March 21, 2018
From Workhorse To Companion by Fred Miller The role of horses in the 20th century has changed from that of muscles for work to four-legged recreational vehicle. This led to a resurgence in the popularity of horses as companion animals, says Nancy Jack, director of the Dorothy E. King Equine Program in Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas. Before mechanization, she says, more than 90 percent of the working horsepower was provided by, well, horses. As machines took over the work, horses began to decline. "In 1918, there were 21 million domesticated horses in the United States," Jack says. "By the 1950s, there were two million. The U.S. Department of Agriculture decided horses would no longer be a factor in the American economy and stopped counting them." Without a USDA census, horse populations were based on unreliable estimates from various breed associations. Basically, America lost count of its fleet-footed friends. Equine Renaissance The same technology that put the horse out of business helped give Americans more recreational time and opened a new niche for horses. "Today there are about 7 million horses, according to the American Horse Council," Jack says. "Most of them are used for recreation and sport." Equine-related industries now account for some $112 billion of the annual U.S. economy. "Getting close to a large animal gives one a sense of empowerment," Jack says. "That's especially true with women. When horses were primarily work animals, about 99 percent belonged to men. But now, around 75 percent of those involved in horse activities are women." Kim Cole, a graduate student in animal science, believes equine sports will continue to grow in popularity. "Horses are becoming more popular as people realize you don't have to be rich to enjoy riding," Cole says. When Cole came to the U of A, she traveled across country in a semi-trailer with three mares, three foals, three geldings and an imported Dutch Warmblood stallion. "As the mystique of the 'rich man's sport' wears off, I think riding and equine sports will become more popular," she says. "Horses are among the best ambassadors for agriculture because the densest populations of horses are clustered around cities," Jack says. "People don't like to be close to chickens or pigs, or even cattle. But they like to be close to horses. "For many, horses are a link to the past," she says, "a simpler life in which people were in closer touch with the outdoors." Meeting the Demand In Arkansas, the growing popularity of horses manifested itself in public demand for an equine program at the University of Arkansas. That demand was accompanied by public support, as evidenced by the Dorothy E. King Equine Pavilion, made possible by a $440,000 gift from the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation of Dallas. The King Foundation also gave $240,000 to endow scholarships for animal science students interested in equine studies and $135,000 to endow a visiting lectureship series. "Our goal was to develop a program that offers animal science students a solid basis in equine studies," says Keith Lusby, head of the animal science department in Bumpers College. "But it also attracts students from other majors." The first class, horse production, had the largest enrollment of any production course in the department when it was offered last spring, Lusby says. "The first week of that semester, I had 20 students," Jack says. "By the second week, I had 40 students." Jack added two classes to the curriculum last fall: topics in equine law and a pilot course, principles of equine behavior and training. The full offering in 2001 will also include Introduction to the equine industry and horse selection, and seed-stock and horse merchandising. "Each of these courses supports the next in a cycle that teaches students what they need to know to manage their own horses or work in an equine-related industry," Jack says. Jack tolerates a little horsing around in her classes. But only a little, and only from the horses. "The students learn quickly that they have to work in this program," she says. "We have a well-rounded program of classroom instruction and hands-on experience that will give them a solid basis in equine studies." "This program capitalizes on our strengths in animal science," Lusby says. "Students earn a solid animal science degree with good training in equine studies." Open to the Public Most people learn about the equine program through events held at the pavilion and the adjacent Pauline Whitaker Animal Science Center. "The amount of interest and support has been absolutely overwhelming," Jack says. Visitors to horse events at the U of A come primarily from Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, and a few come from Texas and Louisiana. "We started January third (2000) with nothing, and I now have 1,500 people on our mailing list and another 200 names on an e-mail list," Jack says. The program hosted a wide range of equine events in its first year and has an aggressive schedule for the spring: - a two-day equine reproduction workshop, - participation in the two-day Arkansas Horse Council Exposition in Little Rock, - a Horse Short Course by the Cooperative Extension Service, - the second annual UA Horse Festival, - a three-day Gaited Horse Club Charity Horse Show, to raise money for the equine program, and - the first UA Horse Judging Camp for 4-H and other youth. Jack is contacted every day by people looking for horse breeders or any kind of equine-related services or products. She enlisted volunteer help to build an internet directory of equine industries. "It's going to be like an online yellow pages, just for the horse industry," Jack says. "If somebody wants to know where to buy horses or supplies, or where to learn to ride, they can find out on that site." All this attention has positive impact. "The equine program is easily the most visible one in our department and it attracts the most public attention," Lusby says. "It has quickly become an excellent ambassador for our department, Bumpers College and the University of Arkansas."
Go Back »