Horses are big business, especially in Alberta, the country’s horsiest province.
With more than 300,000 equines, Alberta has a third of Canada’s horses, half of them living along the Highway 2 corridor between Edmonton and Fort Macleod.
And that means a brisk business for anyone dealing in equine activities and accessories, from trail rides to tack sales. Riders compete in such western events as team penning and reining, while English events include jumping and dressage. No matter what the event – even if it’s just casual riding – horse ownership is costly.
These needy animals – demanding feed, health care, shelter, riding equipment and transportation – inject approximately $590 million into the province’s economy.
|Wendy Dudley photo, Business Edge|
|Caring for Alberta’s 300,000 horses provides thousands of jobs as well as injecting nearly $600 million into the economy.|
While that lags behind the $4-billion beef industry, it is still a significant figure, said Les Burwash, manager of Alberta Agriculture’s horse industry section.
The recreational aspect of the horse – those used in sport and kept for pleasure riding – is the heart of the industry, Burwash said. “It’s estimated to be worth about $500 million.”
The agricultural segment of the industry – the breeding and raising of horses, those in feedlots and the slaughter of horses – is worth about $90 million, he said.
Owning a horse keeps thousands of Albertans employed, as money is also spent on farriers, fencing, barns and arenas.
“I don’t know exactly how many people work in the horse industry, but it’s an awful lot,” said Burwash.
According to a 2003 survey conducted by the Horse Industry Association of Alberta, horse owners spend an average of $4,200 to buy a horse.
But that initial investment turns into additional expenses averaging about $10,000 for tack, $14,000 for a horse trailer and $30,000 for a truck.
Other annual average costs, per horse, are $460 for bedding, $2,830 for boarding, $600 for farrier services and $880 for feed.
With the increase of acreage owners and their desire to own at least one horse, no wonder the horse industry has been a boon for such tack shops as Equi-Products, on Calgary’s southwest limits.
Since it began 20 years ago, Equi-Products has tripled in size from a basement outlet to Western Canada’s largest English tack shop.
“It’s amazing. We’re in cattle country, but our business specializes in hunter, jumper, dressage and eventing,” said general manager Lisa Osachoff.
The shop has 12 sales staff, an Internet mail-order service and a mobile tack trailer that travels to horse events throughout Alberta.
Spruce Meadows, the international show-jumping venue ranked No. 1 in the world, has had a huge influence on Alberta’s horse industry, whether it’s keeping a plump acreage pony, a reining horse or an Olympic jumper, said Burwash.
“It has enhanced the profile of the horse, regardless of what you do with it,” he said.
Spruce Meadows, on Calgary’s southern limits, attracts millions of dollars in tourism spending as contestants from around the world rent hotel suites while competing in the summer’s major tournaments, said media co-ordinator Sheryl Hull, one of Spruce Meadows’ 85 full-time employees.
Competitors and spectators also travel to nearby attractions, dine in restaurants, buy groceries and purchase souvenirs, injecting about $27.7 million into the Alberta economy.
Spruce Meadows attracts more than 400,000 spectators annually, with more than 50,000 attending each of its major jumping tournaments.
Spruce Meadows may be about the horse, but it’s also about big business, with such sponsors as Telus, Canadian National, BMO Financial Group, DaimlerChrysler, Encana, Atco, Sun Life Financial and Shell. Last year’s tournament season offered $4 million in prize money.
Since Spruce Meadows’ first tournament in 1976, veteran show jumper Ian Miller has earned more than $2 million. Much of that was won while riding Big Ben, his equally popular chestnut gelding.
The Calgary Stampede and its rodeo, sporting an infield of horses from bucking broncos to those used in calf roping, steer wrestling and chuckwagon racing, injects $140 million into Calgary’s economy, and each year attracts one million visitors.
It also pads the wallets of rodeo champions, handing a $50,000 cheque to the winners of each major event.
Even horse racing in Alberta, which has been in a slump in recent years, is recording soaring horse sale prices.
In 2003, yearling sales of standardbreds were up 37 per cent over 2002, and average prices for thoroughbreds were up by 12 per cent. The top-selling standardbred sold for $52,000.
With talk of new racing facilities and efforts to increase the profile of horse racing, horses sold for almost $2,000 more over the year before.
So what’s behind Albertans’ love affair with the horse?
“The horse is part of our heritage,” said Burwash. “Western Canadians are great livestock people. Alberta has way more cattle than anywhere else, and horses and cattle go together. It’s part of our culture.”
Alberta is the only province with government staff dedicated full-time to the horse industry. The horse industry section of Alberta Agriculture was established in 1974, after a study indicated the province’s horse industry was worthy of similar services available to other livestock sectors.
“The number of people and horses warranted it, and there was a need for education,” Burwash said. Each year, the section holds an Alberta horse breeders and owners conference, the only event of its kind in Canada.
Burwash expects Alberta’s horse industry to remain prosperous, as long as producers satisfy the recreational market demand. “Right now, we have an overproduction of horses. And that can drive the value down, which will decrease production.”
With fewer than 10 per cent of horses involved in competition, breeders must raise horses suitable for the recreational rider. “We need horses that have a good mind, are sound and safe,” Burwash noted.
While recent economic downturns may affect horse ownership in the agriculture sector, it appears to have minimal impact on acreage owners, said Burwash.
The devastating impact of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) on Alberta’s ranching economy also has had little impact on recreational horse owners, he said. “So many horses are now owned by people not in the agriculture industry. They still have a disposable income.”
With high input costs, breeding horses is rarely a money-maker, said Springbank veterinarian and quarter-horse breeder Wayne Burwash (Les’s brother.) “I get between $4,000 to $5,000 for a yearling, and that price hasn’t changed much since the ’70s.”
What has changed since then is Burwash’s clientele. With so many acreages around Calgary, business is good.
“I’ve seen a real shift in demographics, from people farming with horses to urban people who have little experience. Their horses are pets,” he said. “We’re finding people aren’t comfortable treating minor cuts, or deworming and vaccinating. It’s become more like a small-animal practice.”
When it comes to business, outfitter Mac Makenny bows to the horse, offering tourists an equine holiday that includes horseback rides at his Homeplace Ranch west of Calgary, as well as excursions to polo games, Spruce Meadows and rodeos, including the Stampede.
So popular are his packages that July and September are always sold out to tourists, largely from North America and Mexico.
“The horse industry is so important to this province that I believe the horse should be the domestic symbol of Alberta. The horse is noble and powerful,” said Makenny, also industry co-chair of the Strategic Tourism Marketing Council.
“If you look at the history, from the pioneering aspect right up through today to Spruce Meadows, the Calgary Stampede and the outfitting business, I think the horse adds a lot to this province, from both a business and tourism point of view.”