Horse Power: Maine’s multimillion dollar economic engine

Posted May 19, 2009, at 8:49 p.m.

No one knows for sure — the figures were estimated from a random survey — but the best conservative guess is there are 35,000 horses in Maine, more than all of the state’s dairy cows.

To put that in perspective, if you stood Maine’s horse population nose to tail, the line would go up and down Mount Katahdin 36 times.

The total financial impact of the horse industry in the state — both direct and indirect — is an impressive $400 million, according to a recent study.

“Horses make a phenomenal contribution to Maine,” Agriculture Commissioner Seth Bradstreet said. “And beyond the dollars, jobs and income, through open land and space, they contribute highly to the quality of place here.”

So much so that the Maine Farm Bureau Horse Council and the Maine Harness Racing Promotion Board commissioned a study to document the far-reaching financial impacts of the industry.

The direct, in-state sales associated with the equine industry are more than $200 million, according to the study conducted by Planning Decisions Inc. of Portland. On top of that, the industry supports an estimated 5,700 jobs and $130 million in income.

But figure in the industry’s indirect impact (purchases up and down the supply chain) and the induced impact (purchases made by employees in the industry) and that impact shoots to almost $400 million.

Carry it a bit further: State and local governments take in $27 million in sales, income, property and other taxes from the industry.

The types of horses and equine businesses in Maine are varied and many.

There are Morab, Lusitano, Arabian, Welsh Cob, Morgan, Appaloosa, quarter horse, paint and Haflinger breeds. They are used for work, driving, pleasure, equitation, therapy, competition, lessons, trail riding and racing. There are large breeding facilities, midsized summer riding camps and the backyard pleasure rider with a single mount.

About 3,200 of Maine’s horses are racers, while 31,800 are pleasure horses.

Maine’s pleasure horses and related assets are worth more than $1 billion. Almost $100 million of that value is held by those in the harness racing industry.

“Maine’s horses race at state fairs and draw crowds to local showing events. They graze in Maine’s open spaces and consume hay grown in Maine fields. They are trained by Maine trainers and treated by Maine veterinarians. In short, Maine’s equine industry is vast, diverse and far-reaching,” the Farm Bureau study assesses. The study also found that there are nearly 90,000 trips a year taken to Maine’s national and state parks for trail riding and other horse uses.

Farms, suppliers doing well

Puckerbrush Farm in Newburgh is a prime example of Maine’s equine versatility and passion.

As the largest taxpayer in Newburgh, Puckerbrush has a huge effect on the local economy. At least 10 people work at the facility, and many more come to town because of the services Puckerbrush offers.

“We board, train, offer lessons, hold shows and clinics,” owner Bryn Walsh said. “The facility was built in the 1970s and so we also have a huge historical value to our town.

“We buy our grain locally in Exeter and then there are all the small incidentals, such as supplements, shampoo and blankets,” Walsh said. Currently 30 horses are stabled at Puckerbrush.

At Hemphill’s in Vassalboro, horses are very big business. The company has been supplying horses, boots, feed, saddlery, trailers and bedding to the horse industry since 1900.

Brenda Hemphill said horse owners are being “business smart” in this slow economy. “They are thinking longer and harder about purchases, not splurging.”

Still, Hemphill’s can sell up to 2,000 horses in a good year and has a very loyal following. “We have a really good flow of customers. True horse people will pay for food for their animals before they will feed themselves,” she said. And it can get expensive.

“After all, these are 1,000-pound animals, not kittens,” she said.

Kamri Hodgeman is a horse trainer at Spirited Horses in Montville. Although she is seeing more animals up for sale that might not have been offered before the recession, she said she also is seeing more horses purchased while prices are depressed.

“And people still need their horses trained,” Hodgeman said. “Everyone in the horse industry plays a part in Maine’s economy. I buy tons of grain from local stores, buy hay only from local farmers — not from New York or Canada — and there is a demand for farriers.”

The horse study revealed that $100 million is spent annually on operational costs: hay, grain, fees, training, farrier services, equipment, bedding, taxes, lease agreements, lessons, clinics and other costs.

Another $72.8 million was spent on the purchase of horses, real estate and equipment.

Dr. Don Hoenig, Maine’s state veterinarian, said there are at least 15 veterinarians in Maine with equine practices. “They are spread all over the state, and I think the state is fairly well-served,” he said. “The impact, however, goes well beyond vets to farriers, feed companies and the people who work in the stables.

“Equine is the growing end of the livestock industry in Maine,” Hoenig said.

Open space, land development

As open space in Maine continues to slowly disappear to development, the contribution made by the equine industry is becoming much more important. “The equine industry contributes significantly to the preservation and use of open space and agricultural land,” the Farm Bureau study reports.

In Maine, 17 percent of the state’s rural land — about 869,000 acres — was lost to residential and commercial development between 1980 and 2000.

But horses are kept on open land. Their hay is grown on open land. About $364 per horse per year is spent on hay — more than $12 million for all — which resulted in 155,000 acres kept open for hay production. Add in open pastures, and horses directly use more than 226,000 acres of agricultural land in Maine.

Don Marean of Hollis is a former legislator, a veteran horse breeder and a member of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association.

He was pivotal in encouraging the impact study and said he was “pleasantly surprised” at its results.

“Drive around the countryside,” he said. “There is a horse in every backyard. Each of those horses represent open space, a family commitment and the purchasing of supplies.

“The horse industry is keeping agriculture alive in Maine,” he said. “It builds the agriculture infrastructure, forestalls development of open space and provides good jobs.”

Marean said that with today’s economy, horse breeders and trainers are cutting back on their numbers, but “even with the same numbers or less of horses, the impact will be larger because the cost of grain, hay and supplies has risen so.”

The racing impact

The Farm Bureau study found that 1,375 horses started at least one race during the past three years. This does not include young horses which are not old enough to race but are being trained or retired racing horses that are used for breeding.

In 2005, the American Horse Council Foundation compiled its own data in “The Economic Impact of the Horse Industry in the U.S.” and estimated that about 3,200 horses in Maine are involved in the racing industry.

This translates into a total impact of $40 million annually, according to 3-year-old statistics. More than 500 people are directly employed by Maine’s racetracks, fairs and simulcast betting facilities.

Marean said Bangor’s racino, Hollywood Slots, “was the salvation of Maine’s harness racing industry.”

He said the profits generated at the gaming facility directly fund harness racing in five parts: 4 percent to commercial tracks, 10 percent for purses, 3 percent for Maine-bred stakes, 3 percent for the 26 Maine agricultural fairs and 2 percent for off-track betting parlors.

“The impact [of the racino] is unbelievable,” Marean said. “This year Maine’s purses will total $2.4 million. We now have two times the horses sharing three times the money.”

Research

At the University of Maine at Orono, equine research is key to many Maine horses — for some, in fact, it could mean an extended life.

Dr. Robert Causey, head of equine reproduction, said that research efforts are in three areas: equine-assisted therapy, developing improved ways of determining breeding times, and improving breeding methods for older mares.

“As the mares age,” he said, “their fertility drops and the horse itself loses its value.” By researching methods to keep mares fertile longer, Causey said, many older mares will be more valuable and therefore will be able to earn their keep as breeders — a win-win situation for both the horses and their owners.

BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTOS BY KATE COLLINS

Brittany Parini of Warren rides her horse Trey during a dressage schooling show held Saturday at Whispering Pines in Newburgh.

Becky Clark walks Ruben to the indoor ring at Puckerbrush Farm in Newburgh to train him recently. The equestrian facility offers training, boarding, lessons and camps, and also hosts clinics and shows.

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