Did you know there are a lot of horses in Kentucky?
It seems such a silly question, like asking about peaches in Georgia or corn in Iowa.
But there's great value in understanding the details and economic impact of a state's key industry, even if the broad conclusion appears obvious.
This week, researchers unveiled the most comprehensive and statistically accurate study of Kentucky's equine industry since 1977. The results are a mixture of the expected and the surprising, but industry leaders believe the Kentucky Equine Survey provides an invaluable roadmap for the future.
“I think it underscores that the horse is very significant to the state of Kentucky, even more significant when you look at the size of the state, GDP and other factors,” said Jill Stowe, a University of Kentucky professor in agricultural economics and the project's lead.
With assistance from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and the Kentucky Horse Council, researchers mailed 15,000 questionnaires to equine operations across the state, and created a sample, stratified by operation size and geographic location.
“The way it's been done here is the way to get the most accurate numbers, so we can make the best decisions,” Stowe said.
The survey identified 35,000 equine operations and $1.1 million acres devoted to equine use. The total value of horses and equine-related assets came to $23.4 billion. Since several other states have used the NASS sampling techniques in recent years, researchers can make valid comparisons with those numbers.
“The one that stood out to me the most was the New York study (in 2005),” Stowe said. “It's equine and equine-related assets were calculated to be $12.1 billion, which is slightly more than half of Kentucky's and that was pre-recession.”
Stowe said since the recession that began in 2008, there has been anecdotal evidence about Kentucky's equine industry but not much data. The study found that Kentucky is home to 242,000 horses, including 54,000 Thoroughbreds, 42,000 Quarter Horses, 36,000 Tennessee Walking Horses and 14,000 Saddlebreds.
“Anecdotally, I've heard people say there are more Quarter Horses than Thoroughbreds in Kentucky, but there's no data to support that,” Stowe said. “It was a mild surprise that there are more Thoroughbreds than Quarter Horses.”
At the same time, the diversity of the state's horse population might be eye-opening to those who only hear about Kentucky's renowned Thoroughbred industry. The primary use of most of Kentucky horses is trail and pleasure riding. There is also significant use of horses for showing and other competitions.
“What it'll do is show people that there a lot of different horses all across the state,” said Ginny Grulke, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Council. “”I think people will say, there's a lot more than what I see here in Central Kentucky.”
For Grulke, the survey is an invaluable tool to assess the needs of those involved with horses.
“We want to know throughout the state, where the pockets of different types of riders are,” Grulke said. “For example, if you have a bunch of people with show horses in one area, do they have a fairgrounds that needs upgrading? In trail-riding areas, are there adequate trails?”
Grulke said the survey results can also help communities decide how to best devote their resources to capitalize on the economic impact of the horse industry – promoting equine-related tourism, for example. For the non-profit KHC, the data is also educational, both for legislators making decisions and for the person on the street.
“This shows you that horses are not just for the wealthy,” Grulke said. “It's not out of reach for the average person and average income. You can be involved with horses by volunteering at a rescue or taking one horse and putting him in a three-acre pasture.”
The results released this week represent the first of two phases. Soon, researchers plan to unveil county-specific data and later this year, phase two will provide a detailed economic impact analysis. Stowe said she also hopes to update the survey, paid for by the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund, every five to ten years.
“I hope people will continue to realize the equine industry is an integral part of Kentucky for a number of reasons, and as we continue to get more results, it will make it a little more real to them how prevalent the equine industry is across the state, and not just in Central Kentucky.”
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