Opinion by Bill GentleWritten by Bill Gentle
By Bill Gentle, Wyoming Horse Council member
The horse industry as a whole has always been cyclical and dependent on the overall economy of the nation, and that has certainly been true over the last four or five years.
Perhaps 75 or 100 years ago, horses were tools used for transportation and power, but today far and away the majority of horses are used in some form of recreation. Here in Wyoming we still see horses that have a job to do every day, but the majority of horses are used primarily for recreation. In my horseshoeing business in Laramie County, I would guess that about one percent of my clients are ranchers who use their horses in their daily business, and the remaining 99 percent are used in some form of recreation. They might be barrel horses, rope horses, show horses, trail horses or backyard pets that really don’t have a job at all, but almost none of my clients make a living with their horses.
These individuals are attached to their horses, and they are willing to spend the money necessary to take care of them and to participate in their chosen form of recreation. However, it seems to me that over the last four years people have reduced the number of horses they own, cut back on travel to events they would have gone to a few years ago and otherwise tried to reduce expenses. The cost of high quality horse hay and the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel are certainly factors for most people, and I think these expenses are causing people to think a little more before they spend money. I don’t think I have had more than one or two customers who are in financial difficulty; I just think they are very cautious about how they are spending money.
However, across the nation the economy has had a very serious effect on the industry. The upper end of the horse world is dominated by people with real money, and many of these individuals lost lots of money in the stock market or in their businesses. Since horses were just a nice, expensive hobby that they could talk about at the country club, when the economy crashed, they either got out of the horse business or cut way back on their involvement with horses.
Breed registrations fall
This cautious attitude certainly is reflected in the number of horses that the breed registries are registering. According to the Quarter Horse Journal, Quarter Horse registrations are down 33 percent between 2008 and 2011. In 2011 there were 91,074 horses registered, a drop of 9.2 percent from 2010, and the Association is predicting a similar drop in 2012 to around 81,000 new registrations. This is not as serious as the recession in the 1980s when registrations went from 164,478 in 1984 to 101,648 in 1992, but it is still a major decrease. This trend is also reflected in Thoroughbreds, Paints and all the other breed registries. Overall demand for horses has fallen, and, until we see a strong turnaround in the nation’s economy, this trend will continue.
However, I hear all the time that the horse market is terrible and that no one is selling horses, and that is just not true. Good horses that can do a job are commanding good prices. The Billings, Mont. horse sale is reporting very good prices and the other spring horse sales I have seen are also strong. Numbers are down at some of these sales, but good horses have good value, and poor horses have poor value. That was true eight years ago, and it is still true today. I have a few customers who are trying to sell $1,000 horses and are having a hard time finding buyers, but these horses aren’t broke or have other big holes, and it’s always been hard to find buyers for these kinds of horses. I also have a customer who recently bought one horse for $10,000 and another for $8,000, and these two horses can both go out and do their job tomorrow and do it well.
I think the horse market will continue to strengthen, and if you have good horses you will find willing buyers.
Wyoming’s racing industry
On a similar subject, as many people know, the racehorse industry has had financial trouble for a number of years. I guess I am pretty naive, but I think I had failed to realize how closely related the racehorse world was to the gambling industry. I just assumed people took their horses to the track and if they had fast horses they made lots of money. That might be true, but the money came from the gamblers who were placing two-dollar bets on their horses to win. With the advent of casinos and lotteries and various other forms of gambling, the race world lost a lot of bettors who supported the racing industry. Tracks all over the country have gone broke and closed, and the ones who have hung on have survived because they have managed to get slot machines or other forms of gambling at the track. In Wyoming we have provided an economic incentive to track owners by allowing a track that has a permit to run horse races to also operate off track betting (simulcast) facilities in Wyoming.
In Wyoming we had a good track running horses in Evanston, but due to a number of factors that track did not run horses in 2009 and 2010. Eugene Joyce, who has close ties to Wyoming horse racing, began running horse racing in Rock Springs in 2011 and he will be running there again this summer. Joyce is also operating the simulcast facilities in Wyoming.
In addition, Eric Nelson has purchased the track in Evanston, so there is potential for racing there again in the future. Both of these individuals have made significant investments to bring horse racing back to Wyoming, and I am optimistic they will succeed. It will take a while for Wyoming racehorse breeders to get babies on the ground, trained and at the track, so I think we will be dependent on out-of-state owners for a while, but racehorse people like to run horses, so I think our racing industry will grow in the next few years.
Wyoming is good horse country, and there is no reason that we can’t grow the horse industry across the state. I know very few people in Wyoming who are making a living full-time with horses, but I know many people who are supplementing their regular income with money from their horse business. With our small population and tough winters, it’s a tough business to be in, but we do have a lot of good horses, lots of good horsemen and horsewomen, and, if we remain optimistic and promote each other, I think we can have many more individuals making a living full time in the horse business.