Virginia’s horse industry trots through good times and bad

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Heather B. Hayes

Amy Fries knows her way around the horsy set. After spending her teenage years competing in top hunter and jumper events, she now runs a stable called Clover Brooke in the Nokesville area of Prince William County. She feeds and pampers horses owned by local suburbanites and charges students $30 for a half-hour lesson on the finer points of
horsemanship and stall mucking.

“We teach from the ground up here,” says Fries, who has 18 horses at her 22-acre farm. Twelve of the horses are boarders, whose owners pay from $250 a month for residence in a paddock to $1,100 per month for a stall and extra-care services.

Even at those prices, riding students and horse owners pitch in to help with the work. “Everybody cleans tack here, everybody learns to pull mane. We assume that most of our students are going to want to own their own horse some day, so they need to learn everything that goes with that responsibility. Plus, it just makes for a better rider.”

For all her passion and achievement, Fries,34, doesn’t fit the mold of what most people associate with the Virginia horse industry. She is a single mother whose business requires her to work seven days a week and carefully watch expenses. By contrast, the stereotype of the Virginia horse owner is a genteel land baron who wears tweed, lives on
a manicured estate and enjoys the equestrian life: attending yearling sales, competing in horse shows, taking in the local steeplechase race, playing polo and riding to the hounds.

While that view of the Virginia horse industry is certainly well-founded and alive in places such as Middleburg and Charlottesville, it’s incomplete, according to Andrea Heid, executive director of the Virginia Horse Industry Board (VHIB). “It’s a misnomer to think that you have to be wealthy to own a horse,” she says.

Virginia horse owners today, in fact, are a lot more like Fries than, say, Edward P. Evans, who breeds Thoroughbred racehorses on his 3,000-acre Spring Hill Farm in Casanova, or even David and Karen O’Connor, the hard-working husband-and-wife team from The Plains who have each captured an Olympic gold medal in the triathlon-like equestrian
sport of three-day eventing.

Signs of change

While Virginia may not be Kentucky, the owning and riding of horses is an enduring and important part of the state’s culture that has transcended uncertain times and uncertain economies for decades and will continue to do so, according to industry observers. In fact, its ability to change and grow is a key part of its character, and that evolution continues.

A recent survey conducted by the VHIB found signs that Virginia’s horse industry is in a state of flux. It’s growing, for starters, with the number of horses, ponies, mules and donkeys increasing from 170,000 in 2001 to 215,000 in 2006, an increase of 26 percent. Much of that growth is being driven by rising horse ownership among the
working class, families, baby boomers and immigrants from other states. That last group has been attracted by Virginia’s still relatively inexpensive land prices, low property tax rates and variety of horse-centered venues and activities.

The increasingly populist nature of the industry is illustrated even further by the fact that pleasure and trail riding are the No. 1 horse activities in the state — not elite horse show competition. “There are still a lot of people who breed and race and show, but most people have their horses for their own personal enjoyment,” says Heid.

Of course, more middle-class participation makes the industry more susceptible to the whims of economic forces, and the current financial environment — coupled with last year’s drought, which drove up hay prices from $4 to as much as $13 a bale — threatens to undo a lot of the gains made in recent years.

Many of the state’s 41,000 equine operations and horse owners operate on a shoestring. Horses may be affordable, but as with any intense hobby, they do require disposable income and financial wherewithal. The minimum annual cost to feed, house and care for a horse is $1,825, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners
(AAEP), not including veterinary and farrier expenses.

In the current economy, though, many of the most basic necessities, including feed, hay and gas, are all rising, putting the squeeze on the tight budgets of many of the state’s horse owners, as well as its 41,000 equine operations.

Still, the horse industry has a knack for rolling with the times. Fries says that demand for her lessons and summer horse camp is healthy. And she’s also experiencing another phenomenon: Many people stressed out by economic uncertainty are increasingly spending time in her riding ring. “Horses have a soothing effect on people,” she says. “We’ve actually had people receive prescriptions from their doctors to go ride a horse. It’s a healthy way to spend your extra time, and you don’t have to own a horse to do it.”

A ‘rich tradition’

For all its activity, Virginia’s horse culture isn’t ostentatious. Instead, it tends to mirror the personality of those who populate it: understated, diverse and extremely productive.

