Horse industry working on comeback strategy

Breed registrations declined in past decade
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The declining number of horses and what should be done about the decline continues to be a hot topic of conversation. That fact was made clear at the 45th annual meeting of the American Horse Council, held in late June in Washington, D.C. It drew nearly 200 attendees, including industry leaders from 50 organizations, members of Congress and their staffs, and federal regulatory agency staff.

AHC president Jay Hickey said the meeting attendance was the best it has been in years. He attributed this to issues before Congress and the federal agencies that affect all segments of the horse industry. “We also think the topic of this year’s National Issues Forum, ‘Where Have All the Horses Gone,’ attracted great interest,” he said.

Cause and effect

The AHC’s National Issues Forum June 24 hosted three panel discussions featuring leaders from breed registries, racing, and showing; professionals from the various equestrian disciplines; veterinarians; and other stakeholders, who spoke about the decline in registered horses and the impact on their segment of the industry.

Several major points emerged from the forum. One is that all breed organizations experienced a decline in the number of foals, registrations and membership from 2004-2014, according to Debbie Fuentes, registrar of the Arabian Horse Association. While the economy is seen as a primary driver in this drop, shifting attitudes toward the value of registration may also play a role, she said.

Tim Capps, director of the Equine Industry Program at the University of Louisville, who gave the keynote speech at the forum, agreed that the economy was the single largest factor in the decline but that there are likely several others factors as well. The increasing cost of horse ownership and participation in shows, concerns about welfare, and increased competition for leisure and gambling dollars were other factors he cited as playing a role.

Capps also noted that this is not the first such decline in the number of horses, and in previous instances, there was a rebound. He presented evidence that the industry has experienced several drops in horse numbers and spending in modern history, most notably during the Great Depression and in the mid-1980s.

More recently, Capps believes the decline was exacerbated by the horse industry being in a bubble that peaked around 2004. Although the bubble-burst of the 2000s and going forward was far more economically driven than its late-‘80s predecessor, Capps says he sees some hope in the fact that the recreational dollar continues to grow and in the knowledge that people still find horses fascinating.

In addition, following such declines in the past, growth has often been propelled by individuals outside the industry becoming interested and investing in it, Capps noted. He believes it will again be important to look beyond current horse industry participants to grow the industry. What will be required is more consistent data on potential and current horse owners, cross-disciplinary cooperation within the industry, and better marketing efforts, Capps said.

Chart: Horse registrations by breed

Strategy in motion 

Horse industry leaders at the forum say they have been aware of this decline in horse numbers and have started to take action. There was wide agreement among all segments that involvement in welfare programs is vital to attracting new participants, as is a focus on youth programs and on removing barriers that discourage individuals from competing with their horse. All segments agreed on the need for better marketing, too.

Jim Gagliano, Jockey Club president, said that, to stem the drop in the number of racehorse starts, of racehorses in the field, of racehorse owners, and of racing days, the Jockey Club is working to promote the best races, make better use of social media, attract a younger demographic, and develop new racehorse owners.

Many breed registries have initiated marketing campaigns promoting the benefits of registration. Breed registries are also taking other actions, such as the American Quarter Horse Association creating the Take Me Riding youth initiative to introduce children to horses.

Members of the Saddlebred, Hackney, and Morgan horse industries have formed the United Breeders Committee to work with stallion owners, trainers, and veterinarians to help reduce the cost of producing a marketable horse. The committee has initiated the Stop the Drop campaign, which encourages reduced stud fees, making mares available for lease, and reduced training fees.

Dr. Jeff Blea, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, talked about the impact of the decline on the veterinary profession and how fewer horses mean less work for equine practitioners. Dr. Blea mentioned the program AAEP Touch: Tools to Connect to Your Clients and Their Horses, which aims to help veterinarians create a long-term, successful relationship with horse owners.

Following up on the need for more and better marketing, Patti Colbert of PCE Enterprises updated the forum on Time to Ride, an initiative of the AHC’s Marketing Alliance. Time to Ride has launched a national campaign and contest called the 100 Day Horse Challenge with a goal of introducing 100,000 new people to a horse experience between May 31 and Sept. 7.

Earlier, the initiative accomplished its goal of signing up 1,000 stables, instructors, and others in the horse community to host events. These hosts will now compete for $100,000 in cash and prizes in three categories based on the size of their event, by introducing new people to a horse experience. Several have already hosted their first event.

Warning system

The day ended with an update on the industry’s National Equine Health Plan and the Equine Disease Communication Center by Dr. Nat White, past president of the AAEP. The EDCC will coordinate and disseminate timely information about diseases in general and outbreaks, and it will play an important role in combating outbreaks and limiting the economic damage they cause the horse industry. 

Dr. White reported that the EDCC website was constructed but was offline while being populated with information and links. Meanwhile, fundraising efforts were underway to cover the cost of staff and organizers who are going to test the system with state animal health officials to make sure the lines of communication are set up. If all goes well, Dr. White said the EDCC should be up-and-running by January 2015.

The AHC’s meeting also included the AHC’s Congressional Reception, the Congressional Ride-In, and meetings of all AHC committees and the Unwanted Horse Coalition.

Related JAVMA content:

Horse head count (Nov. 1, 2013)

It’s all about the horse ... and the client (Feb. 15, 2014)