Westmoreland County's growing equine activity suggests strong economy, observers say
The growing equine population in Westmoreland County could be one way to measure prosperity, a horse owner and associate professor at St. Vincent College said.
"Horses are a luxury item, right? If you have dispensable money, some people like to have horses," Veronica Ent, professor and St. Vincent College's club sponsor, said during a recent horseshoeing event at the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve.
The how-to event drew nearly 100 people interested in learning how to shoe a horse, led by farrier and blacksmith Wylie Shultz and his apprentice, 19-year-old Tyler May of Washington Township, a 2016 graduate of Kiski Area High School.
"People are getting into it a little more," Ent said of horse owners. "It's always been a popular sport, but horses are a little more available now. And we're able to take care of them better to keep them and enjoy them longer. It's not so cost-prohibitive anymore."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent agriculture census in 2012, Westmoreland County had a horse and pony population of 3,164. That was an increase of almost 7 percent from the 2007 census. Pennsylvania's horse population was tallied at 119,900, up 3 percent from 2007.
"Horses are becoming more popular again," said Shultz, 56, of Travesty Farms in Allegheny Township. Shultz has been shoeing horses in the region for 40 years.
Though Westmoreland County is no Kentucky, Shultz said, he shoes six to 12 horses every day. And as the economy continues to recover, he expects that business to grow.
"When the economy does a little better and people have more dispensable income, there are more horses. A horse is a luxury, not a necessity," Shultz said.
Jim Dunn, a professor of Agricultural Economics at Penn State University, said the state has more pleasure horses than work horses. And pleasure horses cost more, he said.
"Pleasure horses, like the ones people ride, usually involves a property not already set up for horses. So they have to a0rrange for housing, or they're kept somewhere else. So there's housing, fencing, feed, veterinarian bills, equipment for riding.
"And if you're talking about horses for a young person, you also have lessons," Dunn said. "If you're going to be participating in competitions, you have entry fees and transportation costs. That stuff adds up.
"You can't get into horses unless you have substantial property and income."
As Shultz fastened shoes to Colby, an 11-year-old gelding, horse owners, 4-H members and St. Vincent College students watched intently and asked questions.
Bill and Karen Melilli of Belle Vernon own two horses and keep two others in their barn for their son.
Bill Melilli said the equine culture in Western Pennsylvania always attracted an older population. But recently, he has noticed more interest from young people and that boarding stables are full.
"Let's put it this way: The ones I know of are full," he said. "No one's crying and boarding them up."
Ann Swinker, an associate professor and equine scientist at Penn State, agrees that keeping horses is a pricey hobby. But she's not sure the county's growing horse population is related to an improving economy.
"In good and bad times, you still have the responsibility to keep them healthy. I would look at equine activity. If people are starting to go to horse shows ... that definitely shows that things are growing more prosperous," Swinker said.
Westmoreland's 4-H extension assistant Lyndsey Androstic said equine activity is, in fact, healthy and growing. Of 30 clubs for various interests available through the county's Penn State extension office, seven involve horse-related activities and had 162 members last year.
"I only suspect that we will be at the same this year, if not growing," Androstic said, adding that students sign up for programs until June 1.
The extension has seven horse shows planned this summer.
"It's ever-growing," Androstic said. "There's a lot of interest every year."
Abbe Wagenblast of Greensburg has been a horse instructor and coach for nearly 20 years with the Westmoreland Equestrian Center, Hempfield, where about 50 horses are stabled. She owns 25 horses.
Wagenblast also suspects the better the economy, the more horses.
"Westmoreland (County) has a lot of horses, a pretty good culture," she said.
Julien Defelici-Schimizzi, 19, of Greensburg has ridden horses since she was 4 and works as a stable hand at the equestrian center. She has noticed that most of her peers involved with horses at a young age stopped once they started college.
"But there are a lot more younger riders now," said Defelici-Schimizzi, a Westmoreland County Community College student who is thinking of pursuing a degree in large animal science.
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1298, email@example.com or via Twitter @dillonswriting.