The first horses arrived in the Tidewater region in 1610, and since then Virginia has garnered a reputation as a prime location for breeding, training, showing, racing and trading horses. George Washington helped make fox hunting and horse racing popular here. Misty, the pony that became a famous literary character, was from Chincoteague Island; and Secretariat, a Triple Crown winner who still holds the record for the fastest Kentucky Derby, was born in Caroline County.

“There is a very long and rich tradition centered around horses here,” says Diane Jones, executive director of the Virginia Gold Cup, which has a spring steeplechase race that is now in its 83rd year and a fall race in its 71st year. “As a result, it’s seen as very glamorous and special.”

The state has plenty of notable horse events, such as the Upperville Colt and Horse Show. First held in 1853, it’s the oldest horse show in the country. There are horse-centric venues such as the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, Morven Park in Leesburg and Colonial Downs in New Kent County. More fox-hunting clubs exist in Virginia
than in any other state. Less visible activities remain extremely well-attended, including Pony Club, horse camps, fox hunting, steeplechase races, local horse shows, therapeutic riding and trail riding, along with team penning, rodeo and other historically Western sports.

All of that translates into a lot of dollars trotting around Virginia. VHIB calculates that the horse industry provides a $1.65 billion annual economic impact, which includes all related expenditures and the value of the horses themselves. The Virginia Horse Center alone accounts for $41 million in direct spending in the Rockbridge County region, with 55 percent of that amount coming from out-of-state visitors, according to executive director John Scott. The Virginia Spring Gold Cup draws more than 50,000 patrons, while the International Gold Cup, held in October, draws more than 35,000. Colonial Downs generated $162.4 million in wagering in 2007, a 4.1 percent increase over the previous year, and received national television coverage of its signature event, the $750,000 Virginia Derby.

Horse activities also provide tourism revenues. People come not just to watch events and compete at the Virginia Horse Center, for example, but also to ride in Virginia’s national and state parks. David Lamb, who runs Oakland Heights, a trail riding operation just north of Gordonsville, charges $40 an hour to take people riding. He says business has never been better. “You’d be surprised at the number of people from Japan and other countries who come here to ride, because they don’t have any opportunities at home,” he says. “They’ve seen our Western movies, and when they go on vacation, they want to be around horses.”

Coping with hard times

For all of its recent growth, the horse industry is facing plenty of short- and long-term challenges. The slowing economy is clearly causing some horse owners to make hard choices. People on a budget are holding on to their horses, says Heid, but many are opting for less expensive feed, competing in fewer events or trail riding closer to home, for example. The effect is being felt in supporting businesses. Sales are off, for example, at Champion Saddlery in its Doswell and Midlothian stores, says owner Bruce Warner, noting that this is typical behavior during a recession. “It’s a relatively easy decision to put off buying a new saddle or new pair of boots when things are tight,” he says.

Fries notes that, while her barn is currently full, the waiting list that once existed for boarding slots has vanished. “A lot of parents who planned to buy a horse for their children are putting off that purchase,” she says. Yet those same parents continue to opt for lessons and summer camp.

Another major concern is that Colonial Downs is for sale. Owner Jacobs Entertainment put the racetrack on the market after the Virginia legislature once again refused to allow it to supplement pari-mutuel wagering with slot machines and other forms of gaming. “We’ve hung in there for 11 years, but it’s just become harder and harder,” says track President Ian Stewart. “We’ve grown the handle, we’ve grown the purses, but we’ve also grown our expenses, and the economics of horse racing make it very tough to be profitable.”

Unveiled to national fanfare in 1996, Colonial Downs marked the first flat racing track in Virginia since the Civil War. Its operation was intended in part to help boost Virginia’s flagging Thoroughbred breeding industry. A percentage of gambling proceeds are returned to horse operations in the form of breeder funds. Virginia’s fund is barely $1 million. Compare that with Pennsylvania, which has slots, a $7 million breeders fund and a booming breeding industry.

Eligibility for breeder funds is determined by where a horse is born. Thus, many Virginia breeders now send their mares to foal in other states, effectively exporting all of the related upkeep dollars. Also depressing the potential of Virginia’s breeder fund is the fact that none of Virginia’s off-track betting parlors exist north of Richmond, where most of the Thoroughbred population resides.

