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How to future-proof the horse industry

I’ve seen this post circulating on Facebook and there have been a lot of thought provoking comments: https://www.facebook.com/share/p/Z2ivmYUY8HKqbuUs/?mibextid=WC7FNe

I totally appreciate the pressures that the horse industry is facing (rising inflation, affordability crises, labour shortages, etc). It’s concerning to hear of burnt out professionals leaving the industry entirely, but I also don’t blame them.

Everyone is in agreement that things need to change. I’m curious though - what are some solutions? What specifically needs to change? Is it something that we as horse owners/participants in the equine industry can influence, or are we heading towards a reality where only the ultra wealthy will be able to participate in this sport?

Asking as a horse owner who would like to be a part of the solution so that I can continue to enjoy horses for decades to come :blush:

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This has been all over my FB feed too.

I do think people’s perceptions can get a bit skewed based on where they sit in “the equine industry” or exactly which equestrian “sport” they are trying to participate in. I live in rural New England, most people I know (crossing age ranges and socioeconomic status) have small farms and their horses at home. We still have multiple good options for farriers, vets, and hay providers, though we won’t be immune forever from the worrying trends related to shortages of all three spreading across the country. My personal line in the sand is that if I no longer live in a place where a vet is willing to do emergency farm calls, I’ll be done with horses.

I am a happy hacker/intro-level endurance rider, and there are tons of rides in my area. If I didn’t want to compete, I could go ride 15 or 25 or 50 miles on dirt roads and trails without paying anything. I can enter a 15 mile intro ride for around $50, which may have a stall and meal included depending on where it’s held. If I was trying to compete at longer distances, that would set me back for an entry fee of around $200-400 for the weekend, depending on the distance and location. My perception is that a lot of the western sports can be similarly affordable? Not sure, that’s not a world I’m familiar with but seems to be healthy in terms of participants?

I guess one thing that could change to keep people in horses in some way is letting go of the higher level competitions and leaving those to the uber-wealthy. There are a lot of other ways to “do horses” without competing on the A circuit, and you don’t automatically become a sack of potatoes on a stumbling wooly mammoth just because you don’t keep your horse in a pro training program. It’s just going to be a really different experience of having horses than a lot of people have become used to. Might some people have to reassess their motivation and goals if they have been accustomed to the show scene? Sure. And is it easy to find a quality barn of any type, full training board or no, if you don’t have your own farm? Nope, and I know that is harder or easier depending on where you live.

But like so many things, I think the equine industry is hitting an inflection point where the middle has fallen out- it’s becoming either the highest of high end or the questionably poor low end. There’s not a lot left in the middle. So where do we go from here? I suppose my hope is that as some people decide the highest of high end isn’t desirable or feasible any more, that revives some of that middle eventually. But if it’s either high end or nothing, the pressure in the middle just worsens.

Really interested to hear what others think about this.

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here I see the english part of the industry is pricing out the middle class thru cost and red tape, their show/clinic numbers appear to be dropping steadily, not sure about the western show crowd. The more DIY disciplines like endurance and gymkana are doing well. During covid there was a big spike in people moving their horses home to hobby farms, it leveled off after the restrictions were lifted but the last 2 months I have noticed another uptick in the two horse at home sort of property. Suspect with inflation people are sacrificing the indoor arena and showing and moving the horses home to hang out.

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It is very expensive to maintain horse property at the moment, even if all you are doing is keeping things safely running. The farm I board at just rebuilt two one-acre paddocks. They were decades old, and needed to be fully rebuilt to be safe - $8,000. New electrical for the barn as it was sparking and fuzzing out - another couple thousand. Tree removal so that downed limbs don’t damage property and cause injury to horses: another couple thousand. Materials and labor are expensive.

I don’t have answers, but I do know that horse showing is a nice-to-have. You can have a very fulfilling horsey life without ever signing up for a show. There is a lot of enjoyment to be had learning to be an effective rider and consummate horseman. I think the more we can emphasize that showing is not necessary to participate in horses, and start to move the business model away from that aspect, this may help with affordability. Horses don’t care about ribbons, they don’t care about designer barns, they don’t care about matchy-matchy. Remove the frippery and you can save so much money. Riding and horse ownership become more attainable.

