The horse has long been one of the most iconic animals in American history. From Trigger to Secretariat to Mr. Ed, horses have held a special place in our countrys popular culture. Perhaps even more importantly, horses played an integral role in the development and growth of America, providing an indispensable mode of transportation and doing much of the heavy lifting in the construction of the railroad system.
They were even a large part of our military as late as World War I.
Even though horses remain popular in movies and television, interest in owning and riding horses has been steadily declining in recent years. As technology becomes more prevalent in daily life and older generations move on, the cowboy way of life has slowly been dying out. For the many people like Stephen S. James and Deanne Fuller who have grown up and spent their lives around horses, that is simply not acceptable.
That is why James and Fuller established the 50 Year Horse Society in 2011. The goal of the society is twofold: to honor men and women who have dedicated their lives to preserving and promoting the benefits of riding and caring for horses, and also to promote interest in horses among younger generations.
James says he has seen some disturbing statistics recently. On one side of things, todays youth are spending more and more time indoors, watching television and playing video games, while on the other side, the amount of people involved in the horse industry is dropping. The American Quarter Horse Association, one of the largest horse-related groups in the country, reported a 33% decrease in registrations in the years between 2008 and 2011, with another drop expected in 2012.
The last generation that really grew up around horses were the baby boomers, James said. After that most generations have no memory of them. We are trying to do what we can to change that.
As part of their efforts, the 50 Year Horse Society is sponsoring an annual Cowboy College for kids ages 4-12. The day-long event coincides with the National Day of the American Cowboy, a designated celebration that is now recognized in about 20 states. The Cowboy College teaches kids the benefits of horse riding as well as how to properly care for horses. James says horse riding not only teaches kids responsibility, but it is also a great lifetime sport that uses the total body. In fact, many people are surprised to find that horse riding ranks among the top fitness activities.
The society held their 2012 induction and recognition ceremony at the April 28 horse auction at Southern Illinois Equine Sale in Goreville. One of their many honorees was Dr. Alyx Shultz, who was selected as the Midwestern Horseman 2012. Shultz, who is an associate professor in animal and equine sciences at Murray State University, also spoke about the importance of educating younger generations about horses.
The average age of stakeholders in the horse industry keeps getting older, and we are failing to get young people interested, she said. We need kids who are willing to come in and do the college work to keep this going.
If the equine program at Murray State is any indication, there is still some interest in horses among todays youth. Shultz said that last semester they had 216 students involved in the program, which includes both equine majors and students from other majors who were interested in the program.
Laney Workman, a masters student at Murray, said that they have also seen a large interest from foreign students. In many European countries there is little opportunity to be around horses because they are considered a luxury item. With the wide availability of horses in the United States, it is an opportunity many of us take for granted.
In fact, Southern Illinois is one of the leading destinations for horsemen in the country. James said that the horse industry is currently the largest tourist draw in the bottom third of the state, with a large reason for that being the Shawnee Trails. One of this years inductees, Garry Jenkins, echoed that statement.
Ive talked to people from all over the country, and one thing I keep hearing is that Shawnee is the most beautiful, best kept secret in America, Jenkins said.
Jenkins also spoke of another issue that greatly affected the horse industry. In 2006, the federal government placed a ban on the slaughtering of crippled and aging horses. Jenkins says the move undercut the industry and forced the sale of these horses to Canada and Mexico, where the slaughtering was still legal. He personally lobbied in both Springfield and Washington, D.C., and after five years, the ban was finally lifted in November of last year. While the concept of horse slaughtering may seem shocking, the move to lift the ban was actually supported by PETA, who claimed that it was preferable to shipping horses to other countries.
If there is one positive to the recent decline in the industry, it is that horses are now as affordable as they have ever been. Both James and Shultz indicated that horses are now priced so that almost anyone could afford one, making this the perfect time for people looking to get into the equestrian fields, whether for recreational riding, competitive riding, or just the business itself.
This was evident at Saturdays auction, where a large crowd gathered to place their bids on the dozens of horses that were up for sale that day. Before the horses went up for sale, the 50 Year Horse Society inducted their 2012 honorees. The group of 14 were chosen for their contributions of 50 years or more in the industry and represented a wide range of interests.
Garry Jenkins was joined by his wife Karen as one of four couples inducted. The other three were Trish and Wardell McNichols, Valora and Sonny Davis, and Jean and Bob Shoemaker. The remaining inductees were Harold Hurst, Rodger Webb, Jim Douglas, Bobby Elliot, Norm Hill and Gail Guiling.
They also handed out regional horsemen awards. Brad Yount was named the Missouri Horseman 2012. Paul Cunningham was selected as the Tennessee Horseman 2012.Jason and Jarrod Singleton received co-honors as the Kentucky Horsemen 2012 and Chris Ray, owner of SIE sales, was named the Illinois Horseman 2012. Dr. Alyx Shultz received the top honor as the Midwestern Horseman for 2012.
They also gave one Lifetime Achievement Award to Robert L. Lewis of Salem, Ill. Lewis was one of the six inaugural inductees honored last year.
The National Day of the American Cowboy and the Cowboy College will be held on Saturday, July 28 this year. For more information, contact James or Fuller at email@example.com or visit their website, 50yearhorsesociety.org.