Dollars, actually - by the hundred-million. South Carolina's equine industry, on a per capita basis, equals that of Texas.
by Dan Harmon
If dogs are humans' best friends, horses have got to be very close seconds - and are of far more practical value. For ages, we've used them to transport us long distances, haul our trappings, plow our fields and entertain us with feats of strength and speed. Native Americans and pioneers considered them to be, among other things, a mobile food supply. They have won battles, lost fortunes, carried the mail, herded cows, impressed royalty and saved many a life.
In South Carolina, horses have never been more popular than today. Indeed, few states in the union can match our equestrian tradition, impact or growth. Everything here is conducive to horse keeping, from the climate to the rockless loam. Over the years, without fanfare, the Palmetto State's horse industry has risen to an international prominence far broader than that attached to the famous racing events and stables in Camden, Aiken, Charleston and Elloree.
It's ironic that although horses and mules long since have been retired from the workplace, for the most part, they've never been so numerous.
"It has been growing for quite some time," says Blanchard Poole, president of the South Carolina Horsemen's Council (SCHC). "But we've just now reached the size that people are starting to take the horse industry seriously in South Carolina."
The most recent statistics from the South Carolina Department of Agriculture showed 90,000 horses and more than 40,000 owners in South Carolina. Multiplied by an average annual maintenance cost of $3,300 per horse, that translated into a local economic impact of almost $300 million - just for maintenance. That approximately equaled the estimated dollar impact of South Carolina's beef, dairy and swine industries combined.
"Those figures are conservative," says Mary Ellen Tobias, equine marketing specialist for the agriculture department. "We now have as many horses per capita as the state of Texas. South Carolina's horse industry has been very underestimated and very underrecognized. We've seen tremendous growth since the late 1980s, and it's growing by leaps and bounds right now."
The SC Horsemen's Council, composed of "concerned individuals and members of the horse industry," ranks in the top four nationally, membershipwise, among statewide organizations - and it's only three years old. Poole, its president, operates a stable and training center in Swansea and has been a professional horseman for more than 30 years. He trains horses while his wife Debbie gives riding instructions. They also keep stallions at stud. At any given time you'll find 45-60 horses of all breeds there, most of them owned by others. The Pooles' own animals are purebred Arabians.
Poole notes that the 90,000 head count is years out of date and estimates the real number to be more than 100,000. "Just within a five-mile radius of here," he explains, "20 years ago there were probably 15 horses. Now there are probably 50." He says the Horsemen's Council hopes to raise money to take another census.
Dr. Larry Hudson, the Clemson University Extension Service horse specialist, agrees the data are conservative concerning South Carolina's horse community. It's a boom that probably began decades ago. "Even when we didn't hear much about horses, we had a fairly large concentration. Today, we have boocoodles of horse events up and down the road every weekend. Our weather is so conducive, I don't think we ever shut down completely, even in winter."
If the bottom-line head count is imprecise, demographics are even more so. Hudson guesstimates there are probably 5,000-7,000 race horses in South Carolina and 15,000-25,000 show horses. The rest are "back-yard" horses. It's impossible to put a number with each category because, as Hudson points out, "even backyard horses get shown." Hudson doesn't race or show but owns one backyard horse.
TOBIAS, WHO RAISES QUARTERHORSES near Ridgeway and is a former South Carolina Horsewoman of the Year, points out that the state's heavy schedule of equestrian events - more than 1,200 each year - constantly brings horse owners (with their pocketbooks) to different locales from around the state and region. In-cluded are a growing number of national events, such as the North American Rodeo Commission World Finals which attracted 35,000 people to North Charleston last November. "That was good, for the first year, and it'll probably double this year," Tobias says. "There were more than 600 participants from the United States, Canada, Mexico and Australia. It's huge."
And there's the support industry, ranging from hay farmers to insurance companies. Total economic impact in South Carolina: an estimated $1.2 billion annually. Again, that number probably is on the low side.
As South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Les Tindal put it, "The equine industry is beyond the paddock and stable. It is more than riding, breeding, watching, enjoying and investing in horses. It is an important part of our agricultural heritage, an integral part of the lifestyle of South Carolinians. And it is all the industries which support the equine industry: trainers, boarders, laboratory technicians, transporters, veterinarians, ferriers and many others who serve and supply horses, mules and donkeys.
