"North Carolina has a real opportunity to develop the equine industry," state Sen. David Weinstein said in response to the report, released Monday. "I would hope that we could have a mega horse park one day that is similar to Churchill Downs. With that and other investments, North Carolina has a chance to make a mark, generate enormous tax revenues and enjoy it."


The General Assembly funded the study in 2007 to determine the industry's economic impact and to identify opportunities for growth. The findings were released by the Equine Study Executive Committee and the Agricultural Advancement Consortium of the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, which administered the study. Several surveys and an economic analysis for the study were conducted by East Carolina, Western Carolina and N.C. State universities and the Sanford Holshouser Business Development Group.


A bill to establish an equine industry commission, the No. 1 recommendation resulting from the study, already has been introduced in the legislature (H.B. 756 and S.B. 785). The independent commission would be charged with managing and supporting the industry, with a facilities needs assessment at the top of its priority list. The bill was sponsored by Weinstein in the Senate and Rep. Nelson Cole in the House.


"I am confident that the formation of the equine industry commission will move the industry forward in North Carolina beyond our expectations," Cole said. "The potential for private enterprise development associated with this industry is tremendous."


The recommendations also call for additional investments in the Hunt Horse Complex in Raleigh, the Martin Eastern Agricultural Center in Williamston, the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine and other existing facilities; preserving land and open space for equine uses; and enhancing marketing efforts to attract more horse shows and visitors for equine events. Other recommendations raise the possibility of establishing a major horse park, similar to those in Kentucky and Florida, and allowing parimutuel betting.


Ernie Pearson, special counsel with Sanford Holshouser, compared the equine industry with the motorsport industry prior to state investments that began in 2005. Motorsports now contribute $5 billion to the state's economy annually.


Members of the study's executive committee said the equine industry holds potential for invigorating rural economies and preserving rural landscapes. "This is a large, dynamic and very diverse industry," said Warwick Arden, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. "If you care about rural sustainability, you'd better start looking after this industry."


Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, said the study confirmed impressions of a large industry but surpassed expectations in terms of economic impact. "The equine industry is an important part of the agricultural economy," he said.


According to the study, North Carolina has more than 306,000 equine -- the vast majority of them horses -- and 53,000 equine-owning households or operations. Quarter Horses outnumber other breeds. The animals themselves were valued at a collective $1.9 billion, with American Saddlebreds showing the highest average value at almost $29,000.


Horses and other equine can be found in all 100 counties, with more than 2 million acres devoted to their use. The inventory tends to be highest in urban and surrounding suburban counties. Union, Guilford, Iredell, Cumberland and Mecklenburg lead the state in the number of equine.


Despite the expense of maintaining horses, equine owners overall are not wealthy. Forty-three percent of owners had household income below $85,000, and 21 percent had household incomes below $55,000.


Most of the economic impact results from spending by equine owners, with additional contributions through the expenditures of visitors to equine events, the businesses themselves, equine arenas and other facilities, and educational and other programs. The state supports almost 800 equine-related businesses. More than a third, the largest single group, make or sell tack and other supplies. Companies include manufacturers of trailers, horse blankets, saddles, animal health products, fencing and accessories.


The industry's economic impact is achieved with relatively little state investment outside of state-owned arenas and programs at educational institutions. Nearby states that compete for equine events and businesses support the industry through large venues, horse and racing commissions, and incentive programs.


The full report, "North Carolina's Equine Industry: Findings and Recommendations," with county-by-county equine inventory and total value, may be viewed online at www.ncruralcenter.org.