Study: Horses are big business in Sonoma County

  • Marsha Busekist rides her Lusitano stallion, Saltando Do Norte, around the indoor arena at Flying Cloud Farm in Petaluma on Wednesday, August 13, 2014.
    (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

At Flying Cloud Farm east of Petaluma, equine enthusiasts can ride, jump, perform dressage routines, watch barrel racing or gymnastic routines atop horses — and even get married.

The business is among dozens helping to drive the $613 million equestrian industry in Sonoma County, which has grown by nearly a third over the past decade, when the sector’s economic impacts were last quantified in the county.

Equestrian activity — including casual trail rides, hunter-jumper competitions and all of the associated businesses that support those activities — supports 7,700 jobs and provides $11.3 million in local tax revenue annually.

Those findings were outlined this week before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in a report commissioned by the Sonoma County Horse Council and prepared by Sonoma State University economics students.

It is the third update of the industry since 1994-95, when there were about 14,000 horses in the county. By 2004, that number had swelled to about 18,000, generating an economic impact of about $450 million, edging out the dairy industry and making horses second only to wine grapes in the agricultural economy.

The latest report concludes that direct spending connected to the ownership of about 27,000 equines — horses, mules and donkeys — living in Sonoma County totals $464 million. Those figures put equestrian services in the top three among agriculture industries in Sonoma County, with grapes and dairy, depending on how they’re measured, the study’s authors said.

“Sonoma County is a fabulous place for horses because it is so close to civilization, with San Francisco and everything so close, but it’s still so rural,” said Jeannette Bell, who has owned Flying Cloud Farm with her husband, James, since 1987.

The couple opened their show facilities in 1989 and in 2000 added facilities for weddings and corporate events. They later planted a vineyard and host Wine Country weddings at their Jacobsen Lane property.

Equine businesses generate revenues for themselves, but also income that reverberates through the local economy with dozens of other industries that support or depend on horses.

The ripple effect adds to the equine industry’s overall economic influence, said Robert Eyler, director of the Center for Regional Economic Analysis at SSU.

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