MD Horse Forum: Developing a strategy for the industry

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Aug. 14, 2019

Participants in the horse industry in Maryland and beyond were afforded an opportunity Aug. 8 to offer input and suggest policies that could, on a legislative level, help plot the future of an industry with an economic impact of $1.3 billion.

The occasion was the fourth Maryland Horse Forum, which has been held every five years since 2004. Suggestions from the event are compiled and prepared for an official report that is given to participants, legislators and the governor for review and consideration.

Hundreds attended the forum held at Goucher College in Towson in Baltimore County. It was planned and organized by the Maryland Horse Industry Board, an arm of the state Department of Agriculture that in the spring surveyed industry participants to fashion an agenda that featured 12 breakout discussions with the overriding them of equine health and welfare.

The forum was unusual, at least for those in the horseracing industry, in that the attendees did much of the talking rather than a set number of speakers or panelists. Each discussion was directed by a professional moderator who assembled attendees into small groups to prepare a list of key points that were then shared with the entire group in each breakout session.

Several public officials and lawmakers were on hand to speak or observe including Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

“I’d like to thank the Maryland Horse Industry Board for choosing to be here,” Olszewski said. “Thanks for all you do to promote the horse industry. I’ve spent time in the legislature and I can tell you that your work matters. The industry has a major impact statewide but we’re proud of our connection (with the industry) in Baltimore County.

“In the years ahead we will continue to be an advocate for this storied industry.”

The survey conducted by the MIHB revealed the number one issue to be equine welfare across all disciplines and horse-related activities. Thus, breakout sessions dealt with topics such as perception of the horse industry; the transition of unwanted or retired horses; safeguarding equine health; educational and legislative options to address welfare concerns; issues that impact horse owners and horse-related businesses; and legislation that could affect the industry in upcoming General Assembly sessions.

Multiple suggestions from the breakout session on perception of the horse industry centered on proper messaging and unification. Transparency, quickly addressing problems as they develop, and having a plan in place ahead of time are part of the equation.

A list of “critical issues” included educating the public on how well taken care of horses are; telling the industry’s story rather than letting others, particularly those who oppose the industry, tell it; and “bringing the horse” to those who aren’t engaged in the industry and therefore have no positive perception. Suggestions included outreach and education programs; unification within industry organizations and the overall horse industry so the proper message can be sent; using legislative avenues that can ensure stability for the industry; and perhaps hiring a public relations firm to handle messaging and promotion.

On the racing side of the horse industry, suggestions from a few breakout sessions included continued advocacy for and protection of the law that sets aside 6% of video lottery terminal revenue for purses and breed development; allowing the Standardbred industry to use some of its Racetrack Facility Renewal Account funding, which currently is dedicated to capital improvements, for marketing; lobbying to have racetracks and off-track betting facilities included in sports betting legislation should the General Assembly decide to pursue such legislation and a constitutional amendment; working to protect Pimlico Race Course and the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore; developing official quarantine facilities for racehorses and the horse in general should there be disease outbreaks or major events that would require such facilities; and developing a code of ethics for horsemen that could be a condition of licensing.

The Maryland Horse Forum was held amid a backdrop of ongoing discussions in the racing and breeding industry on a master plan for the industry that continues to evolve in the wake of the 2019 General Assembly session. It was noted during the forum that legislative advocacy and education is critical given ongoing changes in the makeup of the General Assembly.