For a state known around the world for its horses, there has been one thing missing for quite some time: We don’t know how many of them call Kentucky home.
That’s about to change, however, thanks to a survey now being done by equine programs at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville and the Kentucky Horse Council, with help from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy.
The need for an accurate census is there, since the last one was 35 years ago. Final figures are expected by the end of the year, with data on the horse industry’s full economic impact due in early 2013.
While we wait for the details, there is no question that they will be significant. One estimate pegs the number of horses at 350,000, while the economic impact will be measured in the billions of dollars. Horse-related sales alone last year topped $700 million, which was just below cattle sales and fourth among the state’s leading agricultural commodities.
It didn’t take long after Kentucky became a state in 1792 before other areas of the country recognized the quality of our horses. There were some major ups and downs during the 1800s – with the Civil War setting us back considerably – but our fortunes were on the upswing by the time the Kentucky Derby ran its first race in 1875.
Interestingly, Kentucky established ties to the third leg of the Triple Crown just a decade later, when August Belmont – for whom the Belmont Stakes are named – moved his operations from New York to Central Kentucky, setting the stage for other wealthy horsemen to follow.
For a time in the early 1900s, racing was largely illegal in the country except here and in Maryland. This proved to be an opportune time for Kentucky, however, as it gave us a chance to solidify our reputation as the “Horse Capital of the World.”
Last year, the General Assembly’s Program Review and Investigations Committee took a closer look at a key aspect of that title — the Thoroughbred breeding industry – and found that, in many ways, little has changed over the last century.
In 2010, for example, Kentucky had 43 percent of the Thoroughbred mares bred in the country, which was almost as many as the next nine states combined. The percentage of foals registered each year, meanwhile, has grown significantly; we had 19 percent of the country’s total in 1991 but 43 percent in 2010.
Overall, the committee found, the state’s Thoroughbred breeding industry is directly and indirectly responsible for 17,600 jobs, with earnings exceeding $350 million.
This breed may be one of the first to come to mind when we think of horses in Kentucky, but only 20 percent of the state’s horses are dedicated to racing, according to the Kentucky Horse Council. Saddlebreds are also popular, and last week were the focus of the World’s Championship Horse Show, which is held annually in conjunction with the Kentucky State Fair.
It goes without saying that horses have played an integral role in making Kentucky what it is today. Whether that was helping to settle the land, plow a field or find a finish line faster than horses from anywhere else, their contributions helped to make us who we are – and they’re poised to continue that long into the future.