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Recreation & Leisure: No horsing around

The New York horse industry produces goods and services valued at $1.7 billion.
–More than 258,000 New Yorkers are involved in the industry as owners, service providers, employees and volunteers. This figure does not include event spectators.
–Direct industry employment in the state accounts for 12,800 jobs, which fans out to an additional 49,500 jobs as a result of spending by owners and employees.
–New York is home to 146,000 horses, 60 percent of which are involved in showing and recreation.
–In 1996, six of the 40 national horse shows were held in New York.
Figures for the local equine scene are hard to come by, but, according to those in the know, the local horse business is thriving.
“Thirty-five years ago I did my own survey and it was shocking,” says veteran riding instructor, horse trainer and equine guru Jack Frohm, owner since 1958 of a horse-riding and -boarding facility, High View Farm Inc. “There are a lot of horses in the Rochester area.”
He adds that there are twice the number of stables locally than in either the Syracuse or Buffalo areas.
Despite its many public relations problems–including sensationalized injuries, an elitist reputation and incredible expense–the recreational horse business continues to grow, say area experts and aficionados.
“The business is growing. New people are coming into it, especially adults, those that rode as a child or those that are learning alongside their own kids,” says Caroline Capretta, owner of the Hunting Horn, a recreational horse-supply shop in Penfield.
Frohm agrees that there are more adult riders getting into the sport and competing these days: “So many more people are showing. Everyone wants to be on the show circuit.”
A fox-chase enthusiast, eventing instructor and owner of Cherry Hill Stables in Spencerport, Susan Rosenberg also sees more adult riders in her classes than ever before. She attributes this to the challenges inherent in the sport.
“You’re outdoors all day, forever learning, (so) it’s difficult to get bored,” Rosenberg says. “You get in good shape, and it takes mind and body.”
Business continues to grow despite daunting deterrents, No. 1 being the lack of inherent-risk legislation in New York. A simple type of law–already adopted in 38 states–it maintains that riding is a dangerous sport and that one does it at his or her own risk. Since the state has not adopted this legislation, liability-insurance premiums are exorbitant and limit offerings by local barns.
“Inexperienced riders present the difficulty,” says Dru Malavese, vice president of the Finger Lakes region for the New York State Horse Council, and chairwoman of its safety committee. “This is a litigation-happy society. There used to be stables all over (that taught beginners), but now many can’t afford the liability insurance.”
NYSHC is an organization whose aim is to be an “equine umbrella,” and to present a uniform voice for the future
preservation of all horses, all breeds and all disciplines in the state. One of the organization’s main activities has been to work for passage of inherent-risk legislation, also known as the Equine Activity Safety Code Act, which is pending in both the state Assembly and Senate, says Malavese.
She adds that two triggers for sky-high insurance premiums are stables that offer entry-level riding instruction and “hack” stables that rent horses to the general public by the hour.
She describes the plight of an equine enthusiast whose lifelong dream was to run a Western-style ranch where riders could lease horses for half-day mini-pack rides. He quickly shelved his idea of opening a business in New York when he learned that he would have to pay insurance premiums three times higher than in a state with inherent-risk legislation.
Even though it offers more equine access to the general public than do most facilities, William R. Heberle Stables Inc. five years ago discontinued its public trail rides through Ellison Park due to high liability-insurance rates, says owner Heather Heberle.
Heberle continues to offer an extensive hunter/jumper-lesson program, which includes classes for novice adult and children riders. Group lessons cost $15 for an hour, with private instruction running $25 an hour.
“We offer the most to the public,” Heberle says. “You can lease a pony for half an hour (riding it in the arena). We have hayrides, carriages for weddings and ponies for parties.”
In addition, Heberle is starting a therapeutic-riding program that she describes as a major step. Therapeutic riding provides the rider with physical-therapy benefits through the motion of the horse, and the opportunity to relate to another living creature.
Becoming more selective, partly because of higher liability, Frohm gave up his general-lesson program years ago and now works only with boarders who show their horses on the tough, A-rated hunter/jumper horse-show circuit. He says the low-end purchase price for a horse in this category is approximately $50,000.
But even though the lack of inherent-risk legislation puts a damper on some aspects of the business, the Rochester region continues to be known as an equine center.
Indeed, some of the nation’s most prestigious equine events are held here. Every August the town of Victor hosts the Stuart Trials, a big eventing competition that some say is the best competition of its kind in this part of the world. Also in August, Pittsford is home to Walnut Hill, a nationally recognized driving competition. Malavese says that in the 1920s, the Genesee Valley and Virginia were the nation’s cradles for fox hunting, and that the Genesee Valley maintains the oldest hunt in the United States.
Also, Abdullah–the Trahkener stallion that won both gold and silver medals in the 1984 Olympics–resides in Upstate New York at a stable owned by Susan and Terry Williams.
Another area equine-mecca maker is the recent purchase and move of State Line Tack, an equine catalog operation, by Sporting Dog Specialties Inc., a locally founded company now owned by Petsmart Inc.
“The business is growing, although I wouldn’t call it a growth industry. Horses are expensive and people don’t have a lot of room to keep them,” says Sporting Dog co-founder Robert Sperandio, adding that he sees more dual-income customers who are spending more money on their horses.
Still, State Line Tack has close to 100 openings in customer service and marketing, particularly for people with equine experience or knowledge.
Even though her daughter’s riding-lesson program is thriving, Barbara Galbraith, owner of Rodney Farms Inc., a standardbred-breeding farm, says she is in the midst of a major downsizing because of catastrophic changes in the racing industry.
“There has been a phenomenal number of changes–most of (them) not for the good,” says Galbraith. “Gone are the days when racing was a premier sport where we were turning people away. (Now) tracks are on the verge of closing.”
She cites increased competition for leisure dollars from the lottery, off-track betting and scratch-off cards as big factors in a dwindling horse-race industry.
So, if you want to learn to ride, how should you go about getting into the sport?
Capretta urges people to do their research and get referrals about available riding programs and instructors.
“Look for a safety-oriented place where there is good instruction. Take riding lessons in a structured environment where you’re not going to get hurt or scared,” she says. “Get basic lessons and see if it’s something you like.”
Capretta also discourages novices from running out, purchasing a horse or two, and ensconcing them in the back yard.
After learning the basics, Capretta says riders can begin to think about specializing in a specific discipline.
(Mary Anne Donovan is a Rochester-area free-lance writer.)

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