Study: Horses are big business in Sonoma County
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.