Howard County has the most horses per square mile of any county in Maryland, according to the state's first equine census, released this month.
The survey was conducted by the Maryland Agricultural Statistical Service on behalf of the Maryland Horse Industry Board. The figures, although welcome, are not surprising to horse-lovers and equine businesses that have watched the local horse industry grow in recent years.
"The study validates what several individual counties have been saying: The equine industry is much bigger than perceived," said Ginger Myers, a Howard County agricultural marketing specialist.
"When people discuss the economic engine here, horses are a component that wasn't weighed very heavily," Myers said. But, "they do contribute in many of the same ways traditional farms do."
In Howard, there are 5,190 horses, largely concentrated in the western part of the county. Light breeds used for horse shows and recreational riding are particularly popular in the area. A growing number of adults - particularly women - are finding that they have the money and leisure to own horses and engage in hobbies such as trail riding and dressage.
At the Howard County Fair, the horse shows grow every year, said Peggy Schultz, a Cooksville horse-owner who serves as chairwoman of the fair's horse department. As a fan of Western-style riding, she has noted a growth in the number of quarter horses in the area. There are also Arabian horses, thoroughbred and nonthoroughbred hunters, plantation walking horses, Shetland and Welsh ponies, miniature horses and draft horses.
Statisticians are calculating the economic impact of the horse industry in Maryland, but it is thought to be about $1.5 billion, said Gregory W. Gingery, chairman of the Maryland Horse Industry Board. That sum includes money spent locally on grain and hay raised by farmers, supplies, veterinary services, trucks and trailers and other items as well as the effects of the racing industry, breeding operations and stables for boarding and lessons.
Statewide, 38,000 people are involved in the horse industry, excluding hired labor.
"The beauty of the census is, we have become visible," said Tracy McKenna, managing editor of The Equiery, a horse publication based in Lisbon, in western Howard County. "We now have some facts and figures ... we do matter, we do benefit the state, we do benefit the county."
The census showed that Howard County had 20.59 equine animals - mostly horses, with a few ponies, donkeys and mules - for every square mile of land. Cecil County was second, with 18.9 animals per square mile and Baltimore was third, with 17.74.
The census found that the state's 87,100 horses, ponies, donkeys and mules are centered in the northern and central counties. Howard County is in eighth place in the state for its total number of animals. Baltimore County led the count, with 10,630, followed by Montgomery and Frederick counties.
The horse industry is compatible with suburban settings, experts say.
Horses are environmentally and aesthetically acceptable in areas where neighbors might be close by, said Malcolm Commer, an extension equine economist at the University of Maryland.
Horse businesses can bring in a lot of income per acre, which is important for viability in areas in which land is among the most expensive in the country, Commer said.
Individuals who own horses can keep one horse or several on a relatively small amount of land, said McKenna. Plus, boarding and riding stables rely on customers who live nearby but don't keep horses at their homes.
Gingery called the survey results "a linchpin document" that can be used to support a number of efforts throughout the state.
His board would like to use these numbers to encourage increased marketing of Maryland as a place for horses - to attract business and tourism - with glossy brochures, posters in airports and other materials.
Locally, Myers sees the results supporting the addition of horse farms to agriculture preservation programs. Howard County allows horse farms to participate in agricultural preservation efforts, but the state does not.
The horse industry also needs land for trails, hunts and shows, Myers said. The census could encourage the Department of Recreation and Parks or other departments to provide more horse-related amenities and boost agritourism.
Economic development experts, McKenna said, can "look at their counties ... look at the figures and say, `What does the horse community do for our county's growth income, and what can we do in return to promote the horse industry?'"
In addition to other numbers, "this census really demonstrates how tremendously strong and healthy the light-horse breed activity is," said Gingery. Light horses are used mainly for recreation and shows.
Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, primarily associated with horse racing, constitute 40 percent of all breeds in the state, according to the census, while horses associated with recreational activities, including Morgan, Arabian, quarter horse and American Saddle, constitute 48 percent. The rest are draft ponies, mules, donkeys and burros.
Schultz noted the many breeds of horses and the variety of horse activities, from racing to cross-country riding to dressage to driving horse-drawn carts. "Horses are about the most versatile animals in the world," she said.