Adam Henson: Why horses are close to my heart

It’s said that the equine industry could contribute more to the county’s economy than livestock and

It’s said that the equine industry could contribute more to the county’s economy than livestock and arable farming - Credit: Archant

When you add up all the money that the equine industry brings to the Cotswolds, it really is an economic powerhouse

Horses have always been very close to my heart. When I was growing up on the Farm Park our four-legged friends were part of my life and as a youngster I took a particular interest in caring for Exmoor ponies. Even today our Exmoors and the smaller Shetlands are real favourites with visitors. Over the years I’ve loved watching heavy horses demonstrate logging and ploughing at county shows. But despite all that, even I was surprised to hear just what a vital role horses have to play in the life of Gloucestershire.

It’s said that the equine industry could contribute more to the county’s economy than livestock and arable farming. That was the stand-out statement at the recent launch of the new School of Equine Management and Science at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester. It’s quite a claim and I’m sure it will raise a few sceptical eyebrows! But when you start thinking about the way horses and ponies are used for sport, work, leisure and pleasure, perhaps it’s not so surprising after all.

The first thing that springs to mind is Cheltenham racecourse and in particular the Gold Cup every spring. It’s a huge event employing thousands of people in all sorts of jobs which bring millions of pounds in to the area.

Then there are other big sporting occasions like the Badminton and Gatcombe Horse Trials which give a boost to local traders, hotels, B&Bs, caterers and many more.

How many people realise that Hartpury College near Gloucester has one of the largest equine centres in the world? It’s got indoor and outdoor arenas for show jumping and dressage events and has gained a global reputation for providing some of the top riders.

Gloucestershire is also home to a large number of stud farms employing a huge amount of people. There are livery firms, riding schools, private stables, tack shops, clothing stores and competition yards. Suddenly you begin to realise that so many local people rely on horses for their livelihoods; breeders, trainers, stable lads, farriers, hay merchants, saddlers, bridle makers, the vets who tend to the animals and the drivers who transport them. To give you an idea of how ingenious and varied the equine industry is, there’s even a farmer in the Vale of Berkeley who has successfully diversified with a business set up to clean other people’s horse rugs.

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So you can’t go very far around the Cotswolds without being made aware of the presence of the horse, not just as a pastime but also as a major economic force. That was certainly the mood when Princess Anne opened the University’s Equine School at Cirencester. Equine studies have been taught there for more than 20 years but this new venture brings several, separate parts of the University together. In her speech, the Princess Royal mentioned how difficult it used to be to convince one or two people in the farming world that equines had anything to do with their industry. Her Royal Highness said; “It seemed curious not to include horses after all they eat grass and employ people; that’s quite useful and kind of implies that they may be part of agriculture.”

But what will the new school be teaching? Well just about every aspect of the horse from highly technical science such as genetics and DNA sequencing, through the behaviour and welfare of the animals and on to ways of running a successful horse business. My dad, Joe, was a student at Cirencester in the 1950s; long before he let me look after my first Exmoor pony. But I think he’d be amazed at just how far the equine industry and his old college have come.