So how is the horse economy going anyway?

Published 4:32 pm Friday, April 16, 2010

Two years ago, the global economy hit a bump in the road. A bump, it turns out, the size of Mars. It felt like we were standing on the edge of the worst financial disaster in recent history and anyone with horses was going to regret it. Or, maybe not.
I read the headlines that proclaimed, “Harsh Times Hit the Horsey Set.” I listened at a meeting in Fletcher when a horse dealer said he could not give away a horse, and half of the room nodded in agreement. I also heard story after story of horses being abandoned.
Taking all that in, heres what Ive been able to distill from all the reports coming from all directions, and how it affects our little corner of the world.
On the horse show front, a major economic driver in the foothills, people are still showing, which on one hand is satisfying and on the other hand is shocking. The regional horse trials and hunter/jumper shows that I have visited are doing okay, thank you. Id be tempted to say that it is just local folks showing, but walking around the barns I am still seeing horse trailers big and small from surrounding states and beyond.
When fuel costs spiked unseasonably two years ago, the numbers were down, but they werent out. People were keeping the competition schedules closer to home. Gas prices eased and people with horses began traveling again. In 2010, the foothills have a total of 85 horse shows, clinics and other events scheduled to date, up 10% from the same period in 2009.
Most horse show competitors are not wealthy; theyre middle class with a mix of recreational competitors and professionals. Their ability to continue showing is an indicator of how that segment of the horse market is faring.
Those in the business of providing services are finding things slower than three years ago, but steady. Relatively few equine-based businesses have closed their doors. Some have adapted and evolved their business to include less fluff and added more added value. Marketing has gotten more creative.
One retailer said business was down 14% from the first quarter of last year and last year was down from the year before. However, the ten years prior had seen record breaking growth every year.
Understandably construction-related services saw a steep drop in 2008-2009, but some are seeing a small uptick in business as the spring progresses.
In the foothills, the new edition of the Equine Directory, published by Foothills Riding Club, is one indicator of the health of the local economy. The previous 2008 directory had 157 ads for equine businesses, while the 2010 edition increased that number to 193, up 23% in a down economy.
Looking at the lifestyles of the rich and famous, a slightly more elevated view than we have here, the picture is also mixed. Sales of polo ponies in Aiken last year was so dismal that the 2009 spring and fall sales were cancelled and have not been re-scheduled for 2010. Up the road in Saratoga, N.Y. where Fasig-Tipton, a leading thoroughbred auction firm, celebrated its first year under the ownership of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the August yearling sales topped the previous years numbers by 40% with the average price increasing by 10.7%.
Fasig-Tipton credits the good reviews to a broad base of buyers and the quality of stock offered for sale.
Turning the page to welfare issues, the news is also mixed. People are struggling and horses are struggling. There have been widespread reports of abandoned horses both locally and nationally. As it turns out, most of the anecdotes of horse owners coming back to their trailer to find an extra horse on board, or an extra horse left in their pasture, have turned out to be more urban myth than reality.
A popular version of the story is that horses are being released into parks and public lands. In North Carolina, there have been no documented cases of abandoned horses in the past three years. The same is true for South Carolina.
John Holland and Valerie James-Patton of the Equine Welfare Alliance track reports of abandoned horses and follow up with request for verification. Horse abandonment in all states is a criminal offense, so real cases are by law to be accompanied by paperwork from the county sheriffs department, animal control, etc. In an article “Deleting the Fiction: Abandoned Horses,” (2008), Holland and James-Patton documented that many news releases were found to have been fabricated.
Even with the acknowledgement that many of the horse abandonment stories are false, that is not to say that some horses are not feeling the pinch. Rescue farms are full. Texas and California through the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) set up euthanasia clinics to deal with the rising number of horses in peril, but the demand has subsided a bit since last year.
Equine relief agencies and animal control offices are faced with out-of-work horse owners who are having trouble paying the feed bill.
To address the issue locally, a volunteer effort in the spirit of neighbor-helping-neighbor has evolved in the form of The Hay Pledge. Working with area vets and the Foothills Equine Rescue Association (FERA) through the Foothills Humane Society, the Hay Pledge was created to give horse owners most affected by the drought and the economic downturn the hay they needed to get through the crisis.
Hay farmers and horse owners pledged 10 bales of hay if called to donate, with the stipulation that they had an “out” if their own reserves were low. For the winter of 2009-2010, hay was delivered to those in need, however, it was not the amount originally anticipated.
The Hay Pledge effort is further bolstered by horse treat maker NickerDoodles that donates profits to an emergency grain fund at a local feed store. In a nutshell, it demonstrates how the horse community takes care of its own.
So there you have it.
The horse economy is still doing well in some circles, and in some, the scene is not as rosy. The coming year will be one to watch. Whether the economy and the horse industry can recover or at least result in public policy changes that enables the multi-billion industry to maintain itself remains to be seen.
When I mention the equine economy, I often get a, “Who cares?” shrug. And thats a valid question: why does the horse industry matter?
It matters.
The horse industry and its economic impact exceed $102 billion dollars annually. Of that, $40 billion is in goods and services. Thats huge. It is comparable in size to the home furnishings and the motion picture industry. The horse industry is a key contributor to the overall fabric of the U.S. economy.
Look around and ask yourself who gets hurt if the horse industry sinks? Barn builders. Farriers. Pasture maintenance companies. Truck and trailer sales. Farm laborers. Feed stores. Fence builders. Tractor dealers. Real estate agents. Bedding dealers. Vets. Retail.
Heres the thing horses are not bread on the shelf. Its a commodity that lives and breathes and one that many of use would quite honestly walk through the gates of hell to protect.
A horse or horse business is not like selling fertilizer or raising, say, blueberries. Horses are an agri-business that has steadily grown in the past three decades both in popularity and profitability and its not something that you get out of easily. Why? Because heart strings and moral responsibility are attached to your product line.
And that is what makes this economic entity a horse of a different color.
Libbie Johnson is vice chairman of the Polk County Economic Development Commission and her column, “The Big Picture,” will appear monthly in the Bulletins equestrian section, “Appointments.”

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox