Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Equine business rises on changes, trends

Things looked grim for a while. After hitting a peak of about 25 million horses in the U.S. in the 1950s, the equine population went into a steep decline, hitting the bottom in the 1970s at an estimated 2.5 million.

"That's only one-tenth of the peak population of horses," said Robert Miller, leading equine veterinarian and father of the imprint method of training.

Historic changes affecting horse business.

Speaking at the recent Equestrian Lifestyle Expo, Miller explained that by the 1950s the full effect of mechanized agriculture, transportation and industry had made horses obsolete.

But several curious things have since happened.

The number of horses has slowly made a comeback.

"Today there's an estimated 9 million horses in the country," he said. "It's different now. Most of the horses in the country are used for recreation. Very few horses are used for work."

Adding to the comeback in equine interest are education, mass communication and women.

"For the first time in human history, women dominate the horse industry," Miller said. "Why is that important? Because most women have strong nurturing feelings and are inclined to adopt new methods of learning and training."

Education and mass communications play into the rise of the horse business too. The majority of horse owners today are educated, Miller said, something that wasn't true historically when everyone had to have a horse to get around, work the farm and haul cargo.

Methods of mass communications have made it possible to share new techniques quickly among an educated group of horse owners.

The concept of "natural horsemanship" has also come into play.

Miller said he has spent his entire career in the equine business, and he believes more horses than ever are being humanely trained.

"There have always been people in the population who understood a horse's mind," Miller said, "but the common methods of training were very harsh. We'd call people in the ranch business ‘bronc busters' with all the implied violence that term has. Training horses that way wasn't because people were necessarily cruel, but we just didn't know any better."

Miller said new, more humane methods of training horses began to spread based on the rise of a more educated audience inclined to learning, the ability to distribute new methods of training widely through new media and the surge of women taking over the equine business.

"Of all the species of animals, there are only a dozen or so humans have domesticated," Miller said. "Of the domesticated animals, the horse is one of the only animals with a flight instinct as its primary defense mechanism. Its inclination is to run away."

Yet, of all the animals, a human can take a completely wild horse and in a few hours be on the animal's back. But to safely and successfully train a horse requires the rider to understand how the horse thinks, he said.

The arrival and growing acceptance of natural horsemanship based on the understanding of what makes a horse tick instead of brute force has significantly improved the safety and enjoyment of the horse, he said.

"I quit my veterinary practice in 1987 to spend all of my time working with and talking about natural horsemanship," he said. "And I'm still going strong."

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