Drive past the suburbs and you quickly see that horses are a big industry in Central Kentucky. But a lot goes on beyond the plank fences that you might not realize.
In addition to farms, there are feed companies, tack and equipment suppliers, van fleets, sales and insurance agencies, fence-builders, farriers and some of the world's most advanced animal research labs and clinics.
Hardly a week goes by that people don't come to Lexington from all over the world for some kind of horse event. This week, for example, the Kentucky Horse Park is playing host to North American Young Riders, and large reining and hunter jumper competitions. And the International Symposium on Equine Reproduction, held every four years, is meeting in Lexington for the first time.
Dr. Tom Riddle, co-founder of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital on Georgetown Road, was thinking several years ago about the equine industry's size, diversity and challenges, and he decided an annual event was needed to raise public awareness.
"When people think about Kentucky, they think about horses," Riddle said. "But they don't know just how much it involves."
Riddle's idea evolved into Hats Off Day. The sixth such annual day will be Aug. 7 at the Horse Park. In addition to Rood & Riddle, the main sponsors are Alltech and Hallway Feeds.
This is the only time each year when the public gets all-day free admission to the Kentucky Horse Park, which can save a big family big bucks. Last year, more than 12,000 people attended Hats Off Day.
This year's event could be especially popular because in two months, the park will host the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. In addition to seeing new and improved facilities, people will get free admission to the International Museum of the Horse, the American Saddlebred Museum and A Gift From the Desert, an exhibit of 350 artifacts and paintings about horses in Arab history and culture.
Hats Off Day festivities begin at 4 p.m., when horse farms and other equine businesses give away logo hats while supplies last. (Last year, about 1,500 hats were given away.) There also will be exhibits, a silent auction and free pony rides for kids, plus a chance to ride an Equicizer — the mechanical horse simulators used at the jockey-training school founded by Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron.
The highlight of the evening will be the Rood & Riddle Kentucky Grand Prix, a $50,000 international show-jumping competition. Since 2003, the event has raised more than $275,000 for charity. This year, proceeds will benefit the Kentucky Equine Humane Center and the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation.
Kentucky's equine industry claims to provide more than 80,000 direct and indirect jobs and an annual economic impact of $4 billion, plus a good share of the state's $8.8 billion tourism industry. But the industry's fortunes have suffered with a decline in thoroughbred racing's popularity and efforts by other states to attract breeding stock.
The horse industry's health is obviously vital to Riddle's business and many others, but he and partner William Rood usually deal with equine health on a more micro level. Rood & Riddle employs more than 220 people, including 57 veterinarians, who care for horses at a 24-acre complex with high-tech equipment that would rival that of most human hospitals. Rood & Riddle treats more than 10,000 horses a year from all over the world.
Riddle said Kentucky's horse industry needs more public support.
"The average person in Kentucky thinks of the average horse farm owner as an extremely wealthy person who may or may not live here and does this as a hobby," he said. "That's just not the case. By far, the majority of farms are business operations with mortgage payments, and they must work seven days a week to keep their business going.
"The majority of the people in this industry are hard-working folks just trying to earn a living," Riddle said. "I hope people will come out, have a good time and leave the Horse Park knowing a little more about our industry, and how it's good for the entire state."