(Originally published in the Apri/2010 edition of the Western Horse Review)
"If we are together nothing is impossible. If we are divided all will fail." Winston Churchill
It isn’t difficult to see why we can be divided as an industry. We ride, we drive, we race, we jump, we slide, we compete, we recreate, and all of this using a diverse variety of equipment on a wide range of sizes, shapes and breeds of horses. On top of this diversity, we care for our equine friends in vastly different ways depending on circumstances and philosophies.
Compare this to, for instance, hockey. Everyone needs a pair of skates, a stick, a puck and some protective equipment. The various leagues tell you where to play, and how seriously, the rules are largely the same for each league and team and a hockey stick is, for the most part, a hockey stick. And, although they may have an opinion, most players probably don’t care how often their teammates sharpen their skates or who does it for them.
The key difference is that the “sport of horses” is really many different activities with one common ingredient – the equine. On the plus side, this wide range of activities means there is literally something for everyone, no matter your age, athletic ability, time constraints or competitiveness. There are many opportunities to attract people to our industry whether they are inclined to recreation, competition, a lifetime of learning or just a warm, fuzzy muzzle.
While diversity is variety, fragmentation is a breaking apart. When diversity becomes fragmentation, there is room for judgment, animosity and negativity among the various fragments of the larger group. Some would describe the state of the horse industry as just such.
In 1974 Doug Milligan was appointed head of Alberta’s then newly formed Horse Industry Branch (the first of its kind in Canada) and continued with Alberta Agriculture until his retirement in 2007. The root of the fragmentation problem according to Milligan is simply, “What is important to one group isn’t necessarily important to another.” Milligan believes this attitude results in a lack of focus on major issues that are critical to our industry as a whole.
Through his career in government, Milligan saw how, “the divided state of the horse industry impacted support from society and led to limited recognition from government at all levels.” This lack of support manifests in many ways, including a lack of government funding. Says Milligan, “For example, little research is performed on feeds for horses due to a lack of funding and support for the industry.”
Marnie Somers is the President of the Canadian Quarter Horse Association, and has acted as a director for the American Quarter Horse Association, the Manitoba Quarter Horse Association and Equine Canada. Somers has seen an increase in specialization over her many years in the Quarter Horse industry. At one time everyone who owned a Quarter Horse and wanted to compete had only the option of an AQHA breed show. Now Quarter Horse enthusiasts have many options, with associations for specific disciplines, like cutting or reining, holding their own competitions. The Quarter Horse breeding industry has followed suit with horses being developed for individual disciplines as opposed to the versatility champions of the past. Somers feels this specialization has both its pros and cons.
“Specialization enables people to focus on the needs of their particular sport and forces the exhibitor to increase their skill level to meet the competition,” states Somers. “The advantage for trainers and breeders is that they can identify horses best suited to each discipline, and horses can better do their jobs and have longer careers.” On the other hand, specialization in the Quarter Horse industry means that “the versatility of individuals is not what it once was,” according to Somers.
Globally speaking, Somers feels that these smaller, more specialized groups of like-minded individuals are in danger of developing tunnel vision, and can have a lack of awareness of issues affecting the horse industry as a whole. “We’re in danger of not seeing the enemy on the horizon because we’re busy with our day-to-day activities. There are many threats to the horse industry on a variety of levels and we need to present a common, united front.”
Ken Zelt is the past President of the Alberta Equestrian Federation, a member of the Alberta Trail Riding Association and the man responsible for the creation and implementation of the Alberta Equestrian Trail Supporter Program. Zelt says, “With continually increasing demands on our public land base, and more need for government involvement in maintenance of recreational areas, usage by the horse community could be impacted in the future. Broad communication to the industry is a challenge, so it’s difficult to get the word out on potential areas of concern. A strong network is required to keep the industry informed and involve participants at the regional level.”
Les Burwash, the Manager of Horse Programs with Alberta Agriculture, feels there is an issue with fragmentation in the horse industry and it puts us at a distinct disadvantage. “Individual groups lose sight of the industry as a whole when all they see is their own corner of it. They think what happens elsewhere in the industry doesn’t affect them.”
But what is happening and how does it affect us?
The processing of horses for human consumption is under attack by people largely outside our industry. Burwash believes the demise of this aspect of the horse industry would impact the value of horses, remove the availability of a widely used form of euthanasia and result in neglect and suffering of unwanted horses. This issue has become very divisive inside and outside the horse industry. What used to be a private choice made by the individual owner has become a public issue and a threat to the industry as we know it.
In addition, Burwash comments that, “Equine businesses are not as likely to be consulted by government as other agricultural groups, are disadvantaged in the tax structure and are heavily burdened by insurance costs.” Who speaks to these issues for the horse industry when the majority of voices are small and serving only a fragment of the population?
