2017-07-13 / Top News

No horsing around: The industry generates billions in Florida


Roger Williams hits the trails. Roger Williams hits the trails. Only a century ago, horses were almost as common in Florida as humans, essential for both food production and transportation.

Although that way of life is gone, horses are not.

This week we ask why, exploring the robust economy and culture of horses in the region, a culture that reaches directly into the editorial offices and lives of this newspaper’s staff.

For some of us this story is personal because horses are part of everything we do every day.

“When I ride, every worry in my world is small. I’m at ease knowing that I’m with the most beautiful creature God has made… in my eyes, at least,” said Hannah Arnone, an experienced trail rider and Florida Weekly graphic artist.

“It’s my stress relief, it keeps me grounded and healthy, both mentally and physically,” said Florida Weekly Publisher Angela Schivinski, a prizewinning barrel racer describing the three-plus hours per day she spends on and around horses, rather than in a gym or a shopping mall.

Rachel Widener recently won the Florida High School Rodeo Association Reined Cow Horse Championship. Rachel Widener recently won the Florida High School Rodeo Association Reined Cow Horse Championship. If horses are therapeutic magic, there’s a science in the magic, too.

“One person came to us unable to use words — and her first words came on the back of a horse,” recalled Melissa “Missy” Saracino, program director at Naples Therapeutic Riding Center, one of several nonprofit agencies in the region widely recognized as having extraordinary effects on the lives of people with special needs.

“What happened was, the movements of the horse stimulated her spinal cord, which goes to her brain and helped her get the words out.”

Susan Blackwell, a 20-year veteran of the horse business and managing partner of Calusa Equine Veterinary Services, a Lee County-based practice, puts it this way: “Horses inspire independence, an active social lifestyle, positive mental health with stress reduction, a sense of freedom and power, and a close, therapeutic relationship between species that is often times indescribable.”

Jay Holmes of Triple J Ranch in Sarasota. Jay Holmes of Triple J Ranch in Sarasota. No wonder there are a lot of us horse lovers.

But horses also demand daily work and sometimes-significant expense (the author of this story owns two). So why bother?

“There’s something about them that touches people. If you have them in your life you are richer because of it,” said dressage rider Cathy Cottrill, our copy editor, who was riding before she could walk, owned her first horse at 12, and never looked back.

Dressage, seemingly the most technical riding discipline, may also be one of the most difficult, requiring obedience, flexibility and balance in precise movements of the horse, signaled almost invisibly by the rider.

Hannah Arnone and Nevada Hannah Arnone and Nevada There’s gold in them hills

From track racing and rodeoing to such sport disciplines as jumping, barrel racing, dressage, harness racing, trail riding or polo (played mostly on the east coast), the culture of horses is a bottom-line bonanza in the Sunshine State.

Horses generate $6.5 billion per year of gross domestic product in Florida, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Racing alone is worth more than baseball’s spring training throughout the state — some $900 million annually, including 12,000 jobs and $400 million in wages and benefits, reports Cummings Associates, economic analysts hired by the Florida Thoroughbred Racing Association.

SCHIVINSKI SCHIVINSKI Goods and services for horses statewide, meanwhile, are worth about $2.2 billion a year, with 245,000 Floridians joined to the industry as owners or providers and workers. That includes 72,000 hands-on jobs and lifestyles ranging from large-animal veterinarians and feed-store owners to farriers, tack and equipment merchants, trainers and stable managers who feed, shelter, exercise and clean horses for owners who lack the space or the time to do it themselves.

In practical terms, horse ownership is relatively expensive, ranging widely from owner to owner depending on level of involvement.

Those who own horses without property may pay several hundred dollars per month to a stable that keeps, feeds and exercises horses. Feed, basic vaccinations and maintenance may amount to about $2,000 per year on the low end for those who keep horses, and depending on their need for vet services. For performance horses the cost is much higher.

BLACKWELL BLACKWELL “We have a lot of horse owners in the area but we aren’t economically bonded by any one type of horse ownership — like Ocala with horse racing or Wellington with upper-level show horses,” said Ms. Blackwell.

