LAUREL – The riders have helmets strapped tight under their chins and glossy boots up to their knees. Stacks of hay and bags of feed lean up against the walls. All the chatter in the stable is about my horse, my horse, my horse. Whose is the fastest? The gentlest? The smartest?
But there’s not a race track in sight. Or a race horse, for that matter.
For all the attention given to racing’s contributions to Maryland’s economy, a significant part of the horse industry in Maryland is about recreation, not gambling. A study released this year by the American Horse Council found that 73 percent of the horses in Maryland are used for purposes other than racing. The same study, based on 2003 data, found that just under half of the $1.0 billion direct economic impact of the horse industry came from recreational, showing, and other non-racing use of horses.
That doesn’t surprise Darla Sweeney, night manager at the Columbia Horse Center, a riding and boarding facility on 88 acres in Laurel. Sweeney has been working there for three years, and she says she has seen steady growth in the lessons and the boarding side of the business. Her daughter is one of those riders, and they board a horse, Nico, at the stables.
ItÕs not that the recreational riders – mostly girls – are against horse racing. It just doesnÕt strike them as having much to do with the sort of competitions they participate in, such as hunter jumper, cross country and dressage.
When asked if they are interested in thoroughbred racing, most of the girls at the center one recent afternoon just brushed off the question. “It looks kind of fun,” says Elisa Allen, 14, while giving Laurie Hoke, 11, a piggyback ride through one of the stables.
“But theyÕre not totally separate worlds,” said Sweeney, pointing out that some of the girls who take lessons there have parents who own race horses. The center also hosts an annual Preakness Day Party.
Amy O. Burk, an assistant professor and horse extension specialist at the University of Maryland, said she thinks recreational racing could be affected by cutbacks in racing, but not severely. “I think the opportunities on the recreational side are growing and are going to grow for some time.”
Horses used for recreation tend to require slightly higher expenses for tack and other equipment than those used for racing, but race horses are more costly to board, feed and train. Boarding and training a race horse, for instance, cost an average of $3,003 a year, compared with $1,705 a year for a horse primarily used for showing.
Those bills aren’t all being paid by parents on behalf of their little girls, though. Many adults have also taken up the sport. Some of them come back to horses after taking lessons as a child, others sign up for lessons as total novices. The center, which has two indoor and two outdoor lighted rings, a dressage ring, and a crossing country and stadium jumping course, welcomes them all.
Robert Crawford, a federal government worker who lives in Columbia, is one of the former. And once he got a taste of riding again, he decided to buy his own horse, Rolex. He boards his horse at the center.
Crawford said he spends about $1,000 a month feeding, boarding and caring for Rolex, but considers the expense worth it since he rides nearly every day. “ItÕs relaxing,” he said.
Melinda Becker of Ellicott City said her oldest daughter comes to the center once a week, for a 45 minute private lesson, a choice that she says gives “more bang for the buck compared with a group lesson,” despite its higher price tag. Weekly group lessons at the center cost $176 for four weeks; a single private lesson costs $60. Columbia residents get a discount on those prices.
The lessons are just the beginning, though. Besides two weeks of horsemanship summer camp at $650, Becker also has to keep her daughter equipped with a helmet, crop and boots. “SheÕs on her fifth pair of riding boots,” Becker said.
And for those items, Becker heads to Bits and Bridles, a tack shop in Ellicott City.
Beth Winick, co-owner of Bits and Bridles, said she gets some business from the race tracks but that most of her customers are not tied to racing. The majority are recreational riders, but they also get business from people who compete professionally in events such as dressage and hunter jumper. Her customers come from as far away as the Eastern Shore and Pennsylvania.
The price of the supplies regular riders buy from her varies, depending on quality. “One family might want top of the line, another might not,” Winick said.
The price of a pair of boots ranges from $40 up to several hundred dollars; a helmet, also $40 and up; gloves run from $7 a pair, up to $60 a pair. How much people are willing to spend often depends on how long the person has been riding. People are more likely to spring for better equipment when theyÕve been riding for a considerable length of time, rather than just starting. “In that way, itÕs just like any other sport,” she said. –