Horses a $2.08 billion industry in Alabama, Auburn study shows

Published: November 30, 2016
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Despite back-to-back economic blows over the past decade, Alabama’s horse industry continues to have a substantial impact on the state’s bottom line, pumping an estimated $2.08 billion annually into the Alabama economy and contributing, both directly and indirectly, to about 24,000 jobs that represent $706 million in total labor income.

Those were Auburn University researchers’ key findings in a new and in-depth economic analysis of the state’s equine sector that Auburn University researchers conducted using 2015 data.

Auburn agricultural economics graduate research assistant Darcey Richburg—working under the guidance of agricultural economics professors Patricia Duffy and Deacue Fields and equine science associate professor Betsy Wagner—invested two years in the study, conducting surveys, compiling the data, crunching the numbers and printing out mountains of Excel spreadsheets. Richburg, a 2013 Auburn animal sciences alumna, will receive her Master of Science degree in agricultural economics in December.

Richburg says she and her advisers designed the project with a dual goal, the first being to assess the economic health of Alabama’s horse industry in the aftermath of both a federal ban on the slaughter of low-end horses for meat exports in the mid-2000s—a move that cost the U.S. horse industry an estimated $65 million in 2006 alone, Richburg says—and the severe recession that plagued the country in the late 2000s.

Nationally, the recession led to large declines in the number of foals registered in major breed registries, Auburn’s Wagner says.

“We knew the national numbers have been slowly rebounding, but we didn’t have a sense of what was happening in Alabama until we could do our own economic impact study,” she said.

The assessment’s second goal was to develop a set of budgets for horse owners based on low, moderate and high levels of care.

“No two horse owners spend the same amount of money on their horses, but for someone who’s thinking about buying a horse, our budgets can at least give them an idea of what horse care and equipment cost and help them figure out if they can afford to get into the business,” Richburg said.

The biggest challenge of the study was getting a handle on the state’s horse population.

“You have two categories of horses—farm horses and those used for recreational and companion purposes,” Richburg said. “USDA’s Census of Agriculture was our source for the state’s farm horse population, but it didn’t take into account the larger category of companion animals.”

To calculate that number, Richburg relied on a national pet demographics survey that the American Veterinary Medical Association conducted in 2012 and by extrapolation pegged Alabama’s total farm and companion horse and pony population at just under 154,000.

For the model budgets, Richburg included as expenses such costs as boarding, farrier services, routine veterinary and other health-related expenses, riding lessons, horse training, grooming supplies, horse shows and competitions, facility maintenance and utilities, equipment and feed, bedding materials, breeding fees, publicity, association memberships fees and insurance. Not included were horse purchase prices or costs incurred for horse surgeries or major illnesses.

The new analysis comes 10 years after another Auburn study that indicated the industry’s economic effect was $2.4 billion. But there were major differences between the two studies’ goals, objectives, methodologies and data categories, Duffy says.

The most significant disparity was the number of horses in Alabama, she says, noting that the population declined from 183,246 in 2005 to the estimated 153,904 in 2015.

“The previous investigation also focused on the economic impact of all equines in the state, which included not only horses but donkeys and mules as well,” Duffy said. “The economic assessment software available today is more sophisticated than what could be used then, too.”

Wagner, who also serves as president of the Alabama Horse Council, says the latest analysis provides the horse industry another much-needed statistic.

“The information in this analysis gives us a much better estimate of the number of jobs in the state associated with the horse industry,” she said. “When you consider feed store employees, facility managers, equipment sales reps, marketing professionals, hay and grain producers and others who supply products or services to horse owners, you see the impact the industry has on people’s economic well-being and on Alabama’s overall economic health.”

Other takeaways from the study:

  • The dominant breed in Alabama is the quarter horse, accounting for almost 36.5 percent of the horse population. Next closest is the Tennessee walking horse, at 11.02 percent.
  • 87.4 percent of horse owners responding to the survey said they board their horses.
  • 9.66 percent of horses in Alabama are insured, the majority of which are covered by both medical/surgical and mortality policies.
  • 69.76 percent of horse owners spend $5,000 or less per horse over the course of a year; 2.95 percent spend $20,000 or more.

The study was supported in part by the Alabama Horse Council.

Richburg’s complete thesis, “An economic impact study of the Alabama horse industry,” is available online at