Horse Discovery Centers are the latest effort to promote Maryland horse industry

State promotes beginner-friendly 'Horse Discovery Centers.'

At Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Howard County, visitors can see how employees and volunteers nurse abused horses back to health.

At Full Moon Farm in Carroll County, 30-inch-tall miniature horses Muffin and Phillip are ready to greet those who stop by.

Days End and Full Moon are among 35 newly certified Maryland Horse Discovery Centers, a new effort to boost the state's storied horse industry. Through farm tours, riding lessons and other activities, the centers are designed to stoke equestrian interests.

"Each place is different, and that's part of the charm of it," said Ross Peddicord, director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, which developed the Horse Discovery Center program. The board is part of the state Department of Agriculture, and is charged with promoting the horse industry and licensing stables in Maryland.

Maryland is home to the Preakness Stakes — the second jewel of the Triple Crown between the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes — and known for its prominent horse breeders and sprawling, bucolic horse farms.

With the horse racing industry on a precipitous decline, state officials have scrambled to bolster it, in part by directing a portion of casino revenue to improving the state's race tracks and augmenting racing purses.

The most recent statewide equine census in 2010 counted 79,100 horses, ponies, mules, donkeys and burros, down 9 percent from the previous census in 2002; and about 16,400 barns, stables and horse-related businesses, down 21 percent from the same period.

But officials said those numbers are turning. Over the past four years, the state has licensed 200 new horse stables, Peddicord said. And the industry has been an economic force: A study conducted in 2005 by the American Horse Council Foundation said Maryland's horse industry employed 65,000 and had an annual state economic impact of $1.6 billion.

Still, officials said, more must be done. Marylanders have a keen interest in horses, Peddicord said, but they often don't participate in equestrian-related events, whether it's taking lessons, going on a trail ride or cheering on Thoroughbreds at a racetrack.

A recent statewide survey conducted by the University of Baltimore, with questions posed by the horse industry board, found 44.5 percent of respondents said someone in their family was interested in riding a horse or attending a horse event — but only 14.7 percent had done so in the past year.

"We knew that between the 14 and the 44 percent, there were 30 percent of Maryland households that are interested in horses, but are not involved right now," Peddicord said.

The Horse Discovery Center program is designed to fill that gap.

"We try to engage all of those folks in different ways in the horse business, but we really needed a group of farms and stables we could send anybody to and know they'd have a happy, knowledgeable experience with horses," Peddicord said.

After extra training and inspections, 35 of the state's 770 licensed stables were certified as Horse Discovery Centers. Participants are sprinkled across the state, from Washington County to the Eastern Shore, with several in Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

Some have added new beginner-friendly programs and tours, others use the Horse Discovery Center designation and logo to promote existing programs. The state is promoting the program as well, both online and through brochures distributed across Maryland.

"There are a lot of people out there who think they can't ride horses or have horses, and we're here to show them that they can do it if they want to," said Jim McDonald, founder of the nonprofit Graham Equestrian Center at Gunpowder Falls State Park.

The Graham center isn't changing its offerings for the discovery center program. McDonald said the center already focuses on teaching beginners the basics of how to ride and handle horses. But there's hope that being part of the program will nudge those curious about horses to stop in for a visit.

Karen Fulton, who co-owns Full Moon Farm in Finksburg, likened the Horse Discovery Centers to four-star restaurants. There are countless restaurants, but only a select number that are rated highly.

The centers, she said, "are sort of above and beyond. You know if you show up, you'll get a good experience if you walk up our driveway."

Full Moon Farm offers English-style lessons, a competitive program, a pony club, birthday parties and horse boarding. Fulton said the farm will have extra staff on hand on weekends in April to accommodate both the kickoff of the Horse Discovery Centers program and the state's Maryland Horse Chase scavenger hunt.

The scavenger hunt, from April 6 through April 26, will send participants to stables, barns, tracks and horse businesses around the state for horse-related experiences — such as meeting Full Moon's miniature horses or mucking out a stall at a horse barn. Those who complete the hunt can win prizes such as free riding lessons and tickets to the equestrian-themed Medieval Times in Hanover.

Days End Farm Horse Rescue already has hundreds of volunteers who help care for dozens of sick and injured horses. The rescue offers tours daily from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., so the Horse Discovery Center designation is a validation of its education-focused philosophy, said Caroline Robertson, the rescue's development director.

Days End accepts horses from Maryland and beyond that have been seized by police or animal control officers due to neglect or mistreatment. The rescue rehabilitates the horses and adopts most of them into new families.

Robertson said one of the rescue's missions is to educate visitors about animal welfare issues in hopes of preventing abuse and neglect of horses.

"We've always wanted the public to understand what [the horses] go through when they come to our facility," she said.

In the Baltimore County community of Parkton, Amazing Grace Equestrian Center is adding tour guides on weekends in April as part of its enrollment in the Horse Discovery Center program and the Maryland Horse Chase. Normally the center — which offers English and Western lessons and is home to Towson University's equestrian team — is open to visitors by appointment only.

"They'll get to see horses in action," said owner Sandy Weinreich. "They'll see everything from someone riding rodeo to others that are jumping fences."

Weinreich said she feels blessed to have taken over the property — once a famous stud farm for Arabian horses — and wants to share it with others, whether they become customers or not.

"For us, it's about giving back and helping people experience the joy of horses," she said.

pwood@baltsun.com

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