For more than 250 years, horses have played a vital role in Maryland’s culture, spirit and history, going back to 1743, when the Maryland Jockey Club — the oldest sporting organization in North America — was chartered.
Just a few years later, George Washington raced his horses in the streets of Annapolis in the 1750s. And roughly 120 years after that, the first Preakness Stakes was held at Pimlico in 1875. Since then, the second stop of the Triple Crown has put Maryland at the center of horse racing every spring, but it’s important to remember that the state’s horse industry makes measurable impacts on our environment and economy throughout the year.
Maryland’s largest industry is agriculture. The state produces many things including chickens, corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, barley — and horses. In 2016 the Sage Policy Group reported that the horse industry, exclusive of horse racing, supports economic activity of $1.15 billion, and wage and salary income of nearly $500 million. It is projected that by 2020, with all of the positive trends continuing, the industry will reach $1.5 billion with as much as $620 million in employee income.
In the coming years, the growth in events and locations celebrating horse sports in Maryland will continue with a bid for the Breeders Cup at Laurel Park, a possible four-star event at Fair Hill Race Course, the Maryland Equine Educational Center at Goucher College and the potential renovation of Prince George’s Show Place and Equestrian Center. Horse activities and events — such as the Preakness, Jim McKay Maryland Million Day, Fair Hill International and Capital Challenge — draw many of those visitors and participants each year. Horses are a beautiful way to encourage people to visit and add value to many other industries that make Maryland unique.
Maryland may be one of the smallest states in the country at just over 6.2 million acres, but it is also tasked with protecting the United States’ largest estuary because most of the state is Chesapeake Bay watershed. Protecting farmland in that watershed area is critical, and one of the best ways to do so is to preserve pastureland. The pastures where horses live, exercise and graze are among the best filters to protect the Chesapeake Bay. A quarter of Maryland’s agricultural land is devoted to horses, and more than 88,000 equine acres will be preserved as farmland forever. The equine industry is a productive partner in the efforts to keep Maryland green and the Chesapeake Bay clean.
The same soil that protects the bay is what originally drew horse breeders to Maryland many years ago — and keeps them here today. The limestone soil and temperate climate allowed them to grow the best quality horses possible. The horses they produced had to be strong, fast and healthy to compete and work. Horse breeders use the same resources to raise horses with those same qualities today, even as Maryland becomes more and more urban.
Though the Thoroughbred is officially the state horse, the 2018 American Horse Council Economic Impact study confirms that Maryland is home to a diverse community of breeds including Standardbreds, Quarter Horses, Walking Horses, Paints, Draft Horses and many others — and various pony breeds and mules too. Jousting became Maryland’s state sport in 1962 and is a proud part of Maryland’s community and heritage.
The benefits of a strong horse industry on our state’s economy and environment are extremely important, but the benefits of interaction and appreciation of horses on a personal level are immeasurable. We now understand how animals help us tolerate a stressful world and we know that horses can aid in healing. They assist in healing soldiers who have endured trauma, healing damaged bodies and emotions that may benefit from the actual motion of riding a horse, but also just gazing into the eyes of an animal that needs you as much as you need them.
Horses are a symbol of a life lived in tune with nature, representing how strength, fragility and beauty can combine to produce a perfect picture. And they are good for Maryland for many reasons, but maybe Winston Churchill summed it up best when he said that “there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
Cricket Goodall is the executive director of Maryland Horse Breeders Association. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.