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Conserving Horse Lands to Sustain Your Community and Economy

foals credit Deb Balliet

Rolling pastures and this year’s foal crop make for extraordinary scenery. Photo by Deb Balliet.

by Anna Gibson, CEO, ELCR
March, 2013

Our American Landscapes are complex, providing the visual and often the historic backdrop for our communities, and supporting our lifestyles, economies and transportation routes.  We rely upon open land to provide ecosystem services like absorbing water and carbon, providing habitat for wildlife and natural controls for managing waste and pollution. However, we are drawn to particular landscapes for what they represent about us and the lifestyles we choose.

The Importance of Conserving Land for Horses

As a nation, we are depleting the landscape of its ability to support our lifestyle and our economy.  According the United States Department of Agriculture, we are a losing 6,000 acres of open land every day.  That breaks down to about 250 acres per hour.  This number, while alarming, represents only part of the picture.  The character of the land we are losing is as important as extent of land lost.

We are losing land piecemeal, hindering the continuity of habitat corridors that are necessary for species and ecosystems to thrive. We are breaking up significant tracts of land that are critical to providing the space we need to support our nation’s equestrian heritage and economy, carrying a  disproportionate impact on our equestrian landscape and lifestyle.

The Economics Implications of Horse Land Loss

The exact loss is difficult to track and tally at any specific point in time. We know from first-hand accounts and local reports that we are losing boarding and training facilities, hayfields, competition venues, horse farms and ranches to sprawl and poorly-planned development.  This land loss is a direct threat to the horse industry, our history and culture of the horse, all equestrian sports, and the $102 billion economic impact of the horse industry.

For the community as a whole, proximity to green space improves land values and, therefore, tax receipts. Conserved agricultural land generates a reliably high benefit.  For example, for every one percent increase in conserved agricultural lands, studies in Maryland, Colorado, Oregon and Texas revealed that communities experienced revenue increases ranging from $250,000 to $500,000.

In communities where land is preserved specifically for horse usage, economic benefits are greater still. In addition to increased property taxes, communities experience a range of financial benefits that come along with the horse industry.  For instance, in Montgomery County, Maryland, a survey determined that their 783 horse farms, mostly of modest size, generated nearly $90 million in economic activity, with the average farm infusing more than $84,000 into the local economy. In Aiken, South Carolina, a 2007 study revealed that the horse industry was the community’s largest and most reliable economic driver. Moreover, both communities determined that the horse industry was an important lifestyle consideration to equestrians and non-equestrians alike in choosing to live in the region.

The visual impact of lands conserved for horses cannot be strictly valued in dollars. Community after community has made protection of land for horses a priority, because they place a high value on the aesthetics of that land – they value the views, the lifestyle and the community identity provided by horse lands. And when that community identity is visible enough, it encourages tourism.

stream credit Marilyn Catlett, Broadview Ranch, VA

Filtering stormwater and providing buffer plantings provides clean streams and improve habitat. Photo courtesy of Marilyn Catlett, Broodview Ranch, VA.

The Value of Eco-Services on Horse Land

The roles that horse properties play in preserving the environment, in providing ecosystems services, and as a partner in broader conservation efforts are often overlooked.

Horse lands play an important role in wildlife conservation corridors.  Land zoned for horse properties adjoining parks and other protected lands can provide an additional protective buffer for the wildlife sheltered in these parks. Buffer zones can also help minimize the impact of development and transportation routes on wildlife, and extend their habitat.

Horse pastures and hayfields provide important stormwater filtration and absorption.  Hay and pasture grasses absorb carbon and other greenhouse gasses, easing the impact of the developed community on natural systems, especially where large impervious surfaces have increased runoff and pollution in a dramatic way.


A Culture of Horses in America

There is also a cultural relevance that makes conserving horse land important. Horses play an important role in our nation’s history, heritage and culture.  From the iconic images of the American West to the hunters and race horses who dominate our lore, horses are part of American identity.  Indeed, horses tell the American story:  The upstart Seabiscuit besting the elite War Admiral and the American Mustang Hidalgo surpassing the Sultan’s horses.

Kids leading horse

The importance of keeping horses a part of the American experience for the next generation. Photo courtesy of Coventry Farm, FL

Horses were once part of the general American experience – they worked to carry and deliver our goods, transport us, and double as a multi-passenger ride to the local swimming hole, having patiently played the role of lesson pony. They resided in our back yards, carriage houses and livery stables, close by. This is a family and childhood experience that is disappearing.  If horses are to remain part of the American landscape and part of our lifestyle, it is imperative to protect the lands that support them.

Conservation of land for horses is more important than ever.  Nationally, we will lack adequate land to support our horse population in as little as 15 years if we continue on our current path.   Better planning can ensure that we conserve the right lands now to ensure that we enjoy a robust, sustaining horse industry for generations to come.


Keeping Land Open for Horses

The value and benefits described above directly result from land being open to and used by horses.  It is as simple as that.  Development pressures often mean that land previously dedicated to horse usage is rezoned for development. While housing, transportation and business are necessary for any community, case after case proves the importance of maintaining horse-focused properties where they exist.

Here are some tips for preserving lands for horses and horse related uses in your community:

  • Education
    Learn about the potential threats to a horse friendly community and the tools that can help you to create or keep your horse community happening.
  • Organization
    Start your own group, club or organization, or join one to keep abreast of regulatory and other issues in your community and region that could negatively affect your horse community and activities. Remember that there is strength in numbers, but developing good and friendly relationships is paramount.
  • Getting and Staying Involved – Not a Static Process
    Be a leader, or work to assist leaders in your horse community. Learn how to talk to decision makers, land owners and others who may be able to affect horses, horse land and horse activities in your community. Once issues are resolved, make it a point to be vigilant and head off new issues before they become a serious threat.
  • Advocacy – Local, Regional, National, Global
    Talk about the value of horses in your community and bring like-minded people to the table to speak out for horses.  Reach out on social media and start a conversation with other interested people.  Horse people tend to be busy but they also tend to be ready to stand together to protect horse lands.  Bring them together.  A few voices joined together – or even one voice speaking out – can save land.

    planning meeting credit kjzz

    Planning meeting. Photo credit: kjzz

  • Tools for Planning for Horses in Your Community
    Understand the long-term plan for your community.  Request a copy of your comprehensive plan.  Take the time to speak up for horses in the planning process.  The power of a citizen speaking out in the planning process often outweighs the influence of a well-funded developer.

Landscapes are indeed complex. However, a good planning and committed conservation efforts can ensure that we will all enjoy the benefits – economic, ecological, social and cultural – that equine  open lands can offer to our communities, for the long term.