This past summer while on vacation in Tennessee I had the opportunity to take my horse crazy six-year-old niece on her very first trail ride. As the horse-crazy girl of my own generation I felt like I was participating in an important ritual, a passing of the torch so to speak. As a child I was obsessed with all things horse. If I wasn’t riding my horse, I was playing with model horses, reading about horses, doodling drawings of horses, or jumping over sticks in the yard and pretending I was a horse. What is it about horses and little girls (or full-grown middle-aged women for that matter) that is such a perfect match?
Horses and humans share a long history. Originally hunted as game, fossil evidence suggests that man and horse co-existed as long as 25,000 years ago. Horses were likely first domesticated in Central Asia and Western Europe between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago. Throughout history horses have been used as a source of both meat and milk, served as our primary means of transportation, carried soldiers into battle, pulled farming equipment, and been used to tend livestock. Until relatively recently, if you wanted to travel far, carry anything heavy, or be an efficient farmer…you had to have a horse.
The modern horse, by and in large, enjoys a more leisurely lifestyle than his ancestors might have, and owning a horse today is arguably a luxury rather than a necessity. While many horses do still earn their livings on ranches and racetracks, the majority of modern horses living in the United States are kept for “pleasure” as opposed to “work”. Still, horses play an important role in the lives of many Americans and in the economy of many states. In Florida, the equine industry has a $6.8 billion dollar impact on the gross domestic product of the state and accounts for 244,000 jobs (FDACS). Florida is home to over 385,000 horses making it the third most equine-populated state in the union.
Horses come in a variety of breeds that range in size, shape, and purpose. Ponies, a class of horses that stand under 14.2 hands at the withers (a hand is equal to four inches, so 14.2 hands is 58 inches) include a number of breeds such as the Welsh and Shetland, that make popular children’s mounts due to their small stature. Draft horses, which include breeds like the Clydesdale and Shire, are tall, muscular horses that are known for their ability to pull heavy loads. In between the pony and draft are light breeds that are celebrated for their speed, rideability, and athleticism. The Thoroughbred is a well-known middle-distance racer while the Quarter Horse is thus named for being the fastest horse in the world, but only for a quarter of a mile. The Arabian, arguably the oldest purebred or horse, is famous for his endurance and stamina. Warmbloods, originally developed by crossing light breeds with draft horses now include established breeds such as the Dutch Warmblood and the Trakehner. Want to see a warmblood in action? Tune in to the Olympics to watch them excel at dressage, stadium jumping, and cross country.
In Florida, Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses are the two most popular breeds, though representatives of nearly every breed can be found in the state. Florida is home to over 100,000 Thoroughbred racehorses, seventy-five percent of whom live in the Ocala-Marion County area. The most popular pleasure horse in Florida is the American Quarter Horse, a breed that can not only burn rubber (for short distances) but also participate in a number of other equine athletic events ranging from jumping to reining. Gaining in popularity are gaited breeds like the Paso Fino, Tennessee Walker, and Missouri Fox Trotter who are celebrated for their unique, and comfortable, ways of moving which offer their passengers a smooth and easy ride.
Horseback riding provides both physical and mental benefits. Riding, and related horse care activities, burn calories and improve core strength. Riders also enjoy improved balance, posture, and coordination. While many people begin their journey with horses by taking riding lessons as children, it is never too late to learn how to ride! So the next time you are looking for a fun weekend activity consider reaching out to your local trail riding outfit or riding school to inquire about lessons, your inner horse-crazy kid will thank you!