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“How to future-proof the horse industry?” isn’t an effective question because “the horse industry” isn’t really a single thing. Do you mean the FEI-level dressage horse industry? The Thoroughbred flat racing horse industry? The competitive trail riding horse industry? The AQHA breed show horse industry? The backyard horse industry? And on and on.

The different horse industries do share some of the same pressures, but also have their own unique pressures and have taken some unique approaches to strengthen their own segment of the horse industry.

I don’t think it’s even possible to “future-proof” some segments of the industry. There are things we have no control over that have effects that we can’t counter. I think you(g) have to be flexible and accept that your(g) personal horse life may need to be radically different in the future.

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I could be totally wrong about this, but I think the puck is headed towards predominantly self-care.

Boarding horses has never been a money maker. But with the cost of everything being so high, the only way to make boarding viable for more than just the ultra-wealthy will be to basically elimate all the farm owner’s expenses sans land & infrastructure and whatever is necessary to maintain them.

Of course, self-care doesn’t work for everyone or in all situations, so there will still be people pushed out.

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As a (training) barn owner, there is no way in hell I’d let people do self care. And I’m very picky and already have educated, considerate clients. I’ve been at barns with every level of care, from self through full training, and having that many cooks in the kitchen always makes for 1) a messy barn, 2) often an unsafe barn (so and so forgot to latch the gate/close the feed room/pick up after themselves in the aisleway), and 3) a place where things (all the way from sponges to tack and feed) go “missing.” Sure, it can work in small barns where everyone is on the same page, but I’ve found that there are very few people that have the same standards for safety and cleanliness that I do. 🤷

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Labour shortages should not be a thing in our industry. We have so many decently trained people who love working with horses.

However, we also have stupidly low wages in most cases, and employers who remain stubborn on that due to “being burnt before.” That’s an employer’s problem. Retention is an inside job, not some sort of magic worker bee dust that only gets sprinkled on some industries and witheld from others.

Makes me very sad. Our industry wastes a lot of good people.

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This is what grabbed me from the FB post:

“I just had working students who worked off their housing, board and training. And that worked much better. But that seems to be a thing of the past? People now expect all that AND $600+ a week.”

How were the working students eating without a paycheck?

Perhaps what she is saying is that people who have money are no longer willing to work for no pay. Or perhaps there are fewer people who can afford to work for no pay.

I think that it is probably the latter, because the economy has changed and there are fewer people willing to do what is essentially free internships in a profession that will never give them the ability to make a lot of money. It’s not like a free internship at Microsoft or Fidelity Investments.

Maybe there are people out there in a position to do that for the big trainers who have a lot of name recognition (think Olympians and WEG) and who have a lot of world class horses to ride. But that’s not many, and generally they can afford to hire muckers and other barn help.

So I don’t really see the lack of free labor as being a problem for the “future of the horse industry.” I see the diminishing amount of land available in places where people have to live because it’s where they work as the biggest problem going forward.

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I thought “board” when referring to humans meant food, as in “room and board”.

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“board and training.” In that context, I think that she meant for the student’s horse.

Maybe I’ve just never been at a barn where food was provided for humans?

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I agree with this wholeheartedly.

There is also this expectation that you should devote your life to the job. That you should work incessantly just for the experience of being part of someone else’s dream. And if you are unwilling to sacrifice work/life balance or a liveable wage, you’re “scared of hard work.”

One of the more frustrating aspects of the horse industry is that no one outside of horses appreciates how highly skilled the work is and how transferable those skills are. You can spend years managing a multimillion dollar farm and it’s employees, and even the local fast food joint will likely view your resume as “no management experience.”

