BOZEMAN, MT - The horse market and economy may be tough, but Montana State University economist Tim Fitzgerald isn't about to tell Montanans to give up their horses.
"I'm in no position to tell you how much to like a horse," Fitzgerald said recently at MSU's fifth annual Equine Conference in Bozeman.
Discussing horses in the new economy, Fitzgerald said his job at the conference was to get people thinking about how much horses cost. It's up to them to decide if the expense is worth the benefit.
"You may get to where something that was an asset to you is now a liability," Fitzgerald said.
The cost of maintaining one horse in Montana is typically $700 a year when owners have large acreages, $1,060 a year on small acreages and $1,575 a year when a horse is stabled, Fitzgerald said. That includes feed, veterinary costs and services. Add in fixed costs, rent and monthly boarding costs, and the cost rises to $1,900 per horse per year for large acreages, $2,260 a year for small acreages and $2,775 a year for stabled horses.
Those figures might seem low to horse owners around Bozeman and high to horse owners around Sidney, but they reflect costs state-wide, Fitzgerald emphasized. They don't include insurance, equipment, labor costs or emergency care. They include low-end prices for hay, sweet grain, pasture rent, minerals, farriers, veterinarians, vaccinations and worming.
"There's a huge variance in this state in how people take care of their horses and how they run them, so it's hard to come up with estimates," Fitzgerald said.
People generally own horses for one of four reasons, Fitzgerald continued. Ranchers might find them cheaper to use than four-wheelers or pickup trucks. Some owners want them for the show ring or rodeos. Others use them for hunting or trail riding. Many simply have a soft spot for horses.
"To be honest with you, I think the demand for horses is largely emotional," Fitzgerald said.
It's interesting to note, he added, that people who own yachts or airplanes are generally wealthy, but horse owners come from a wider range of income levels.
Montana had 130,000 horses in 1999, Fitzgerald said. That's the latest official statistic available, but he hopes the results of a new survey will be available in 2009. He does know that in 2008, approximately 94,000 Montana horses were registered with the American Quarter Horse Association. That was about 1,500 fewer than in 2006.
"We still love horses, but a lot of people have a little bit less disposable income," Fitzgerald said.
Sandy Gagnon, MSU Extension horse specialist, estimated that Montana currently has 140,000 to 150,000 horses. That's about the same as it has been, but fewer people are breeding horses because it's difficult to market horses in this economy, he said.
Those that are breeding are being more selective, Gagnon said. He added that well-broke horses are generally selling well. Mid-level horses are selling for slightly less than normal. The difficulty is selling unbroke two-year-old horses, yearlings and weanlings.
"You can hardly move them at all," he said.
The most popular horses in Montana are Quarter Horses, Gagnon said. Next are Paint horses and Appaloosas.