall. He said a slaughterhouse would only pay between $500 and $800 per horse.

The administration announced last year that it would phase out the caleches by 2020 after accidents involving the horses raised concerns about their welfare. In June 2018, the city said there had been four accidents since 2014, as well as hundreds of citizens complaints.

There are currently about 50 horses and 47 drivers working in an industry that caters largely to tourists.

When asked if $1,000 was enough to compensate owners for the loss of their livelihood, Downey pointed out that the program was voluntary.

He said the city expects about 30 horses to be sold into the program, while the rest of the owners will sell or keep their horses privately, or set up shop in a city where caleches are still allowed.

Owners and drivers have been given ample time to prepare for the industry's end, Downey added. "We've given this over a year, and the industry is well aware that this is what we were working towards," he said, "so they've had time to look into other options."

He said the city will also work with the drivers to help them find new employment, noting that many have valuable expertise as tour guides. Jean-Francois Parenteau, a member of the city's executive committee, said the city does not plan to hire the drivers directly.

A spokeswoman for the Montreal SPCA welcomed the announcement, saying the animal-welfare organization has worried about the well-being of working horses in the city since it was founded 150 years ago.

"What better birthday present could we have than to see the end of carriage horses in downtown Montreal, and to not only see the end of this industry but also participate in putting together a retirement plan for these animals," Sophie Gaillard said.

Those wishing to adopt would go through a "rigorous selection process," she said. It will include an on-site inspection and a signed contract promising to care for the horse for the rest of its natural life and to allow its former owner to visit once a year.