“While there are upper-level show horses in this area, most of the equine economy is family ownership. So every dollar spent on horse care is more of a luxury than a necessity.”

Horsewomen, and men, among us

One of the most widely known professionals in the region is Jay Holmes, manager and head trainer at the Triple J Ranch in Sarasota. Nationally celebrated for his ability to polish competitive champions in disciplines across the board, he helps horses and riders from the state and nation meet widely varying goals.

COTTRILL COTTRILL “I make my living on horses. I don’t have anything, monetarily, that a horse hasn’t provided for me. They’re my life,” Mr. Holmes said of his passion for the animal.

“So that horse will get everything I’ve got. When I ride a new horse, I’m looking for that horse to be the best it can ever be.”

He also wants the rider to be the best she can be on the best horse she can mount, as Rachel Widener of Buckingham has discovered.

A home-schooled student who grew up riding, Ms. Widener, 17, won the Florida High School Rodeo Association Reined Cow Horse Championship last month, one of two Lee County riders to be named best in the state (Josie Adkins became the FHSRA State Champion Pole Bender).

Mr. Holmes — and a superb horse — helped her do it, she says.

“I have been really blessed to be able to ride such a nice horse, and to work with Jay Holmes and Robert Smith,” she acknowledged, naming another Florida trainer who moved to Texas.

HOLMES HOLMES In the reined cow horse competition, riders must execute a variety of maneuvers: They ride patterns, change leads, spin their mounts, perform sliding stops and change speeds in fast and slow circles. Then riders meet a hard-charging cow coming out of the pen and hold it at one end of the arena, before taking the cow down the fence at a gallop and running the horse in front of it to stop and turn the cow.

This is the most dangerous part of the event; Ms. Widener describes it as her favorite.

Finally, the rider must bring the cow into the center of the arena, circling it both left and right and demonstrating to judges that the cow wants to do anything horse and rider ask.

“It takes an awful lot of horsemanship, especially to be able to cue the horse to score well in the reining por- tion of the event,” she said.

Angela Schivinski and Stix Angela Schivinski and Stix “We are very proud of her,” said her mother, Cyndi Skates Widener, a seventh generation Floridian who grew up riding and barrel racing.

The office manager at Sweet Cypress Ranch where feed, hay, livestock supplies, horse trailers and sheds are commodities, she and her husband Eric Widener will take Rachel this month into the Midwest and West, towing trailer and horse all the way.

First, they’ll travel to Shawnee, Okla., so their daughter can compete in breakaway roping and goat tying in the International Finals Youth Rodeo; then they’ll head north to Gillette, Wyo., near the Montana border, to represent Florida in the Reined Cow Horse competition at the National High School Rodeo finals.

Mr. Holmes figures his young protégé will do well — she’s a talent, he says. And so is her horse.

Cathy Cottrill and Stella 
COURTESY PHOTOS Cathy Cottrill and Stella COURTESY PHOTOS He should know. Mr. Holmes was born on a small ranch in Colorado. He began breaking horses at 14 and later spent a decade working the King Ranch in Texas, where he trained custom cutting horses and developed the first program to sell good “using” horses off the King Ranch — horses that can do anything required in ranch or pleasure settings.

He left the King Ranch more than two decades ago for Florida, where he’s helped train champion horses and riders in such skills as reining, cutting and roping. He’ll even prepare dressage horses, though he has never been a dressage rider.

“I’m riding for a lady training for dressage, now,” he said.

“So this lady went out and bought a dressage horse — the horse was trained for it — and it bucked her off. But … He just needs a little more riding, a little more … well, he just needs to be an honest citizen.”

Mr. Holmes will teach the horse an attentive discipline and respect for a rider who can and will return the favor in training and effort.

Such riders — the best riders — are all students of the horse, said Ms. Schivinski.

“They’re humble. They realize there is always something more to learn and listen to. You listen to what others tell you, and you listen to your horse. I weigh 120 pounds and my horse weighs 1,200 pounds. I follow the ‘Ask, don’t tell,’ philosophy.”

It shows. Last week Ms. Schivinski won a second division title on her filly, Delightfully First, out-riding 188 other contestants in a National Barrel Racing Association event.