Part of the solution, according to Doug Milligan, is to avoid becoming wrapped up in issues that are narrowly focused and put more attention on the big picture. For example, all industries rely on public support and a stream of new participants to keep things moving forward. The sport and recreation of horses is no different but has some public relations issues in the areas of safety and cost. Without restrictions or regulations on businesses and individuals offering services in the industry, we limit entrance of new people due to the lack of consumer protection. We live in a guarantee-heavy, safety-conscious society that is often not comfortable with the horse industry’s wide open approach to business.
Marnie Somers believes that improved communication and strategic alliances among the horse industry’s various groups are key to combating the forces that are bending against the livestock industry. “A national organization puts a face on the horse industry for legislators and for those who would like to tell us how to keep our animals. We need to identify common goals, filter this information down to the individual horse owners and be proactive in preserving the lifestyle we enjoy with our horses.”
The solution to fragmentation according to Les Burwash, “We need to agree on minimum standards for the industry, buy in and protect them. We need to be cognizant and supportive of what others are doing but, at the same time, be critical of the things that we and others in our industry are doing that are not acceptable and will ultimately reflect on all of us.” How does this get accomplished? Through “an effective national umbrella group that works for all and is perceived by all as being important.”
The Canadian Equestrian Federation became Equine Canada (EC) in 2002, changing their focus from one of sport to a comprehensive national voice, focused on all aspects of the equine sector. Akaash Maharaj, the current CEO of Equine Canada, believes that “the founders of EC had the insight to recognize that the well-being of each member of the equine community is inextricably linked to every other.” When asked if he feels that fragmentation is an issue in the horse industry, his answer was simply, “Yes.” Maharaj sees the horse industry as being, “remarkably diverse and, in addition to this diversity, populated with a culture of rugged individualism and self responsibility. Although historically a strength, this culture is also, undeniably, a challenge in bringing people together on any issue.”
Maharaj is the first to admit that although Equine Canada has been doing a better job in the last 7 years than it was prior to their expansion of scope, “we are still not doing the job that we ought to be and are still growing into this role.” According to Maharaj, EC’s funding has all come from the sale of sport products and therefore organizational activity has remained centered on this area. The income source must broaden to support a broader mandate. “Canada is a unique national federation in that it aspires to bring together the entire horse sector and work toward a greater good. But good intentions are not enough. We are obligated to build the infrastructure and financial model to meet these aspirations,” states Maharaj.
In the US, the national focus of the horse industry is split into two main groups, the American Horse Council, focusing largely on the production side, and the United States Equestrian Federation, focused on sport. Bob Coleman is an Associate Professor and Extension Horse Specialist at the University of Kentucky. Canadian-born, and the Horse Industry Branch of Alberta’s Extension Horse Specialist for many years, Coleman is familiar with the horse industry on both sides of the border and comments, “It (fragmentation) is a huge issue and it doesn’t matter where you are. There are attempts to work together but these are just attempts. The American Horse Council does a pretty good job creating awareness and lobbying on horse industry issues, but is constantly challenged by groups wanting to pull away.” When asked his opinion on how the American model, with a divided mandate for national groups, compared to Equine Canada’s, all-under-one-umbrella model, Coleman answered, “It’s very hard to do it all under one roof but ultimately the best thing for all. What affects one will affect another. Creating as cohesive a group as possible is the answer. The challenge is to speak with one voice from such diversity.”
And why does Maharaj feel that a united, national voice is so important? “If we are unable to go to government and speak with one voice, we will be sidelined, and decisions will be made that will harm us. The equine sector is unlike any other industry and others cannot effectively speak for us.”
And what can we do as individuals in the horse industry? Burwash feels we need to “take off the blinders and get rid of the negativism. It’s important to be critical but do it analytically, ask questions and do your research before coming to a conclusion about what someone else is doing. Everyone must take on the responsibility of looking at things objectively and evaluating the validity of information that’s available.” In other words, don’t believe it just because you saw it on the internet, or your riding buddy said so.
Mae Smith is the Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Horse Federation. She believes that a strong national voice comes from strong, united provincial groups. Get involved with your provincial umbrella organization, find out what’s happening in the industry and be a part of the solution.
Bob Coleman says, “We need to get to the table if we don’t like what’s happening. Be part of a unified voice that does its best to speak for everyone, and be willing to bite your tongue and go on when it is in the best interests of the whole, even if it isn’t ideal for your individual farm or group.”
A fragmented industry is compromised and becomes vulnerable to outside threats. Without a large, common voice, we don’t have the impact we should or garner the appropriate amount of recognition from government or the public. Laws are written and systems put in place without our input. If one area of our industry is under pressure, it is often left to fend for itself. If it doesn’t survive, we’ve lost a part of the whole and have to ask the question, who will be there to support us when our group comes under fire?
United we stand…you know the rest.