Industry Overview: Economics, Issues and Icons

The horse industry has long been fragmented into breed and discipline interests. But with new environmental, health, marketing and tax issues on the horizon, perhaps our voices should be united.

The horse industry involves people who are rich in diversity, mixing classes, races, genders, ages and professional backgrounds (among enthusiasts)—and it is growing. Richard Wilke, director of the Center of Equine Management at the University of Louisville, Ky., points out that in 1950 there were two million horses in the United States. By 1957, that number dropped to 750,000. Today, studies show there are close to 7 million horses in the country. The reason for the growth was a shift in attitude toward the horse from an agricultural commodity to one that also serves as a recreational animal. Today, the industry straddles not just those two worlds, but, according to Wilke, four that he calls GAPE: gaming, animal agriculture, participation and entertainment. Given these realities, how do we unite such a diverse industry to amplify the best that we have to offer?

Right now, this industry lacks any cohesive plan. It lacks leaders to direct common causes and spends more time involved in the fragmented worlds of breeds and disciplines than on global issues. As a result, what kind of future is it looking at? What are the emerging issues? Who do we look to as our industry representatives, leaders and spokespeople? If we don’t take action and answer these questions, we shouldn’t be surprised to wake up one day and find that the non-riding public has changed the rules of the game on us.

Agricultural or Recreational?

As an agricultural tool or commodity, horses still have an important role to play. According to Wilke, “Horses are the one animal that provides a desirable urban-rural interface.” When you consider whether people would prefer to live next to a horse farm or a pig, poultry or dairy operation, horses come out on top.

On the recreational side, horses offer many avenues of participation. Showing comes to mind as a popular means. Wilke, however, indicates that there is a trend away from showing that started in the late 1990s and an increase in trail and pleasure riding. Horses offer a connection with the natural world and wilderness, which, in today’s world, is viewed as an antidote to our technology- and machine-driven society.

When you consider the areas that offer the greatest potential for industry-wide growth it becomes obvious they are areas that will require collaboration and leadership to yield results. Federal legislation, regulatory, and health and research topics currently being considered will trickle down to affect all who enjoy the equine experience. The American Horse Council is currently working on estate tax elimination, capital gains reform, immigration reform, Internet gambling concerns and withholding tax on pari-mutuel wagering. Some regulatory issues being considered are the transport of horses to processing facilities, EPA Clean Water Act proposals that could limit farm sizes, federal emergency livestock assistance and health insurance rules that could turn riders into non-riders. The health and research issues at center stage are foot and mouth disease, West Nile Virus, funding for equine research, USDA quarantine facilities problems and transportation issues.

These issues represent a wide range of concerns for all under the GAPE umbrella. Racing is struggling to survive and grow with America’s changing gaming and entertainment tastes. Animal agriculture faces challenges in providing for more humane transportation of livestock and horses to processing plants. The American Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher Program conducted an informal survey that shows that the limited availability of land is a top concern among equestrians.


One of the top regulatory issues facing the industry, from the EPA’s point of view, is its effect on the environment. Equestrian participation levels can be influenced by new regulatory proposals for the Clean Water Act. Because some of these proposed changes designate horses as two-animal units (whereas beef cattle are designated as one), new numbers could be used to determine the maximum size of an operation according to its compliance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. That system currently regulates factories and other businesses. The EPA has been asked how it determined these figures, and they are unable to find the justification in their archives. Even so, the horse industry will have to comply. This could mean that many horse facilities, show grounds and racetracks will have to adopt costly anti-pollution measures. The horse industry shouldn’t look for exemption here, just fair treatment and a scientific basis for the EPA’s determinations.

Because trail and pleasure riding is on the rise, environmental concerns will continue to grow on that front as well. Though horses have had free use of the land across the centuries, that use should not to be taken for granted and is in jeopardy. Regional trail coalitions are springing up across the country to speak on behalf of the equestrian trail user. They are an example of horse industry response to a changing environment.

Participation levels might also be affected negatively by federal health insurance rule changes. These changes make it legal to deny health benefits for injuries sustained during legal recreational activity. The insured individual cannot be denied coverage because they participate in so-called risky activities, but can be denied payments on a case-by-case basis.


Health issues of another type have a direct impact on horses themselves. Diseases such as vesicular stomatitis and West Nile Virus, as well as the recent Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome in the racing industry, have resulted in great economic losses. Horse health issues require continued funding for ongoing research and the increasingly global nature of the industry requires added quarantine facilities and changes to the current import/export policies.

All these items and more are seen as priorities within the industry yet, are not the same issues the non-riding public focuses on. But still, within the horse industry, more energy is frequently spent discussing breed and performance preferences and superiority rather than the importance and impact of the issues that weave throughout the world of horses.


Despite the record number of horses in the U.S. now, and the tremendous market potential it represents, only about two percent of the population currently owns horses. This two percent provides the equestrian experience and opportunity to another 8 percent. That means that there is another 90 percent of U.S. citizens who are not currently involved with horses. Because of this, a strong unified public relations program is needed to show the world the benefits of horses and horse activities. In addition, the two percent needs an equally strong communication and education outlet so that we can reach each other to stimulate increased activity and involvement in the horse world’s important issues.

Wilke points out that this is one area where the horse industry could really benefit from a self-imposed check-off fund. A check-off fund is a tool used by other agricultural commodity groups to provide marketing and advertising extolling the benefits of the industry and enhancing the industry’s growth. Generally speaking, the agricultural producer pays a fee on a regular basis used strictly for these purposes.


Another good communication technique, as other industries and sports have long been aware, is the use of modern-day heroes, leaders and celebrities to speak on behalf of the industry. Who are our horse industry icons? How do they influence horse owners, horse activity participants and the population at large? Are they at the center of the emerging issues we have just explored? The short answer is No, which means we are missing out on a great opportunity.

“Within the horse industry, more energy is frequently spent discussing breed, performance preferences and superiority rather than the importance and impact of the issues that weave throughout the world of horses.”

Anyone who has worked on a legislative, regulatory or political issue knows that a first step is to identify those in power who share common interests—in our case horses. It’s important to seek out the politicians who can carry our cause. We also need to identify heroes, leaders and celebrities to deliver our message—one from a unified industry concerned with many issues.

Educating the horse public on the issues has long been a difficult task. Awareness has often come only after coalitions outside of our world have made changes with long-term ramifications for the horse industry. As a result, the horse public can only react rather than be proactive in the first place. Everything is connected, even though many in our industry don’t understand how. In this sense, our lack of education serves to divide us.

Let’s all take our deep sense of concern for our horses and dedicate a little of it to developing a deeper understanding of the health and well being of the entire horse industry, regardless of breed and discipline. As awareness and education build, so does the clear call to involvement and action. This will ensure that our industry, with all its enchantment and enrichment, continues to grow for future generations.






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