Study: Horses are big business in Sonoma County

A new study concludes the $613 million horse industry in Sonoma County supports 7,700 jobs and provides $11.3 million in local tax revenue annually.|

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.

“The equine industry has a tourism element that is budding and growing,” said Eyler, who presented the findings. “It’s growing at a faster pace than the tourism pace of the wine industry, which is more mature.”

Trail riding is the top equestrian activity, according to a survey of hundreds of horse owners and equestrian-related businesses contacted for the study. Boarding, breeding, jumping and training are among the other leading horse-?related businesses.

The study showed that quarter horses and warmbloods, like those in dressage, are the dominant types of horses owned in Sonoma County, with Morgans, mustangs, gaited and miniature horses also abundant. Owners on average have between one and two horses each, and do not foresee a significant rise in buying and selling activity in the next five years.

The largest concentrations of equine owners and their animals are in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Petaluma, the study showed.

There is a “wide continuum of activities that generate revenue,” Eyler said. Veterinary services, animal supplies, manufacturing, construction and tourism “all sort of feed off of this industry one way or another.”

Services that support the equine industry include local barns and stables, horse trainers and riding coaches, breeders, feed stores and growers, farriers and maintenance workers who manage recreational riding and show activities.

Other industries derive revenue from horse-?related businesses: professional services like real estate, law and accounting; show-related businesses; construction and landscaping maintenance companies; fencing and ranch maintenance firms; and utilities like water, electricity, sewer and garbage, the report says.

Tourism is, of course, eyed as a key moneymaker for the future if the industry can develop and grow.

“The beauty of tourism is that they leave that additional tax revenue behind,” Eyler said, particularly when visitors can be enticed to stay overnight in Sonoma County, shop and eat at local restaurants.

Ron Malone, president of the horse council, said access to show facilities is the “one big hole” facing the industry in Sonoma County.

He and others support the creation of the California Equestrian Park & Event Center, a $205 million plan hatched in 2009 to buy west county land and build a world-class horse facility. A nonprofit agency leading the way is raising funds for land acquisition, design, permitting and environmental analysis.

Currently, the Sonoma Horse Park and Riverside Equestrian Center east of Petaluma hosts the largest moneymaking horse shows in the county, Malone and Bell said. Last weekend, the multimillion-?dollar facility hosted a hunter-jumper show sponsored by the Italian fashion house Gucci - ?an indication of the vast amounts of money involved, Bell said.

Sonoma Horse Park hosts seven shows a year, each bringing in at least 700 horses accompanied by their owners, trainers, family and other support personnel.

Many of them stay in local hotels for the entire week. When some family members are at the show, others may play golf or go shopping, said park owner Howard Herman. They all eat at local restaurants.

“The key is horse shows,” he said. “There is no question what it means to the community, because you’re bringing in new money from people who come from outside.”

The report estimates the equine industry as a whole generates $1,791,400 annually in sales taxes in Sonoma County and $9,315,300 in property taxes each year. Another $200,000 comes from transient-occupancy taxes, the fees visitors pay on overnight stays in hotels, motels and inns.

For every horse in Sonoma County, businesses earn $23,386 annually; and for every 34 horses, 10 jobs annually are supported, the report said.

“One of the themes in this study is that while the equine industry is certainly about horses, it is more specifically about people,” the report states. “People ride horses, care for them and are engaged in businesses that supply goods and services to the equine community. People come to Sonoma County as spectators and participants from around the world because of horses.”

Malone of the horse council described the industry as broad, deep, dynamic and diverse.

“But I’m also here to tell you it is delicate. It is not a business to be in to make money,” he said. “People do it because they are passionate about it and they love it. The margins are really, really thin.”

He and Eyler said there are threats to the industry including urbanization, taxes, government regulations and succession planning. The outlook is mixed, those in the study said.

“There’s a lot of skepticism out there about how much the demand side of the industry can grow,” Eyler said.

You can reach Lori A. ?Carter at 762-7297 or lori.? On Twitter @loriacarter.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.