Horse lovers from throughout Kent County and beyond gathered at the home of Dave Turner and Ran Crawford on the first Sunday afternoon of April to share a common interest and a common intent.
It was the first meeting in 2017 of the Chestertown Horsemen’s Club, an organization begun by Turner and Crawford. While the sun shone down outside, laughter and greetings floated up to the high ceilings of the North Water Street house as old friends and newcomers met over drinks and delectable finger foods. They had come to talk horses and to hear guest speaker Susan Harding discuss the long-term needs of equine sports in America.
Harding, of Bethesda, Md., is the former president of Equine Land Conservation Resource (ELCR), a national organization devoted to the protection and conservation of land for the horse and horse-related activities. She’s also the retired vice president and group publishing director of Source Interlink Media’s Equine Network, publisher of the magazines EQUUS, Horse & Rider, Practical Horseman and Dressage Today, as well as websites and books.
After an hour of jovial mixing, the gathering was called to order by Turner, who began by introducing the club itself. With some care, he noted that its name held no gender implication, but rather was a reference to the “Chestertown horsemen” who backed the imported English Thoroughbred mare Selima in her victory against a horse from Virginia in one of the first and most important Colonial-era races.
That explanation began a round-robin of introductions, during which it became clear that, in addition to curious neighbors, enthusiasts of nearly every horse sport were present, from new to old.
To murmurs of support, jokes and outright laughter, the comments flowed: “I’m a fox hunter” … “I teach” … “I drive” … “ I try to keep legislation in our corner as much as possible” … “I love everything horses.”
“I took up riding after 20 years of not riding,” said one.
“I haven’t been on a horse in years, but I have two daughters who love to ride and my foxhunter niece is here so I thought it would be okay to come,” said another.
“I took my first lesson at 50,” said another, to applause.
“I can’t say I’m the better half,” said one wife, speaking after her husband. “He takes care of the animals and keeps them healthy for us, so he’s the better half — I have one horse; he has 10,” to laughter.
Among the farms and organizations represented were the Kent Association of Riding Therapy, Airy Hill Stables, Kent Veterinary Center and Glasgow Farm, Comegys Creek Farm, Grassymeade Farm, Selcouth Sporthorses, and the Kent Conservation Preservation Alliance.
When it was her turn to speak, Harding began by saying how much she’d already enjoyed herself.
“It’s been wonderful to talk to you all and to hear you all,” she said. “It reminds me of why I love the horse industry. It’s really a special place and very special people.”
Though she’s no longer involved day-to-day with the horse world, Harding explained, she has chosen to focus on three endeavors that can make a difference in its future.
One is equine land conservation. Another is the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park. The third is her participation on the board of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association
As she explained each, Harding outlined her concerns: the need to build up the population of people who know about horses and enjoy horse sports as spectators; the need to provide entry- and mid-level opportunities at reasonable cost for those who want to pursue horse sports; and the need to provide adequate open space to support those people, their sports and their horses.
Starting with that last, Harding said she has watched horse activities get pushed out, time and again, by development. As that happens, the horse lovers who remain lose the backing of those who live around them.
“We’re limiting the number of people who have easy access to horses,” said Harding. “The fewer people who have access to horses, the fewer people who care about horses, the harder it’s going to be for those folks who do care. Because we won’t have people behind us to help support us, on zoning boards, in communities where we’ve always assumed horses will always be.”
She has seen the progression, she said. People move into a beautiful area because it’s beautiful, and, once there, discover they don’t like living around the horses and the farm activity that maintains that beauty. The complaints begin.
“It’s so important for horse people to know each other and to work together,” she said, so that they can help one another maintain the horse economy.
Finding ways to introduce people to horses is important, too, Harding pointed out. The International Museum of the Horse, she said, “apart from being a wonderful place, is someplace where people who are not familiar with horses get first exposed. … And there again, people who may never own a horse, who may never even ride a horse — they learn to appreciate a horse.”
By contrast, Harding’s participation in the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association put her in contact with the top level of a “very serious professional sports organization.”
“But it’s been very interesting,” she said, “because they have a wonderful network of local affiliates who really are doing a fantastic job of attracting kids into the sport.”
At the top levels, Harding noted, people are doing very well. However, she continued, “We’ve totally lost the bottom of the sport.” The recent recession, she estimates, led to the death of roughly three million horses. People were giving horses away because they couldn’t afford to feed them, and, in some regions of the country, just turning them loose. There’s a need to rebuild, Harding said.
“A lot of the discipline organizations are realizing that they need to support the lower end of the market, because that’s where people come into the sport, and that’s really where the majority of the people are going to enjoy horses.”
In the discussion that followed, Royce Herman of Centreville, the only director of the Maryland Horse Council on the Eastern Shore, pointed out how important it is that the local horse industry introduce itself to the local economic development commission. Dr. Judy Tubman of Kent Veterinary Center urged everyone to become involved and stay in touch with local planning and zoning boards, and to support the horse council and its work in Annapolis on behalf of the industry. And Harding emphasized the need to encourage audiences to attend horse sporting events. “You need the support of the other people in your community, not just the horse people.”
At 5:45, Turner interrupted the discussion. It had run longer than hoped. By any measure, the first quarterly meeting of the Chestertown Horsemen’s Club was a successful affair.