This is the first in a multi-part series from Patch about the economic and other impacts of the declining equestrian industry in Fairfax County.
Part 2: was published Wednesday, Feb. 22.
Part 3: was published Thursday, Feb. 23.
Part 4: was published Friday, Feb. 24.
At least 50 equine-related businesses have closed in the past 20 years, most recently Great Falls Horse Center and Bay Ridge Equestrian Center, according to The Fairfax County Equestrian Task Force.
The loss of these businesses and other equine facilities, primarily due to increased land development, is costly for Fairfax County and its residents and it has become a quality of life issue for local horse enthusiasts.
"This forces county residents to commute to surrounding jurisdictions to take riding lessons, board their horses, participate in shows, trail ride, and purchase supplies, because there aren't sufficient facilities in Fairfax to meet the demand," said Breeana Bornhorst, chairperson of the task force. "With them goes their money."
In response to the financial impact and due to the need for more research, the task force is preparing a recommendation to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors for a county-hired full-time equestrian coordinator.
High Interest, Decreasing Revenue
In 2010 sales in Fairfax County and the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church related to the horse industry totaled more than $26.3 million, according to The Economic Impact of the Horse Industry in Virginia Study by The Center for Economic and Policy Studies at the University of Virginia (Table 4.5, page 45).
Fairfax County Park Authority’s 2008 Equestrian Market Research Study found more than 23,000 Fairfax residents participate in horseback riding activities.
That same study found Fairfax County residents participate in equestrian activities 5 percent more than the national average.
“For too long equestrian activities in Fairfax County have been disconnected,” said Beverly Dickerson, president of Fairfax4Horses and Hunters Valley Riding Club. Although not an official member of the task force, she served as its spokesperson in an interview with Patch. “What we’re trying to do is connect the dots.”
‘We Need a Horse Master Plan’
Dickerson said the group's idea for “connecting the dots” is for Fairfax County to hire a full-time equestrian coordinator, such as the one in Montgomery County, Md. David Tobin serves as Equine Resources Coordinator for Montgomery County Parks.
Dickerson cited the full-time staff position in Fairfax County’s Department of Transportation devoted to bicycle facility coordination, planning, and implementation. She believes the same should be done for horses.
“We need a horse master plan just as there is a bike master plan,” said Dickerson in suggesting a full-time county staff position.
In 2010 Fairfax4Horses, a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to the establishment of public riding facilities on Fairfax County parkland, approached Board of Supervisor’s Chairman Sharon Bulova with their concerns.
In response, Bulova recommended and the Board of Supervisors approved the formation of the ad-hoc task force, charged to spend one-year identifying opportunities and needs for horses and riders in the county. Their resulting executive summary is due to the BOS in March.
The board directed the Fairfax County Park Authority to work with members of Fairfax4Horses on the task force composition, mission, and framework. Dickerson said Fairfax4Horses identified the committee members. They are:
- Breeana Bornhorst, Task Force Chairperson, Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program
- Bryant Dunetz, Task Force Vice Chairperson, Fairfax4Horses
- Jan Hedetniemi, Fairfax4Horses
- Brian Purdy, Mason Neck Horse Coalition
- Robin Rentsch, Great Falls Horse Network
- Rachel Rifkind
- Matthew Stough, George Mason University Equestrian Team
- Jean Voss, President, Clifton Horse Society; Board Member, Fairfax4Horses
The task force has been meeting monthly for the last year. However, when asked for specifics about the number of horse owners in the county, a comparison of concerns for various horse disciplines and industries, and the financial contribution of equestrian activities to Fairfax County, Dickerson said the group had not had time to conduct that kind of research; that was what a county equestrian coordinator was needed to do.
Dickerson said the task force is working to consolidate the results of two surveys. "A long survey went to active equestrians, and a short survey went to those with general interest in horse activities," she said.
As of November 2011, the task force had collected more than 300 long surveys and 122 short surveys. They were collecting the surveys through Dec. 31, 2011.
These are not big numbers, especially considering the 23,000 horseback riding participants identified in the Park Authority's 2008 study. For perspective, Clifton Horse Society alone reports on their website more than 300 members.
According to task force members, surveys were distributed to the email lists of
- Great Falls Horse Network
- Clifton Horse Society
- Mason Neck Horse Coalition
- Hunters Valley Riding Club /Hunters Valley Association
- Board of Supervisor’s Fall Newsletters
“We wanted to contact those with a vested interest and the most comprehension of equestrian issues,” said Dickerson. “We wanted their help to determine what the needs are, what’s already in place, what they want to keep, and what they want,” she said.
Task Force Fell Short, Some Say
A number of horse owners and equestrian businesses in the county said the task force has fallen short of their mandate.
Nicole Ciarrocca is a Fairfax County Firefighter who also owns an equine business — Happy Feet Horse Care. On her Fairfax County property, she keeps four of her own horses. She is a member of Clifton Horse Society. Yet when asked last week if she’d completed the Equestrian Task Force survey, she said she had never heard of it. "You'd think I'd have been contacted, with all my connections to the equestrian community," she said.
“I wish they’d have used social media — even a Facebook page — to generate public involvement and gather information about what is happening with people who have or want to have horses in Fairfax County,” said Anna Gibson, a boarder at .
Gibson attended several task force meetings, and was disappointed by the lack of outreach and research.
“We're losing horses every day from Fairfax County because of lack of quality boarding facilities. I don’t think the task force even realized there was such a big need out there.”
“The group has been more exclusive than inclusive,” said another equestrian who asked not to be identified. "There are many, many more people supportive of horses in the county than the task force has contacted," she said. "I believe the group has squandered an important opportunity. I only hope the end of their tenure will open the door to more broad-based discussion and cooperation."
Full Disclosure: Burke Patch Editor Susan Larson has worked at boarding, breeding, lesson, trail riding, fox hunting and polo facilities in Illinois and Virginia. In 2005 the United States Capitol Police Horse Mounted Unit honored her for her support as barn manager during their tenure. She is a past member of Clifton Horse Society, former volunteer with Simple Changes Therapeutic Riding Center, and current member of the Mason Neck Horse Coalition. She boards her horse at The Stables at Meadowood.
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