Trails, Not Tracks, Are What's Hot In Maryland

Horse racing may be fading out, but recreational riding is increasingly popular -- and supports thousands of jobs

September 25, 2005|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,Sun Reporter

The majority of horses in Maryland never set a hoof on a racetrack.

They roam over miles of outdoor trails, trot around indoor rings and graze over acres of pastureland, kept for pleasure by thousands of horse lovers in every county in the state.

This weekend alone, some horses will sail over jumps at the Columbia Classic Grand Prix show-jumping competition and others will be judged on their skills at two Baltimore County Horse Show Association events in Owings Mills. Many will participate in the Legacy Chase at Shawan Downs in Hunt Valley. A few will even wear costumes as part of the fall fundraiser for the Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Lisbon.

According to the 2002 Maryland Equine Census, 52,300 equines -- 60 percent of the total 87,100 equines in the state -- were not associated with the racing industry.

Light horse breeds, which include Appaloosa, Arabian, quarter, Tennessee walking, Morgan, Paint and miniature horses, among others, account for 42,000 of the state's horses. Another 2,200 draft horses, 5,900 ponies and 2,200 mules, donkeys and burros were also counted in the state.

Baltimore, Montgomery and Frederick Counties have the most horses: a combined 32 percent of the horse population.

Horse ownership tends to work well on the outskirts of urban areas, said LuAnne Levens, a staff member at The Equiery magazine in Lisbon and past president of the Maryland Horse Council.

Cities and suburbs provide jobs for people who keep a few horses at home and supply customers for small horse businesses like boarding facilities and riding lessons.

Some small farms of 20 to 30 acres remain on the outskirts of suburban centers -- sometimes divided out of larger dairy and beef farms that once were common in Central Maryland, Levens said.

More "farmettes" have cropped up where people keep a couple of horses on an acre or two of land.

Rob Burk, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, said most horses in the state are owned by households with an income below $125,000.

"Lots of people see this as a good way to get their children outside to enjoy the environment," he said.

A study by the American Horse Council released this summer found that activities other than racing accounted for about half of Maryland's horse-related economic activity each year, Burk said.

The study also estimated that recreational activities, including horse shows, recreational riding and other activities, provided 5,000 direct jobs and about 14,000 total jobs.

Recreational horse activities have become so popular, the Maryland Stadium Authority is conducting feasibility studies for building a horse park that can be used by Marylanders and visitors for steeplechases, eventing (a combination of dressage, cross-country courses and stadium jumping), fox chasing, show jumping, rodeos, and other horse activities.

The horse park plan calls for a concession area, campground, offices, a museum and an equine retirement center on 800 to 1,200 acres.

Horse lovers across the state have embraced every conceivable hobby associated with the animals, from the precise movement of dressage to the flat-out speed of barrel racing to Maryland's state sport, jousting.

Polo continues to thrive in some corners of the state, including at clubs in Poolesville, Monkton and Owings Mills. And the Saddle Guys and Gals out of Damascus ride their horses in formation to music as one of the area's few equine drill teams.

"I've always had horses; I grew up with horses," said Patti Mathis, a founder of the Saddle Guys and Gals. "I'd be lost without them, honestly. ... There is a bond there that is different than a dog or cat. There is a greater sense of accomplishment."

Trail riding is perhaps the most popular activity. According to the 2002 census, 58 percent of places with horse activities said they had trail riding.

That has made preservation and access to trails an important issue for equine enthusiasts.

Trail Riders of Today (TROT) formed 25 years ago because "It became very obvious to us the state was rapidly being paved over, and the day was going to come when we were going to have no place to ride," said Anne Bennof of Woodbine, a founding member.

The group's efforts to work with developers, county officials and state agencies have made some headway, Bennof said. In particular, Montgomery County has gone from fining horse riders caught on county trails $25 to promoting horse and multipurpose trails in almost every large park.

The group is continuing its efforts in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Wicomico counties.

Amateur horse shows are another popular activity, Levens said.

"There is a very large group of people who show and take clinics," she said. Adult amateurs are a particularly large segment of those who show, and they support an industry of riding schools and specialized seminars, she said.

For many, she said, riding and caring for horses gives people a connection to a simpler, bucolic lifestyle.

When it comes to owning a horse, however, "the only thing that stops it in its tracks a little bit is the question of affordability," she said.

A farmette has become very expensive in Montgomery County, among other places, she said. People are now looking for a few acres to keep their horses in Frederick and Carroll counties, even if they work in the Baltimore or Washington areas.

Many others board their horses at stables and farms.

Boarding facilities, veterinarian bills, horseshoes and equipment can cost thousands of dollars a year, Levens said. She estimated that a customer caring for one dressage horse at her boarding stable in Spencerville and actively pursuing lessons and shows would pay about $10,000 per year.

But, she said, people who get the horse bug are willing to take on the expenses.

"I have a friend who calls it a disease," Levens said. "It gets in your blood and you can't get rid of it."

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