Horsing around is big business in Howard County, and a larger industry than once thought, according to a report by the county's Economic Development Authority.
The equine industry takes in $140 million annually in the county, supporting and expanding traditional agricultural businesses, the report says.
Forming an industry well-suited to suburban areas, equestrian activities are expected to continue to thrive in the county, an analyst said.
"It's almost a stealth industry in Howard County," said Ginger S. Myers, agricultural development specialist with the authority. "There are more horses in the county now than the day the county became a county."
The report is based primarily on a survey sent to more than 1,500 people who owned horses or were involved in the equine industry a year ago.
The results showed that there are 10,000 to 11,000 horse owners or users in the county, and more than 9,000 horses. The average owner spends more than $7,000 annually for basic care and nearly another $1,000 for equipment and clothing, according to the report. Those who board their horses spend an average of $6,000 annually per horse for boarding and training, the report says. Also, 75 percent of the money spent on horses by Howard residents stays in the county, according to the report.
"It's a very strong industry," said Malcolm Commer Jr., livestock economist at the University of Maryland. "It's getting stronger in that more people are getting involved and more dollars are going into it."
In the rural parts of Howard County, the density of the horse population is among the nation's highest, Commer said. Such a concentration of animals sets the stage for a thriving industry that supports itself as well as traditional agriculture.
"For every human support source, there's a correlating support industry for horses - dentistry, veterinary medicine, transportation, insurance, advertising, publishing, clothing, therapeutic massage," said Crystal Brumme, secretary for the Maryland Horse Council and editor of The Equiery magazine.
"You need all the traditional agricultural services as well - tractors, plows," she said. "Consequently, all of that activity contributes to the economic impact."
Previous estimates of the county's equine economy included only accounts of horse sales, workers' wages, and sales of goods and services such as feed and veterinarian bills. Those estimates left out the money generated by boarding facilities, horse training and recreational activities - items on which Howard County residents spend money, Myers said, because most horse owners in Howard have the animals for pleasure, not business.
That's no surprise to Eileen Listrani, owner of the Grey Pony Saddlery in Highland. When she and a partner started the shop in 1985, they did so because of their interest in horses. Five years later, they moved to a larger location, and the business has grown every year, she said. But she is not the only one benefiting from increased interest.
"People are getting more into all the aspects of horses - owning, pony clubs, showing," Listrani said. "Boarding facilities are filled. People who are teaching have a lot of customers."
Kim Williams, a trainer who runs Willow Wood at Huntington Farms in Woodbine, said she has had such an increase in the number of clients, she stopped offering beginner lessons two years ago.
Williams said that not only has she seen an increase in the number of people interested in horses, but also owners are spending more on horses.
The industry's growth isn't new. Many respondents to the survey said they had been involved in the horse business for 20 years or more, Myers said.
"That means the industry is going to stay," she said.
The largest threat is one that Howard County has not addressed - the lack of trails and space for residents to enjoy their animals recreationally.
Commer said an effort to build an equestrian facility in Howard in recent years failed, but Montgomery County and Baltimore County are moving forward with plans for facilities. "If Howard County as an entity does not address this issue, it's going to lose because people are going to take their horses elsewhere," he said.
The report recommends that the county develop a trail network, maintain open space and agreements that support equestrian events and market equine events and services to promote tourism.