If we don't count horses, do horses count?

It is easy to overlook horses in the agricultural landscape now that we don't depend on them for power, but their importance remains.

The American Horse Council (AHC) is taking a national survey of the economic impact of U.S. horses in which Illinois will participate as a focus state. Horse owners have until July 17 to participate.

Why is it important to participate? Horses are big creatures – it’s hard to hide a horse. Yet as an agriculturally important economic entity, horses are essentially hidden.

It is easy to overlook horses in the agricultural landscape now that we don’t depend on them for power. Horses are unique among large farm animals in that they routinely reside in the suburbs and even in cities. Horses may be the only large farm animal an average American ever encounters, thus horses act to bridge a widening gap between the nonfarm life and agriculture.

But since they are not used for food or fiber, horses do not funnel through a common marketplace where they can be easily counted, so we don’t have an accurate assessment of just how many horses live in Illinois.

For each horse, there is an economic investment – some quite large, some more modest. Horses are bred, bought, sold and even held in partnerships and syndicates. They need to be fed, housed and cared for, which supports employees as well as other industries like feed manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, medical services, construction and farriers.

Horses are used for myriad things, most all of which require an investment for equipment, training, transport, apparel, hotels, entry fees, etc. Consumption of all these items and much more contributes substantially to the local, state and national economy. So even though horses may not be a typical farm animal, their contributions to farming, as well as to the general economy, are substantial.

Without counting horses and their impact, we cannot gauge how important they are to our state economy, making it easier for horses to be lost. Horses are lost when communities create a hostile environment for horse keeping, but horse keeping protects green space that may otherwise be lost to urban sprawl.

A single horse show drawing 100 horses or more can have a multimillion dollar impact on a local economy. Horse racing in Illinois once contributed billions in taxes to the state’s economy and is now ailing to the point of collapse. Knowing the numbers can help us protect the horse industry.

If you own or ride horses, or if you service the horse industry, your contributions need to be counted by July 17. Please complete the survey if you are contacted, and if you haven’t heard from us, please visit horsemenscouncil.org to find out how you can participate.

Sheryl King, Ph.D., serves as past president of the Horsemen’s Council of Illinois. She retired as director of the Southern Illinois University-Carbondale Equine Science Program.