If you have been in the horse business for any length of time, I am sure you will agree that it does a good job of expanding, contracting and refining itself. For the newcomers, just wait to see what the next few years look like.
I began my career as an equine veterinarian in 1999 here in Weatherford, Texas. Yes, the previous century. My “remember when” story is on the first day of working for Dr. M.C. Baker when I opened the phone book to count how many vets there were in the area — Twelve, and a quarter of them mostly worked on small animals and cattle, along with horses. Fast forward to today and that number has more than tripled within the equine veterinarian count alone. Some equine-only clinics have more veterinarians on staff now than the entire phone book had listed then. Yes, I actually looked it up in the phone book back then.
So, if you thought 2020 was a bizarre year, I would agree with you. No one knew what to expect because the U.S. had not been in a situation like. But, I think you would have to agree that the horse industry ultimately expanded in spite of the quarantines, cancellations and uncertainty we all dealt with. Without question, some areas and sectors of the horse industry took more of an upfront hit than others. We had a week that was a little “iffy” as well, but thankfully that was it. A week. Once the wave of fear and skepticism turned out to be more of a surfable situation than a tsunami, we all got back to what we love – horses.
Turns out, 2021 has been as much of a year for expansion within the horse industry than any I can remember in spite of recent events. For Reata Equine Hospital, this has been the busiest breeding season so far. Ever. This is not just my opinion, but my firsthand observation across the Western performance horse sector of the industry. We have bred more mares to a wider variety of stallions than ever before. My best example is within the world of embryo transfer. The North Texas/Weatherford area has a vast array of outstanding breeding farms and embryo transfer facilities that are geared up for the seasonal rush. However, by mid-April we were getting phone calls saying that if mare owners did not have previously paid embryo transfer contracts, they could not guarantee a recipient mare would be available on the day of the flush/transfer. This was from a top-end program that started the year with 500 mares under lights, and had another 200 recipient mares turned out. That story repeated itself all over the Southwest.
Quickly, the daily routine for our breeding manager changed. After getting the morning’s list of which donor mares ovulated, she would call a list of embryo transfer facilities to basically shop around and see who could take it. The overload eventually turned into freezing the embryos that we could not find a home for. Some were put in later, and some are waiting until next year.
Expansion in the face of what some people see as uncertainty underlines the ever-increasing economic base the horse industry currently comes from. I truly believe many people sat around last year planning what they could do when the opportunities came back around. As the restrictions eased, and the shows, rodeos, and large group gatherings returned horse owners had the time, money and desire to do what they had been denied. This stretches to breeding mares, promoting stallions, entering shows and sending horses to trainers at a pace that is astounding.
The opportunities that are created through this touch every facet of the horse industry. Every farrier, trainer, equine veterinarian and breeding farm employee I have talked to across a wide swath of the country expresses the same sentiment of feeling overrun by the rebound effect of 2020. For breed and show associations this means more and newer members joining. There has always been and always will be an elite segment of the western performance horse industry. It does, to some extent, serve a purpose in the trickledown effect of both genetics and economics. However, few can play at that level. The steady state turnover of people willing to spend that kind of money caps this sector of the industry. It is the expansion of the horse owner population that seeks to be the hands-on involved rider and owner that drives our horse industry now. Look at the flourishing disciplines of Western riding, ranch horse versatility, team penning/sorting, roping and the snaffle bitters. People can be much more involved at lower levels of competition that they truly enjoy, and for many have seen as a lifelong dream. It is these folks who are creating the rising tide within the horse industry that will float all boats.
At some point the industry will cool off. It has a way of correcting itself to a sustainable pace, but if you ask me what the future looks like, I have to say it is still very good. The economic base for the Western performance horse industry is much broader than in the past. You may or may not agree with me, but the horse industry is built on disposable income. The segment of the population that truly derives their sole source of income off horses is fairly small in relation to those who are involved at any significant level.
A true test of the long-term outcome from such a short-term ramp-up will be in two to three years when foals from the mares bred now show up as yearlings and 2-year-olds. What will everyone do with them? I figure they have to sell, train or ride them. I believe the horse economy will be strong and broad based as long as it is inclusive to the people wanting to get in.
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