by Alvin Benn
||Horses have always played an integral role in Alabama's history, but few realize the economic importance of the handsome, sturdy animals.
Horses have always played an integral role in Alabama’s history, but they’re often taken for granted because their presence is expected.
Few realize the economic importance of the handsome, sturdy four-legged creatures that have provided labor as well as enjoyment in a state that has become more mechanized and more industrial with each passing decade.
Thanks once again to an Auburn University (AU) study, horses will not be forgotten—not with results showing they provide an economic impact of more than $2 billion annually.
The role of the horse in Alabama has changed dramatically during the past century, just as the state has changed with farmers switching to tractors and families buying automobiles and trucks instead of wagons.
The horse today is a recreational vehicle as evidenced by a growing number of saddle clubs.
The two-year AU study, produced by Joe Molnar and Cindy McCall, showed that Alabama’s horse population rose a whopping 44 percent during the past decade—from 130,000 to 187,000 animals. The report, which is being released this summer, said one of every 20 Alabama households either owns or leases at least one horse.
|Auburn University professor Joe Molnar, left, and Ben Brown, an agricultural technician in charge of caring for horses at the AU Horse Center, check on one of the animals recently.
Molnar, a rural sociologist who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, says horse ownership "is a pervasive part of Alabama life. People from other states come to Alabama and marvel about how much horse activity we have going on here," said Molnar, 56, a Kent State University graduate. "It’s part of the culture here, part of Alabama life."
Created from the Mississippi territory and settled by adventurous souls from Virginia and the Carolinas during the second decade of the 19th century, Alabamians came to rely on the horse to handle much of the labor needed to clear the land and make it more habitable.
The number of farms in Alabama continues to shrink as urban sprawl and giant corporations convert pastures into profit centers.
Horses, like cattle, may be taken for granted, but they last a lot longer than animals destined for McDonalds or Burger King.
According to the study by Molnar and McCall, an AU animal scientist, most of the $2.4 billion derived from horses each year in Alabama comes from care and maintenance including veterinary services, medication, insurance, feed and bedding.
Molnar said their study showed that about 90 percent of Alabama’s horses are used for recreational purposes. They may no longer be hauling equipment or helping to prepare fields like their mule counterparts, but horses still find themselves much in demand.
Horses may not cost as much as a car, but their upkeep can cause some owners to blink when they receive a bill from their veterinarian. The study shows the average maintenance cost to owners is just over $8,700 annually.
It’s even more expensive for those who like to show off their prized animals at competitive events around the state and nation.
The study shows that nearly 10 percent of the Alabama horse population is used for showing at a cost of more than $28,000 annually.
A very small percentage of Alabama horses are classified as "high-value animals" and they can cost their owners nearly $70,000 a year in tender, loving care expenses.
Molnar said the AU study showed that there has been a 44 percent increase in horse ownership in Alabama during the past decade and attributed it, in part, to the growing prosperity in some parts of the state.
"Some people now are able to buy 10 acres of land in Shelby County so they can have one or more horses," he said. "The number of saddle clubs in the state continues to grow. More arenas are being built to show horses."
Alabama can’t compare with Kentucky, Maryland and other states where thoroughbreds are raised and trained, but that hasn’t lessened the love affair its citizens have with those speedy animals.
"People have a great deal of affection for horses," Molnar said. "For example, I think everybody in the country was in love with that horse." He referred to Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner who broke his right rear leg moments after the starting gate opened for the Preakness Stakes in May.
Owning a superstar racehorse is out of reach for most Alabamians, but they can use what they have for special projects related to the equine industry, Molnar said.
"A study such as ours might help obtain a loan, for instance, if it’s related to the equine industry," he said. "It’s important to document that industry and we are happy to have completed our study."
Thoroughbred horses have a long history in Alabama and, while they may not rival their cousins in Kentucky, their presence has a long "track record" in our state.
The AU report points out that Andrew Jackson raced thoroughbreds at a track by the Green Bottom Inn near Huntsville. In addition to an early history of racing in Alabama, thoroughbreds have been popular for English riding clubs, jumping, polo, hunting and pleasure riding. More than 6,500 of that breed call Alabama home.
The study included a telephone survey of 879 Alabama households to find out how many owned horses. The internet also was used with e-mails sent to 130 homes involved in the horse industry.
Molnar said personal interviews also were conducted with several individuals involved in the equine industry. They included owners, breeders, trainers, event organizers, storeowners and suppliers.
Quarter Horses dominate the landscape in Alabama, according to the study. Of the 186,871 horses accounted for in the report, 49,688 are Quarter Horses. The second largest contingent is the Racking Horse with 22,000 in Alabama.
The study also gives credit to equine-related organizations such as the Alabama Horse Council, the Alabama Open Horseman Association and saddle clubs around the state.
"The Alabama horse industry is best understood as a loosely connected aggregate of breeds and related associations that support an annual cycle of competitions and recognition," the study said. "The diversity of breeds is an important attribute of the state’s horse industry."
More than 20 different breeds—from draft horses to Paso Finos—are represented. The state has seen a big increase in the number of non-farm horses since the first study was released 10 years ago.
In Alabama, the Quarter Horse is, by far, the most popular member of the equine industry—used for everything from herding cattle to thrilling crowds at rodeos throughout the state.
"Shows are the major driving force behind Alabama’s Quarter Horse industry," the study said. "In 2005, the American Quarter Horse Association sanctioned 13 Quarter Horse shows in Alabama."
Perhaps the most historic breed in Alabama is the McCurdy Plantation Horse, which was developed by the McCurdy family in Lowndes County in the late 1800s.
The family operated plantations in the Black Belt region west of Montgomery and needed well-gaited, durable horses to oversee and work the land, especially the planting and picking of cotton.
"McCurdy Plantation Horses have a very calm, easy-going temperament that makes them unequaled as personal and family horses," the study said. "They excel at many tasks such as trail riding, field trialing and driving, and working livestock."
In addition to their beauty, poise and popularity on the farm, horses also serve as a therapeutic bonus. Those with physical, mental and emotional problems are encouraged to ride horses whenever they have an opportunity.
The Marion Green-Henry Special Equestrian Program located at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega, is one of the largest therapeutic equine programs in the world.
Most Alabamians own "ordinary" horses and have no intention of entering them in any form of competition. They just like to hop on board to go for a ride on weekends or whenever they have time from work.
The increased popularity of horses no doubt played a part in Auburn University’s decision to add an equine science option to its curriculum, beginning this fall.
The Department of Animal Sciences announced late last year that courses to be offered will include an introduction to horse management and training as well as courses in equine nutrition, biomechanics and shoeing, marketing, coaching, reproductive management and physiology of the equine athlete and horse production.
"This isn’t a series of horseback riding classes," said McCall. "This is a strong science-based program that will prepare students for upper-level-management jobs in the horse industry."
McCall pointed out "a lot of animal sciences students these days don’t come ‘from the farm.’
"They come to us with a horse background," she said. "They aren’t that interested in cows and swine—their interest lies in horses."
for information on the equine course.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.