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We’ve lost too much land. We’ve lost accessibility to land that is still out there. Our kids aren’t riding. Expenses for so many things are so over the top how could any newbie, or even oldie trying to encourage a newbie justify this expense?
Boarding barns are closing at an alarming rate. 3 years ago the barn I was at sold, and so did 3 others within a 5-mile radius. Displaced over 40 horses, none of them reopened as boarding barns.
I’m in rural Oregon. We used to have local horse group shows, basically just backyard shows where people generally had a good time. People generally kept their horses at home, not so much anymore. We used to have a lot of Poker Rides and such, not anymore. The land is gone, or access to the land is gone, the numbers of riders are way down, insurance costs are too high and have caused events to not be worthwhile anymore.
OET along with a biking group used to put on an annual ‘Horses, Hikers, and Mountain Bikers’ ride every year. Sponsors and others donated prizes. We had a BBQ lunch afterwards. Several years ago the ride was cancelled because of the insurance issue.
Another thing that comes to mind is it seems the push is “everyone needs to be in a program”, especially children. No, they don’t! Let them enjoy their pony. Let them learn by the seat of their pants. Quit micromanaging every aspect of life - and not just in horse things. It’s okay to fall off and get back on. How many of us learned that way? Why don’t we want anybody else to?

I have no real answers. Where I’m at I see every last bit of land being gobbled up for apartments and it makes me sick. Places I used to ride with impunity, blocked off. It’s sad.

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I think that the equine industry, as we have known it, is dying. The middle participants are becoming more scarce. The billionaires are doing just fine, buying horses, flying around the world, getting rid of broken horses, and buying more, without a care in the world. The backyard trail riders, who keep their horses at home are staying alive, recreational riding, doing the odd clinic or local show in their discipline of choice. But the middle part is gone… those people who often do their own training at home, clean their own barns, buy their own hay, do their own riding, buy and sell some horses, do some competing against the big guys. Because those middle guys are the ones who bring on the talent, in both horses and riders, and horsemen. THOSE people seem to be becoming more scarce. JMHO.

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and the middle kids are the people who become our vets, farriers, saddlers, body workers etc rich kids may become trainers and poor immigrants will do grooming and grounds keeping for the wealthy but skilled trades are those middle class horse mad kids grown up.

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There is a second part of “the middle” - those of us who board because we dont want to have to care for horse(s) on our own property. (We work full time, have family commitments, we are older, whatever) Who want the social aspects of boarding. Dont want full time training, like the smaller shows.
I’ve been at my current barn for 14 years, watching surrounding land be developed faster and faster, watching prices of everything necessary (feed, bedding, maintenance, help) going up. Watching the number of boarding options drop steadily, especially those places that suitable for a retired horse - no real amenities, but 12 hr turnout.

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This!! This is the part of the middle that I occupy as well. I live in a high cost of living area and every year watch the city boundary stretch further and further into the country. Makes me worry what the landscape will be like a decade from now.

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The last undeveloped particle in our city has just been approved for a townhouse development of 16 units per acre putting 74 units on that track

We own the center lot of a track where the housing is on multiple acre lots that is being targeted for “redevelopment” , I really have to be care when I cut the front lawn otherwise one or more people stop asking if we wanted to sell.

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We should do this, but this is the insurance problem. People are so lawsuit happy these days that there’s no more learning how to jump by popping over a log on the trail (maybe bareback! :scream:). It’s sad, because that’s the best way to learn. I learned how to canter bareback on the trail in a halter. No way a trainer would allow that now - too much risk that Susie falls off and breaks her arm.

I’ve worked at barns that if a horse so much as tosses its head you’re to get off and have it longed because god forbid it not go around like a robot. :roll_eyes: I also worked at a barn that forced me to ace the LESSON HORSES when I was hacking them after a few days of bad weather. 🤦🏻

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It was a shock to me when I moved from southeastern Pennsylvania, where there is a robust culture of middle participants, to middle Tennessee. I moved in the aughts, before Nashville was the popular destination it is now.

There was very little “middle.” Land was still affordable in middle TN back then, and in theory, the area could support plenty of middle class horse owners. Instead you had very poor, true “backyard” situations and you had wealthy horse owners. It made it very difficult to be in the middle and own horses. The bottom was really bad and anything quality was so ridiculously expensive.

After more than a decade, I couldn’t do it anymore and moved back east. Here in Maryland, we still have a relatively healthy middle class horse community. But the question is how long will it be able to sustain itself? There are so many forces working against it.

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