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Horse industry thriving in Maryland amid changes

Despite the foundering economy, and dwindling racing industry, the state’s horse industry is still contributing to the economy and holding its own in some segments, says a recent Maryland Equine Census — the first in nearly a decade.

“The horse industry is thriving,” said Steuart Pittman, owner of Dodon Farm in Davidsonville and president of the Maryland Horse Council. “In exurban Maryland the industry is thriving because we have people with money in the county with children who want to ride horses … boarding is thriving while racing is not.”

The last census was taken in 2002, and there have been some wobbles in the numbers since then. For instance, there are 7 percent fewer equine animals in the state, but the value of those animals is up 10 percent.

Statewide data collected showed horse industry assets worth $5.6 billion, with roughly $513 million spent in the past year. The state’s 81,000 equine animals are at 16,040 locations.

Some 587,000 acres are related to the industry and about 32 percent of those acres are strictly for equine activity, the study found.

“These data show the significant value and size of the equine industry in Maryland and serve as confirmation of the economic importance of this viable industry to the State,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley. “We are committed to fostering Maryland’s equine industry and doing all we can to protect the thousands of jobs that depend on our rich history of horse racing and recreational riding.”

The biggest drop came in the number of “equine places,” which dipped 21 percent since 2002. Those include boarding facilities, commercial and private breeding places, farms, commercial race-related places and private residences where recreational equine are kept.

In Anne Arundel County there are only 90 fewer animals than 2002, down to 4,500, but the value of that population went from $27 million to $39.7 million.

Another curious pair of numbers comes in a drop of equine places in Anne Arundel from 1,330 in 2002 to 950, but the number of acres went up from 9,900 to 10,200, hinting at some consolidation of operations.

The county hovered around No. 7 statewide in most categories except for one glaring difference.

Anne Arundel had more capital expenditures, including buying animals and the purchase or improvement of land and equipment, than any other county in the state — by a long shot.

There was just shy of $40 million spent in capital outlays in the county, far outpacing second-place Montgomery County, which had $22.8 million in similar spending.

Why the difference? Representatives of the Department of Agriculture and the National Agricultural Statistics Service-Maryland could not specify because, they said, they did not break out that level of detail. Assumptions are, however, that a number of large land purchases and the creation of a few large horse training and boarding facilities might have accounted for it.

Another thing that might have skewed the numbers is the census methodology. Though some 24,000 questionnaires were sent out, the return rate was 36.5 percent, said Julie Weber, the survey’s statistician. “From there we expanded the reported data to cover those who did not respond.”

So the numbers in the census are not airtight, but they do suggest an industry adapting to changing circumstances and holding on, insiders say.

“The numbers reflect what we expected to see based on the current economic climate,” said Jim Steele, chairman of Maryland Horse Industry Board, which commissioned the survey. “The data show the importance of the industry as a whole from race horses to the pleasure-riding segment.”

And there is another reason people held on to their horse related enterprises, Pittman said.

“The industry is still as big as it is because there’s such a passion, they are going to hang on,” he said. “And it is good for the county if they do because they are preserving open space. The industry is the last stand for agriculture, here and across the country.”

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