LANSING — There’s been a lot of heartache and heartbreak for members of Michigan’s equine industry.
To Aaron Rice, the “uphill battles” and “abandoned hope” endured by equine operators during the Great Recession were more than just metaphors — more than just clichés used by high school football coaches.
For Rice, it’s real life.
“We were a much more robust industry (prior to) 2008,” Rice told Michigan Farm News. “But economic conditions of the country made our industry weak. It was an unkind period. …
“We worked with a lot of abandoned horses during that time period.”
According to Rice, president of the Lansing-based equine coalition Michigan Equine Partnership, the nation’s economic collapse of 2008-09 “weakened” the state’s horse industry, leading to the departure of many business players.
Not only that, Michigan started closing down horse racetracks following a ballot initiative during the Granholm administration in 2004, which amended the state’s constitution and “changed how many casinos could be in Michigan,” said Ernie Birchmeier, livestock and dairy specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB).
This, he said, all but “eliminated (most) opportunities for racetracks to have slot machines.”
However, in recent years, the U.S. economy rebounded with 10 years of post-Recession expansion, which led to more opportunities for all sectors of ag.
For Michigan’s equine industry, however, hopes of an expansion rest in Lansing. In particular, Michigan’s recent legislation involving horse racing — SB 12, which was introduced by Sen. Dan Lauwers (R-Brockway) — would legalize advanced deposit wagering (ADW), a technology that more than 20 states already allow, and create more economic opportunities for the industry.
“Racing will hopefully stabilize in Michigan,” Rice said. “…People came and watched back then. It kept us in the eyes of the public. I do believe (this legislation) will make a difference. This is the first step in the right direction.
“This wagering could be an advantage, (as) the revenue will stay in the state.”
Similarly, the MFB’s equine advisory committee's been active in pursuing changes to the Horse Racing Law to ensure the industry’s long-term viability.
Prior to SB 12, the organization supported HB 4611, legislation that would allow individuals to wager on horse races without being present at the track. However, the bill was vetoed in December by former Gov. Rick Snyder because of “budgetary concerns,” said Rebecca Park, legislative counsel for the MFB.
With the start of a new legislative session, Lauwers is reintroducing the previous legislation now known as SB 12.
As written, ADW allows wagering on horse racing to occur online and via cell phones.
“It’s a new year with a new legislative body, but the concept of the bill is not new,” Park said. “The equine folks understand that while ADW is not a silver bullet, it at least puts us on a level playing field with other states that have horse racing.”
According to Rice, this legislation could “rejuvenate” the state’s equine industry.
“We need to find more ways to rebuild the industry,” he said. “It’s hard to climb out of that hole … when horse racing was lost. But the economic situation has gotten better over the last year. … Horses have risen in value. A lot of breeders (left) when horse racing was lost in Michigan because of prior ballot proposals. We have been devastated by a lot of different parts of the industry.
“Now, we are working toward bringing back horse racing in the state.”
According to a study from the American Horse Council Foundation, the equine industry has a direct economic impact of roughly $122 billion, up $20 billion dollars from an estimation made in a 2005 study. In addition, the industry employs about 1.74 million people and is responsible for 7.2 million horses. Among the states with the highest horse populations are Texas, Florida and California, according to the study.
Equine’s racing sector alone makes up the majority of the economic input, generating $36.6 billion or 42 percent of the total industry value-added.
At Michigan State University’s Farrier School, enrollment has been at capacity due to a resurgence in student interest, said Karen Waite, MSU’s IAT horse management program coordinator.
“It’s gotten a lot better over the last three years,” said Waite on Michigan’s equine industry. “I do think that tends to happen with the horse industry: As the economy improves, the horse industry improves. I judge a lot of horse shows, and I have seen a resurgence in interest.”
According to Waite, MSU’s Farrier School reopened last September and now is enrolling about six students per session, which is max capacity. Participants can join the program in either 12- or 24-week intervals, Waite said, noting an increase in applications for MSU’s Institute of Agricultural Technology Horse Management Program and enrollment in equine classes at its animal science program.
“MSU previously had a farrier school until the 1950s, when it was closed due to the mechanization of agriculture,” Waite said. “Michigan had a private farrier school until 10-15 years ago, but since it closed, those with an interest have had to go out of state to obtain the training. We still have horses with feet that need to be trimmed and shod, so it made sense to reopen the MSU program.”
In an industry where “people were having to leave Michigan” because of the economy, Wait said it’s “good” equine is making a comeback in the public’s eye.
This, she said, could only improve if legislation like SB 12 is enacted.
“Every time someone sees a horse and interacts with it, it’s a good thing for the industry,” Waite said. “… Getting horses in the public eye is a good thing. It’s only fair. There are plenty of casinos in the state.
“Let’s not limit ourselves.”