With the continued urbanization of the United States, speakers at the first Kentucky Equine Education Project industry conference Oct. 18 in Lexington said it's more important than ever for industry participants to reach out to the general public to help facilitate a connection to horses.
Price Bell, of Mill Ridge Farm and Nicoma Bloodstock, said it's important for the industry to reach out to the general public. Bell is the board president of Horse Country Inc., a not-for-profit organization that provides tours of Central Kentucky Thoroughbred farms.
"We sometimes forget that while we get to see horses every day, the vast majority of the world does not," Bell said. "They want to see how horses live, how they are cared for each day."
KEEP works to promote horse industry awareness in Kentucky. Bell was participating on a panel discussing growth opportunities for the industry at the two-day conference.
Bell noted that the original economic engine for horse racing, pari-mutuel wagering, faces more and more competition. He said it's important for the industry to create new experiences for customers. He said the thing that makes racing unique compared with other gaming is the horse, and providing access to the horse at the tracks and at the farms can create unique experiences that will create new fans. He said as those fans share their experiences with friends through social media, those new fans can reach out to other potential fans.
Horse Country aims to give people a hands-on experience with the horse that will create fans of the sport.
"Our consumer has changed a lot in my lifetime. Now that you can bet on anything, people want an experience. They want to touch a horse, they want a nice place to go for the races," Bell said. "The horse is the differentiator...Demands of the horse racing consumer have dramatically changed from a sort of betting commodity to an experience. We need to drive more experience-based exposure to the horse for people."
Under that model, Bell said it's hugely important to fans that the horse is treated well during its racing career and will be treated well after it's retired. Bell said by bringing people into contact with horses and allowing them to see first-hand how well they are treated can help when animal rights groups assail the sport.
"I believe in promoting transparency and promoting horses. The more you bring people into your barns, it helps affect the conversation," Bell said. "Through social media, initiatives like Horse Country that celebrate the horse, its care, and its love; it can help change the conversation."
On an earlier panel, vet Dr. Stuart Brown, of Hagyard Eqine Medical Institute and a Kentucky Horse Racing Commissioner, said Kentucky is unique in its celebration of the horse. He said efforts to encourage tourism tied to that love of the horse should be expanded and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah provides a headline attraction.
"We have an excellent opportunity with American Pharoah. He has provided a chance to introduce a new generation to horse racing," Brown said. "There is a true equine community here. When you fly in here you are met with a tidal wave of sorts of the horse. This is the land that produces the world’s greatest horses."
Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles, who also was participating on the panel, said strides have been made in educating legislators about the breeding industry. He said more of them understand that the backbone of the industry are family-owned farms. But he encouraged farm owners to continue to reach out to lawmakers, invite them to their farms to allow them to see the operation first hand.
Quarles, a Republican who was elected in November 2015, said he is committed to working with the equine industry.
"Over the years Agriculture has had a limited relationship with the equine industry," Quarles said. "I want to change that. I believe we need a more active role. You are going to have to educate me and the Department of Agriculture, because of that limited previous interaction."
Quarles and Bell enthusiastically embraced an idea of bringing schoolchildren out to farms. Bell said it's possible such field trips could be done through Horse Country. Quarles noted, short of field trips, the Department of Agriculture has mobile trailers that could be taken to schools. He said the trailers provide information on a variety of agriculture topics, including horses.