Edited from Maryland Department of Agriculture press releaseToday, nearly 250 leaders in Maryland horse racing, recreational and competitive riding, training, boarding stables, veterinary services, agriculture, tourism, and support industries are gathering to lay the groundwork to strengthen the equine industry well into the future. Initiated by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., and developed by a committee of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, the forum provides a way for participants to identify solutions to challenges facing the equine industry."Horses have been a strong part of Maryland's identity from its early days as a Colony," said Ehrlich. "The equine industry is a big part of Maryland's economic future and my administration wants to ensure that the industry remains a vibrant part our state's future. As changes occur in the industry, I look to forum participants to recommend innovative ways to strengthen and expand all aspects of the horse business."Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley spoke of the role horses play in agriculture and the farm economy. "Farmers produce the hay and often provide the pasture for the growing horse industry," said Riley. "A strong equine industry supports a broad range of jobs, land preservation, farming, businesses of all sizes, and the overall economy. This gathering is the first opportunity of its kind for all equine interests to come together and offer recommendations for its future in Maryland."In facilitated breakout sessions, participants are discussing topics including ways to increase the value of Maryland-bred and -based horses; ensure that land preservation programs include horse operations; increase economic development opportunities for the state's horse industry on local, national and international levels; promote the equine industry as a significant contributor to agritourism; increase racing purses and incentives to breeders of Maryland racing stock; expand funding for equine teaching, research and extension programs; and protect and enhance access to land for recreational equestrian activities. The outcomes of the forum will be compiled into a report, which will serve as a framework with which to move the industry forward.The first-ever equine census conducted in 2002 by the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service, revealed an industry with assets valued at $5.2 billion and annual expenditures of $766 million. There are more than 87,000 equine in over 20,000 locations around the state on 206,000 acres. Sixty percent of horses are for recreational purposes and 40 percent are for racing. A study by the American Horse Council says there are over 80,000 people in Maryland involved with horses, not counting spectators. In 2002, 3.7 million people attended equine events at Maryland's five major racetracks and there are more horse shows in the Washington, D.C. region than anywhere else in the country.