Caring communities

One of the most extraordinary qualities in devoted horse people is the level of care they show, both for their animals and for each other.

“She’s our baby. She’s on a care schedule. Every five weeks she gets new shoes. She sees a chiropractor and gets acupuncture once a month — for performance, for stress relief before we go to big competitions. She’s an athlete,” Ms. Schivinski said of Delightfully First, barn name Stix.

Stix was barely broke when her rider found her, and now they’re winning competitions all over the state, and north of it.

“The reason she got her forever home (with me) was because of the kindness and intelligence I could see in her eye,” she said.

Ms. Schivinski’s daughter called her Stix because she was thin and gangly at first.

“But she wanted to be part of the relationship. She wanted to please. You can feel them thinking. You can feel them trying.”

People sometimes debate the intelligence of horses, and the question can be answered many ways — not just in scientific studies that suggest they have significant cognitive abilities along with superb eyesight, hearing and a sense of smell more acute than a human’s (although not the equal of a dog’s).

“It depends on how you define ‘intelligence,’” said Ms. Cottrill.

“Sometimes they’re so much more aware than any person. My barn has a screen door across the front and a flimsy bar in back. One day my horse (Stella, age 17, Ms. Cottrill’s pride and joy for 13 years) was loose in the barn aisle.

“Suddenly she started snorting. And then she flew backwards in a dead panic, stopping just before (she hit) the 1-by-2 bar across the back door.”

Ms. Cottrill moved to the place Stella had evacuated, and listened.

“The electrical outlet near where she was standing was sparking inside the box. I never would have known and I couldn’t tell until I put my ear against it,” she said.

Barn, horse and possibly human saved by a dressage horse named Stella. That’s one (very good) definition of intelligence, perhaps.

But the notion that horses are both intelligent and emotionally complex was not widely held 30 years ago except by the most experienced riders, who likely have always known, said Mrs. Widener.

“In that 30 years since I rode, what we have learned about horses in general — and about horsemanship — is that they are such athletes,” she said.

“We didn’t treat them like athletes 30 years ago. If you had a barrel horse that didn’t want to go in the arena or turn the first barrel, nobody understood why.”

Now, they receive chiropractic help and other therapies, helping do their jobs.

“They’re amazing animals. They want to work, to do the right thing, to do their job, to do it well,” said Mrs. Widener. “Now when you see resistance, people are looking for why. Is this horse uncomfortable somewhere? Is his back or top hurting, what’s going on? Sometimes the horse is just testing you, sure. But they’re pretty honest.”

Such caring is deeply sewn into the lives of horse people for each other, too, in any of the disciplines.

When something happens to somebody, horseback angels circle and descend from all over the state and far beyond.

On May 24, 2016, Rachel’s fellow competitor, friend and high school barrel racer Jacee Thomas was hit by a train while driving her car across a track without crossing guards on a small road in south Georgia, near her home (she usually competed in Florida). She has brain damage and her recovery has been slow.

“She would have graduated this past June,” said Mrs. Widener. “The entire rodeo community has rallied behind her, from junior rodeo organizations to professionals.”

That means money, support, ongoing visits, love — and prayers.

“‘Pray for Jacee’ was even mentioned by contestants during the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas last December,” Mrs. Widener noted.

After the Wideners talked to Florida Weekly, she sent a late-day email with a request from Rachel: “Rachel wants to know if you will put ‘Pray for Jacee’ after any quotes you use.”

Done. ¦

Naples Therapeutic Riding Center:

>> Goal: to improve the lives of children and adults with special needs, and of military veterans with PTSD, brain injuries or amputations.

>> Needs: Volunteers, horses and donations.

>> About: This is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) Premier Accredited Center collaborating with many other help organizations in the region.

>> To learn more: www.NaplesTherapeuticRidingCenter.org

Special Equestrians, Lee County:

>> About: a PATH International Premier Accredited Center, Special Equestrians offers therapeutic horseback riding lessons and other equine activities to children and adults with disabilities in Lee, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties.

>> Needs: Volunteers, horses and donations.

>> To learn more: www.specialequestrians.net

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