Glenn Petty, executive director of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, explains that in the 1970s as many as 1,200 Thoroughbred foals were born every year in Virginia. Now, the number is fewer than 400. “We’re the new tobacco,” Petty says. “Tobacco went from 50,000 acres under seed to 10,000 acres in less than 10 years, and everybody panicked. I can’t get anybody to panic over this.”

Development is an ongoing challenge for the horse industry. The acres needed not only to house horses but for riding trails are being gobbled up by suburban sprawl. Even those in the Middleburg area, which has a lot of large land tracts protected under historic conservation easement, are worried. Many of the dairy farms and hay farms that make up much of the region have been safeguarded thus far through agricultural easements, but, if sold, could still be transitioned into developable property. The housing recession, Jones admits, is not viewed as a bad thing in hunt country.

The horse world is adapting, working overtime to put in conservation easements and other measures to protect green spaces and teaming up with developers to create shared equestrian neighborhoods. Nonetheless, Heid admits, “Being able to find affordable farms and space for horses will be an ongoing struggle.”

Abandoned and abused horses

Another issue portends unknown ramifications. In late 2007, thanks to a combination of federal and state legislation and U.S. court rulings, the last slaughterhouse for horses in the U.S. was closed, taking with it the market’s only outlet for old, sick or untrainable horses. Where such horses could once be sold for $200 to $700 for
meat exported to European and Asian markets, they now have a negative value, since euthanasia and disposal can cost anywhere from $250 to $600.

Some say that the closing of the U.S. slaughterhouse industry combined with a weak economy and the rising cost of horse feed have created perfect-storm conditions for the potential abandonment and abuse of horses. The fallout to the equine world, say some horse industry proponents, is only beginning.

“As unsettling as that may be for some people, [slaughterhouses] provided a foundation for the market,” says one Virginia horse owner. “Now with low-end horses, in many cases, you can’t even give them away.”

That could eventually cause other horse owners to lose equity in their four-legged assets, not unlike how a glut of houses on the market causes all home prices to drop and owners to feel considerably poorer.

Some horses are already being re-routed to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico (where there are few if any regulations in place regarding humane treatment). In other states, there have been haunting reports of economically strapped horse owners turning horses loose in parks and on highways; other horses have been found suffering from
malnutrition and neglect.

Virginia is not immune. In Loudoun County this winter, for example, animal control officers rescued 46 starving horses from a horse farm. The local animal shelter has had to use taxpayer dollars to build barns to house the horses, even as it tries to find appropriate homes. Many equine shelters in Virginia now say they are full to capacity.

Dr. Nathaniel A. White, director of the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg and a professor at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, expects that, given the current economy, the possibility of more horses being abandoned or grossly neglected likely will get worse.

As vice president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, White is working closely with the newly formed Unwanted Horse Coalition, an arm of the American Horse Council that is trying to raise awareness and come up with solutions to the problem. Options include advertising the names of rescue and therapeutic riding organizations
that are accepting donated horses and encouraging cash-strapped horse owners to consider euthanasia as a more humane course.

Unfortunately, White says, there is no quick or inexpensive fix to the larger problem. “Right or wrong, you had 80,000 to 100,000 horses each year that went to the slaughterhouse, but these horses are now going to potentially be abandoned or not get the care that they need,” he says.Virginia has such a traditionally strong horse culture that White doesn’t think the numbers will be as large here as in some other states. “But that isn’t really the point, is it?” he states. “Any horse that is not getting cared for properly is, frankly, a concern. So this is now a reality. We need to deal with it somehow.”

‘This is their way of life’

While times are hard for some in Virginia’s horse industry, no one expects that a few rigorous economic shocks will unseat it. “People will do what they have to do to get by,” Heid states. “They’re not going to give up their horses easily. These are not just pets, they’re like members of their family and this is their way of life.”

Beryl Herzog shares those views. A few years back, this lifelong Virginia horsewoman, who has been breeding Morgan horses in Beaverdam since 1968, predicted the coming market forces and decided not to bring any foals into the world in 2007. Now, however, her optimism is returning, and she is excitedly awaiting the arrival of three
newcomers this spring.The horse business, she explains, is here to stay. “It’s always weathered every storm, and the number of horses in Virginia has only increased.” Not to mention the number of horse lovers.


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