Maryland is for horses

January 11, 2003

GOT A HORSE in your life? With at least 87,000 beating, equine hearts in the state, it's quite possible that you do.

Maybe your child takes riding lessons after school or at camp. Maybe you go to the racetrack once in awhile, or bet on races from home. Maybe you're a trainer, a breeder, a show rider, a trail rider or a fox chaser.

Maybe you just live near a horse farm or drive by one occasionally, enjoying the bucolic view.

In what may seem startling news, a recent census revealed that the Maryland horse industry is huge and growing. A surge of recreational riders - many of them adult women - has offset a contraction in Maryland horse racing to stoke an economic engine estimated at more than $2 billion a year.

As the General Assembly contemplates whether to install slot machines at racetracks, it should take care not to kill the goose that's already laying a golden egg. Recreational riding is now the stronger part of the industry, but it depends on racing for many of its resources.

Most important are the horses, which often retire young from the track to gentler careers in pleasure riding. Racetracks also attract top quality veterinarians and farriers to the state. All the small businesses that make up the horse industry fare better if their customers come both from racing and recreational riding.

Horses currently constitute one of Maryland's top three agricultural industries, competing for first place with chickens and nursery products, including ornamental shrubbery and turf. Grain crops like soy and corn run a distant fourth.

And horses are increasingly being used in therapeutic riding programs here to help people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities better connect with the world.

Horse properties also play an important role in environmental protection and land conservation. In many cases, horse operations move onto tracts farmers have abandoned, continuing an open space use while usually keeping the land on the tax rolls.

One of the best examples of a horse-related preservation effort is Shawan Downs in Baltimore County, 291 acres of lush, rolling countryside along Interstate 83 that's been saved from development to become a steeplechase course and equestrian center.

State officials have begun taking notice of this money-maker in their midst. The recently completed horse census represents a first step toward gauging the size and impact of the industry with an eye toward promoting it further. A special fee is being levied on horse-feed sales to support the effort through grants and other activities.

There's great potential for tourism. On any given weekend, at least five major horse-related events are under way. Some 25,000 enthusiasts are expected to attend the four-day Horse World Expo in Timonium next week to hear lectures, watch demonstrations and spend money on horse-related products offered by hundreds of vendors. Those purchases will be subject to the state sales tax, as will their meals and hotel accommodations.

Ka-ching!

County officials throughout the state should get in on the action by encouraging horse barns and training facilities to locate within their borders through conservation easements and other incentives.

Such properties provide jobs and boost the local economy without draining county services. Plus, they give all who pass the few moments of serenity that comes from watching a gleaming chestnut mare grazing on a hillside or foals frolicking about a paddock.

That way, everyone can have a horse in their life.

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