W.Va. studies practitioner need
The state of West Virginia is willing to bet $50,000 it's been overlooked by the equine industry.
Until now, lack of convincing data that the industry in West Virginia not only exists, but is burgeoning has kept alive the status of states such as Kentucky, Virginia and California as proverbial "horse country" frontrunners.
State leaders of West Virginia plan to erase all doubt upon completion of a state and privately funded $50K survey that will determine the horse industry's economic influence and establish an accurate horse count, among other agendas, within its borders.
The goal is to better manage the monies that the horse industry already contributes to the state and to potentially advertise West Virginia to future veterinary graduates, says Tom Walker, chair of the committee responsible for the survey.
State Senate Finance Chairman Oshel Craigo, a proponent of the initiative, put the study in motion. He says it will be launched in January and is expected to take up to 18 months to complete.
"I would suggest (the equine industry) is a lot bigger than we realize," he says.
The West Virginia University (WVU) College of Agriculture and Extension Service is drafting the survey, the first since 1985, under the direction of Walker, an assistant professor at WVU.
Ingredients of survey
The survey will account for all equine breeds and the total number of horses in West Virginia, according to Walker. Officials are optimistic the survey, by showing the number of horses in the state, may prove the lack of equine veterinary hospitals.
"We have such a deficit of large animal practitioners that we hope this study will help prove there is a need," says Walker. The state currently operates with 26 large animal practitioners and 90 mixed animal practitioners, according to the West Virginia Board of Veterinary Medicine.
In addition, Walker says the survey, which targets horse owners, will help estimate the value of equine breeds in the state; determine use of horses; types of horse events; demographics such as income and education level of horse owners; value of equine assets; and contributions to traditional agriculture production of West Virginia (purchase of hay or wood shavings).
"The purpose of this study is to determine the present and future potential impact of the horse industry on economic development and tourism," says Noah Perry, treasurer of the West Virginia Horse Council, who contributed input for the survey.
The survey is being funded by in-kind contributions from the extension service and horse council and the veterinary medical association and others.
"We want to engender as much cooperation as we can to get a broader cross-section of data from throughout the industry," says Perry.
Horse industry missing
The agricultural commodity reports were a driving force behind the survey, says Walker.
"When you look at any ag commodity reports, the horse industry is never listed. Horses traditionally have not been part of it, because they've been geared toward recreational," he says.
"We feel there is a real need to prove that the horse industry plays a major impact on the traditional agriculture industry as well as the economy. When you look at it, horses are livestock, but they're never really looked at as true agricultural livestock."
Aside from travel and tourism monies generated from horse events, according to Walker, a person who owns at least one horse or pony, for example, has to buy hay and grain, which affects the state's traditional agriculture and economy.
Survey leaders are calling upon large animal, mixed and equine veterinarians to help contact their clientele to participate.
In the early stages of the project, officials are contacting equine associations, veterinarians, farriers, and industry groups to develop a solid mailing list of horse owners, Walker says.
"The veterinarians could have a vested interest in helping us show there's a need to really develop a strong hospital type facility that can service the equine industry," he says.
He envisions the survey results being used by veterinarians as a marketing tool.
"I have some friends who are veterinarians. When they're expanding their practice, if they want to bring a specialist in, they have to show there's a market for them. I hope this study can help them show we have this number of horses in this geographic region that we can really service," says Walker.
A veterinary bonus, according to Perry, is the potential to develop a future equine veterinary diagnostic facility (a first for the state). Currently, horse owners must transport their horses out of state for most major surgeries, according to Perry.
"If we ever will be able to get it changed, it will be because the study will tell us it needs to change," he says.
Or one can ask a local veterinarian.
Bubble not bursting
Dr. James Henderson, a 21-year practitioner in Fairmont, a northern locale in West Virginia, says his practice today is probably 80 to 90 percent equine. When he first went solo in 1989 his practice was about 50-50 horses and cattle.
"Some of my cattle work has fell off due to the natural cycle of the beef industry. But the horse work has increased every year," says Henderson, current secretary of the West Virginia Veterinary Medical Association.
His practice mirrors the equine industry he serves.
"(The growth) has caught people's attention. For the past five years, I've been waiting for the bubble to bust," he says.
One indicator of growth, says Henderson, is his increase in major surgery referrals to places out of state, since where he's located in West Virginia referral centers are not to be found.
"It would not surprise me if at some point in the next five to 10 years, somebody does build a fully-equipped and operational equine hospital or surgical facility (in the area)," Henderson says.
Meanwhile, he says he's lucky he can handle most surgeries without referral.
"My office is my pickup. The way my practice goes, I'm like ol' doc on Gunsmoke. I can take care of about 99 percent of what you need done - routine vaccinations, minor surgeries, castrations, foalings. The rest of it - colic surgery, broken bones, C-section-I can refer," says Henderson.
"A long time ago, I thought I'd build one of those (referral centers), but I realized that would be too much in the way of gray hair-making. I like my stomach the way it is without ulcers," he says.
Another veterinarian, Dr. Clara Mason, a solo mobile practitioner in southwestern Winfield, W.Va., says she was asked to testify before the state legislature in support of the equine survey.
"We have an extremely untapped horse industry," says Mason, who says she's counting on survey leaders to market the results to future, as well as relocating, veterinarians.
"The equine vets are overwhelmed," says Mason, "(because) there are very few of us."
Mason estimates up to nine counties are without a large animal practitioner. "I personally cover 12 counties. I cannot tell you how many farm calls I turn down. I have people offer me the moon to drive three and a half hours for a $45 ultrasound."
Mason says she rarely sees a break in her calendar, treating 100 to 200 horses per week on 60 to 80 appointments.
"I think the survey will make the state more attractive to equine and large animal veterinarians," she says.
Until then, she says, many will still turn up their noses at the thought of working in West Virginia.
"They have a pre-conceived notion of West Virginia, which sadly is not really true. There's a tremendous horse industry here," says Mason.