As a former state lawmaker and the current Commissioner of Agriculture, we are constantly asked about what our neighbors are doing right and wrong. When it comes to burdens, we steer away from the mistakes, and when it comes to success stories, we try to replicate them. To the west, Kentucky does a lot of things right when it comes to agriculture. One of those thriving, well-known fields is their equine industry. Altogether, Kentucky’s horse industry draws in $6.5 billion of economic activity and roughly 60,500 jobs. The raising, sale and racing of horses in the Bluegrass State is big business. That is something we are now working towards replicating here in West Virginia.
Just like a lot of agricultural industries in the Mountain State, the equine industry is small but has a rich history. By the numbers, West Virginia ranks 39th in equine sales which brings in $6,437,000 annually. There are roughly 24,000 horses being raised on 5,300 farms in West Virginia with Jefferson and Greenbrier Counties leading the way. Between our horse tracks and expanding riding trails, a fabulous but small horse industry exists in every county in the state and is prime for expansion. That is why we have announced the formation of a West Virginia Horse Coalition.
The Horse Coalition first met during the 2021 State Fair and made their official announcement of formation during Agriculture Day at the Legislature on February 1, 2022. At the initial meeting, we had the Mountaineer Park HBPA, Charles Town HBPA, West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders and the Jockey’s Guild at the table. Since then, we have added over 40 people and 22 organizations representing horse racing, nonprofits, breeders and therapy groups. It has been my vision, as well as the Department’s, to organize the various equine groups to develop a shared strategy and vision for the horse industry in West Virginia. What started out as a conversation with equine lovers has developed into a full-fledged advocacy movement.
One of the first things the Coalition will do is take an inventory of resources and needs for the equine industry in the Mountain State. Right now, we have very little data on the horse industry except for what the USDA provides in their annual surveys. Part of the problem is the industry is too small, so our federal partner doesn’t include more data on the industry in the U.S. Census of Agriculture. We cannot develop a path forward without first understanding the problems we have to tackle. That is what the Coalition will focus on, finding ways to support equine promotion, youth development, infrastructure needs, breeder’s associations and bringing equine farmers together at annual events.
Just like expanding any agricultural industry in the state, as we foster growth, the impact of the horse industry will have down-stream effect on multiple sectors. From hay and grain to tourism and connected business, expanding the equine industry will spur economic growth in our communities. Most importantly, having a thriving equine industry will provide further incentive to encourage more veterinarians, especially large animal vets, to move to West Virginia. Additional veterinarians will have added benefits for every type of animal lover.
We have a lot to gain by working together to bring a unified strategy to expanding our equine industry. The first step was to form this Horse Coalition, setting the stage for improvements. We are looking forward to what this group will put forth, but I promise the Horse Coalition has the potential for creating economic development, increased recreational opportunities and farm incomes. This group is ready to get to work!
Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture
The West Virginia Department of Agriculture protects plant, animal and human health through a variety of scientific, regulatory and consumer protection programs. The Commissioner of Agriculture is one of six statewide elected officials who sits on the Board of Public Works.