What is the equine population of the United States? It seems like a simple enough question, but answering it is no easy task.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service, a division of the US Department of Agriculture, addresses this question every five years in its agricultural census.
Unfortunately, this data has its limitations, despite being the most complete account of activity on US farms and ranches and those who operate them.
The 2012 census, the results of which were released this year, showed that Texas had the largest equine population on farms by a significant margin. More than 64,000 Texas farms were home to 395,818 horses and ponies, comfortably ahead of the equine populations of Oklahoma, California, Kentucky and Florida – all of which are states known for their equine bloodstock.
Those four states joined Texas in rounding out the top five states for equine numbers.
In fact, none of those four states had more than 40 percent of the Texas total.
Texas also had 21 percent of the US mule, donkey and burro population, according to the figures.
The state also led the US in terms of the number of horses sold, but was outstripped in terms of dollar value by Kentucky and Florida, both with sizeable thoroughbred operations.
But, unfortunately, the federal census figures tell only part of the story.
The census tallied agricultural data on equines from a total of 504,795 farms and ranches with horses across the US, but to qualify for inclusion in the census the farms in question had to produce more than $US1000 in agricultural products or sales each year.
While the data includes the likes of thoroughbred breeding operations, it does not include the “backyard” breeders or those who keep horses on small unprofitable holdings solely for sport or pleasure pursuits.
It would also not include the likes of police horses, riding stables, carriage horses, and the retired horses that are seeing out their days on hobby farms.
So, how many horses were there on those 504,795 farms which indicated they had equines? Owners and occupiers reported 3,621,348 equines in 2012, a 10 percent decrease from 4,028,827 in 2007. Those 504,795 farms represent a 12 percent decline on the 575,941 farms that reported having equines during the 2007 census.
The total value of equine sales in 2012 was $US1.391 billion, a decrease of $US691 million from 2007.
More than 1000 farms and ranches reportedly chalked up equine sales of more than $US1 million each.
The 3,621,348 equines across US farms is still a considerable improvement on 1960 figures, when just over 3 million were recorded. In 1900, the US had 21.5 million horses, peaking last century in 1915 when the total reached nearly 26.5 million.
An even grimmer tally was delivered by the census agency in 1992, when a count of just 2.12 million was recorded.
However, as discussed earlier, the census figure does not take into account all US horses.
In 2004, a study commissioned by the American Horse Council Foundation put the US horse population at 9.2 million in 2003, representing a 33 percent jump over the 6.9 million reported 10 years earlier.
However, that figure appears to have limitations, too, with the focus being upon individuals aged 18 and over and the questions were asked in terms of horses only, which meant the seemingly inevitable exclusion of at least some ponies, miniature horses, donkeys, burros and mules.
Further, the survey sample was derived from equestrian membership data, which may have skewed the result. The results may also have been skewed toward those with internet access, as the main response tool was via a website.
The 9,222,847 equines delivered by the survey was the center point of a statistically assessed range of 8,869,858 to 9,575,837, Emily Kilby wrote in 2007 on the demographics of the US equine population in The State of the Animals.
She suggested that the methodology’s exclusions would most likely place the actual equine population at the higher end of the range, and perhaps even more.
These various initiatives in counting the American equine population do not take into account the wild horses and burros that live across the US.
Kilby proffered the view that the American Horse Council Foundation effort represented the best effort to date to tally equine numbers across the US.
She put the 2006 equine population of the US at 9,924,000, based upon the 2003 American Horse Council Foundation tally, with two years of growth at 1.3 percent, 200,000 overlooked ponies and asses, 60,000 wild equines, and an “invisible” equine population of 200,000.