Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Horses for Everyone

Being president of the Maryland Horse Council has allowed me to listen to horse people outside of my own riding discipline. It has also allowed me to think big thoughts and do big things.

I became active with the horse council in 2005 when people were mobilizing in support of a state horse park 20 minutes from our farm. We lost that battle when the wrong guy was elected county executive, but it turned out that there were other issues and a lot of opportunities. I couldn't stay away.

Saving farms from unreasonable zoning and permitting requirements, saving horse racing from greedy track owners, pulling together horse professionals to support each other in business, drawing attention to the crisis of  unwanted horses in a bad economy, funding our state's Horse Industry Board so that it can promote what we all do, convincing state legislators to classify what we do on horse farms as agriculture... The list is long and worthy.

Usually we work on issues that cut across disciplines. Supporting racing has been an exception. We have fought alongside the backstretch workers, trainers, and breeders because horses bred for racing comprise more than a third of the state's horse population, and an even higher percentage of the equine-related economic activity and farmland. Those of us who love Thoroughbreds and idolize the crusty old guys who train them to race just can't stand to see out-of-state track owners making decisions that threaten the whole industry, so we fight back.

An interesting thing happened when we created our Maryland Horse Council Committee to Support Racing. The group of about forty that began having meetings was an equal mix of folks who make their living in racing, both on the thoroughbred and standardbred sides, and people like me who are from other sectors of the horse world. The racing people were at least as interested in doing things to promote the non-racing industry as we were about supporting racing. The committee evolved into what is now the Horse Industry Marketing Advisory Committee.

Discussions about bringing people to the tracks kept coming back to The Horse, and what an incredible attraction it is. Why doesn't the Maryland Jockey Club focus more of its marketing on the animals that do the running? The American Horse Council did a survey a few years back suggesting that a majority of Americans want to be involved with horses. That's a lot of people.

Well, duh. Horses are the most powerful and beautiful domesticated beasts on earth. They represent power, grace, spirit, self-discipline, and just about every other cool attribute we want to label them with. They are what we want to be. Even guys like to be called studs.

Every once in a while Hollywood turns to the human fascination with horses to make money. Interest in racing peaks only when the media becomes focussed on a star like Secretariat or Zenyatta. People don't go to see the jockeys or to make money at the betting window. They go to be close to the horses and the lifestyle that horses represent.

Why is it so hard for investors to see this? Why isn't there a network of equestrian theme parks like Disney World, with horses as the attractions rather than a frickin mouse? Is it that horse people are just bad business people?

I want to sit down some day with some really smart business folks who create entertainment destinations, and create a place where the public can come to experience the mystique of the horse in a big way. Wouldn't it be great if someone bought the Maryland Jockey Club and wanted to make the race tracks into something like that? A theater with nothing but horse movies. An arena for shows and demonstrations. A barn for nothing but tours and education. Riding simulation machines and games. Entertainment every weekend with stuff for the whole family.

I'm not giving up. In fact, I'm not the only person who thinks this way. I've recently gotten to know a guy named Ross Peddicord. He used to be a trainer at the track, then was the Baltimore Sun's award winning racing reporter, and most recently was publisher of Maryland Life magazine. Just this year he became the director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board. Ross's new job is to figure out ways to promote the state's horse industry. Ross has been co-hosting our marketing meetings recently, and Ross is a genius. He also knows and loves everybody and he believes that the marketing and entertainment potential of the horse has never been fully realized...anywhere.

Ross thinks that a horse park can be much more than just a place for competitions. He talks about things on the scale of Disneyland. He sees the horse park as a place for the public and tourists to start, and from there spread out across the state to our major competitions, our farms, our lesson barns, our racetracks, and our trail networks. That's a vision that even I, the master of dreamers, hadn't conceived.

Who knows if Ross's vision of a horse park plus, or my vision of racetracks as equestrian entertainment destinations will come to pass. I do know, however, that we are on to some ideas that inspire people, just like the original horse park plan inspired me, and that if enough of us support each other and keep the fire in our bellies, we will eventually emerge with something way better than what we have now.

Horses are great role models for humans, and most of us horse folk believe that the world would be a better place if more people were brought up knowing horses.

So let's get to work promoting The Horse. It's not just about helping an industry. It's about improving our world.

When I told my 92 year old dad that I had titled this blog "Listen to the Horse," he smiled knowingly and said, "That can mean a lot of things."

"Yep," I said. "Remember when I interviewed you on camera and asked if you had any advice to your grandchildren as they sought to understand the big questions that can never be understood?"

"What did I say?"

"You said, 'When you are looking for answers, listen to nature.' That's part of what I mean by Listen to the Horse."

"That's what I meant too," he said. And we both smiled.