Ride through the parking lot at a horse show, Hudson suggests, and observe the big trucks and trailers. Horses used to carry us; now we carry them, and the transport rigs don't come cheap. More fuel for the economy.
Hudson notes also that equestrian events in border locales like Augusta impact this state's economy.
What's best is that the horse industry thrives in the far reaches of the state. While Camden and Aiken for generations have enjoyed national prominence for their racing events and training facilities - "Secretariat," "Kelso," "Summer Squall," "Strike the Gold" and countless other famous thoroughbreds have wintered here, and the National Steeplechase & Hunt Association's annual race calendar begins and ends with the Carolina and Colonial Cup races in Camden - there is virtually no horseless area in South Carolina anymore. Unlikely communities are rising to statewide and national prominence. The once-sleepy town of Blythewood north of Columbia, for example, has become "like Aiken and Camden" among the national equestrian community with its proliferation of large farms, Tobias says.
REAL HORSE PEOPLE possess a gritty, pioneering spirit. Since much horse activity is, after all, outdoors, one must learn to live with nature, just as the horses do. In a report filed to the South Carolina Horsemen's Council newsletter, Paulette Gregory described one Paso Fino riding and camping weekend near Spartanburg: "Other than a major rain, wind and tornado storm on Saturday, all day long, rides were great. My tent almost blew away and some things got a little soggy, but with the heat on dried quickly. . . . The creeks did rise a bunch and on Sunday, even with them lowering, the river crossing by the bridge was still about 2.5-3 feet deep!" Yet participants wouldn't have traded the experience. "Trail blazers," remarked Gregory, "have nothing on us."
They know the real meaning of "sleeping sickness," defined in a recent SCHC newsletter as a "disease peculiar to mare owners while waiting on their mares to foal." And they aren't averse to work. Many of our public riding trails were cleared by volunteers from the horse-owning community. Last November, for example, volunteers at Poinsett State Park chopped and sawed brush and filled holes along six miles of new trail connecting to the pre-existing 24-mile Manchester State Forest trail. Meanwhile, Poinsett officials are preparing a 12-site horse and rider campground, scheduled for April opening.
The Manchester trail was the site of the first annual Governor's Trail Ride, hosted last October by Gov. and Mrs. David Beasley as a benefit for the "Putting Families First" project and the SCHC Youth Scholarship Program.
Much of the fascination with horses is the realization that in many ways, a rider "becomes one" with the animal beneath. The rider learns to think like the horse, and vice-versa. They act and react instinctively together in whatever situation arises. Becky Walton, spokeswoman for the SC Department of Agriculture, pointed out that the horse industry "has universal appeal for recreation, companionship and psychological well-being."
There are more than 40 breeds of horses in South Carolina: Arabians, Ten-nessee walking horses, Spanish Andalusians, Dutch Friesians, Paso Finos, Appaloosas. You'll see draft horses, thoroughbreds, quarter horses, cutting horses, halter horses - and mules ("There's not a better animal known," it's been said.). The crit-ters are owned by citizens from all walks of life: farmers, bar tenders, scientists, clerks, school teachers, students - even the governor of the state, who owns five horses. Horses graze in backyards and on farms ranging from 10 to 10,000 acres, many of them exquisitely landscaped.
Whether they're for racing, showing, breeding or trail riding, each horse is part of an entrenched and growing industry in South Carolina. Palmetto State horses are, in the words of Agriculture Commissioner Tindal, "high-quality stock, second to none."
Predicts Hudson, "I really think it'll take a major economic slowdown in order for it not to continue to snowball."
For information about the South Carolina horse industry, contact Mary Ellen Tobias, equine marketing specialist at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, (803) 734-2200; or Nena Sinclair, secretary-treasurer of the South Carolina Horsemen's Council, (803) 734-2187. For information on equestrian events, contact Sonny Smith, editor of the South Carolina Market Bulletin, (803) 734-2200. You also may be interested in two related Sandlapper articles: "Steeplechase!" by Kay Gordon, November/December 1990, and "The Love of a Lifetime" by Thurman Williams, Winter 1992-93.
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