It's little surprise to people who follow equine trends that horse operations in Monroe County are a growing business.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture study, in fact, says the percentage increase in the number of horses there is greater than the population increase.
The number of horses in Monroe County rose 25 percent between 1996 and 2007, from 2,800 to 3,300. The county's population rose only 9.2 percent, from 133,600 to 145,945, according to the Census Bureau's 1990 to 2000 head count.
Those statistics don't surprise Judy Howard, a Bedford Township stable owner.
"Historically we have been busy for four generations," says Mrs. Howard, who operates Fox Meadow Farms on Secor Road. "Horses have always been a part of people's lives."
Owning a horse isn't cheap, stable owners admit, but the interest hasn't wavered in a state hit hard by the loss of auto manufacturing jobs.
Caring for a horse can set its owner back between $250 and $1,000 a month.
"I think it doesn't matter," Mrs. Howard said. Horse owners, she notes, "seem to be recession-proof."
Statewide, the survey found similar growth in ownership.
The equine population rose 19.2 percent in that 11-year time frame, going from an estimated 130,000 head on June 1, 1996, to 155,000 by June 1, 2007.
Equine operations - boarding and training stables, breeding farms, lesson stables, and private residences - were estimated at 35,000 last year.
The government estimates that equine operators spent $25 million on 4,300 hired workers in 2006. Excluding wages, horse owners spent $805 million on feed, bedding, tack, boarding, breeding, race and show fees, and employee health care.
Monroe County benefits from its proximity to the Toledo and Detroit metropolitan areas. Donna Rothman, who operates Stonehaven Farms on Samaria Road near Temperance, cites a lower cost of operations and more open space here, compared with horse farms near Detroit.
"It's become more accessible for people to get horses and to get into riding places," Mrs. Rothman said. "Down here everything is cheaper, with boarding and such."
Mrs. Rothman and Mrs. Howard say many of their English riding lessons are aimed at children.
"In every case, I think the biggest thing is it keeps the kids hopefully away from trouble. There's a lot of work, a lot of time is needed to care for horses," Mrs. Rothman said.
"Parents view it as [children] have less time to be in the malls or being in front of the television set."
Getting youngsters involved in horses is easy because of ready access to information about riding, boarding, and ownership.
"It's so much easier for parents and kids to be going on the Internet. There's so much information out there and more commercials today have horses in them," Mrs. Rothman said.
The steady growth of Bedford Township's population is partly responsible for the increased horse ownership, said Judy See, 4-H youth educator in Monroe County.
"We've become more of an urban area where families can have a horse," she said. "Our horse program has grown immensely in the last five years."
The Monroe County 4-H program has 200 youngsters registered, with 160 exhibiting in the county fair.
She agrees with Mrs. Rothman's assessment that parents are comfortable investing in lessons that they perceive as a "good wholesome activity."
"They know where their kids are, and they know who they're associating with," Ms. See said.
Interest in horseback riding is year-round with the availability of indoor arenas.
At Fox Meadow, where wind and flurries add a chill to the air, three women riders guide their horses over a series of hurdles inside the enclosed arena.
Mrs. Howard's daughter, Meg Howard-Fuleky, an instructor at her family's stable, offers encouragement to the trio as their mounts canter toward the hurdles.
"It's just the love of the animal," said Ms. Howard-Fuleky, trying to explain the allure of horse ownership. "Once you get on a horse, you're hooked for life."
One of her student riders, Debbie Graziani, 54, a clothing designer from Grosse Point, Mich., is training with her daughter.
"This is a wonderful way of spending quality time together," said Mrs. Graziani, who gave up trying to work out in a health club and now spends her energy working out with her horse.
Her pedometer clocked 8,003 steps that day toward a goal of 10,000. Mrs. Graziani said she gets her exercise using her legs and thighs to guide her horse named Just My Style.
In neighboring Lenawee County, the interest in horse ownership doesn't appear as strong. There the equine population declined to 3,100 from 3,400 during that 11-year time frame.
Ohio doesn't track equine population, said Chuck Downey, a group leader and statistician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Reynoldsburg, near Columbus.
Jill Stechschulte, Fulton County's 4-H adviser for 13 years, said families of children involved with horses run the economic gamut. Most of the 125 children in her program don't live on farms.
Instead of owning a horse, about half of her young 4-H charges lease the animal, with a contract that spells out who pays for the various expenses.
F.D. McCarthy, the director of the University of Findlay's Center for Equestrian and Pre-Veterinary Studies, said he can testify to the popularity of horses and riding based on enrollment at Findlay's 30-year-old program.
The program, which attracts students from across the United States, is considered one of the nation's best collegiate horse-training programs.
"It's safe to say there continues to be high interest in horses, especially with backyard enthusiasts," he said, referring to owners who stable their animals themselves.
Mr. McCarthy, an associate professor of equestrian studies, said he can't put a finger on why horses are growing in popularity, calling ownership an expensive hobby.
"That's a good question. I don't have a good answer. There are lots of ways people can spend money," he said. "I think the fact that with horses, you get some gratification that you don't get from a golf club."
Contact Jim Sielicki at: email@example.com or 419-724-6078.