Equine Research and Education Unit opens at Extension Center.

By Danny McKenzie

Daily Journal

What was it Jim Buck Ross used to say all the time? Well, one of those things Jim Buck used to say?

Oh, you know. That thing the former state Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce used to use in all his speeches about nothing being as good for the inside of a human than sitting on the outside of a horse.

Ask Mary Ford. She understands.

Always has. At least since she was a mere child in the Mississippi Delta when she conned her father into buying her a horse by promising she would go to Ole Miss when she grew up.

Now - after teaching riding at Strong River Camp near Pinola in South Mississippi as a youth and teaching private riding lessons at the farm in western Lee County where she lives with her husband, two children, and "several" horses - she's the equine instructor at Mississippi State University's North Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Verona.

A sort of poetic justice, if you will.

"I wanted to go to Mississippi State and pursue a degree in the equine industry," she freely admits. "But I'd made a deal with my father, and since he came through on his end of the bargain, I had to come through on mine."

And if there were ever any regrets, they've all been erased with the establishment of Equine Research and Education Unit at the new extension center.

"This is really an exciting time for me," Ford says. "I don't think people realize how big the horse industry is in Northeast Mississippi. This equine unit will be a great source for all horse-owners."

Pat Bagley, head of the extension center, says the equine unit was the final step in a four-stage development of the agriculture and technology "park" on Miss. 145, south of Verona.

"The first step was the agri-center, then the office complex where we are, then the horticulture center that is being developed, and, finally, the equine facility," Bagley says. "It all fell into a very logical sequence, which is always a pleasant set of circumstances.

"There wasn't a large desire for any emphasis on the equine industry until the agri-center opened in 1994," he explains. "Once it opened, and we started having horse shows and rodeos, then the interest in horses followed."

Bagley said in 1993, Louisville hosted a district horse show that drew 450 entrants. The next year, in the agri-center, 800 entered the same show, and in 1995 more than 1,100 - including more than 500 from Lee County - were entered.

"I think that shows the tremendous growth of the horse industry and the impact of this facility," he says.

The equine unit will help develop, organize and promote the numerous activities in Northeast Mississippi - including educational, instructional and research programs - dealing with horses.

The programs will be coordinated with and bolstered by the faculty of MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine, which provided funding for the unit.

Studies by the college indicate that Mississippi has more horses than any other state east of the Mississippi River, and that Northeast Mississippi has the largest concentration of horses of any region in the state.

"What we want to do," says Ford, wife of state Speaker of the House Tim Ford, "is set up two advisory boards: one for individuals in the area that are interested in getting a feel for the different equine associations in the area, and one for the veterinarians in the area.

"But this is not a treatment center," she stresses. "We are not in competition with anyone. What we want to do is get vets around the region to set up programs on horse health care, nutrition ... things like that. And we'd like to get the instructors from Mississippi State to offer seminars for veterinarians and for the general public.

"We want to educate the public on caring for horses. There are a lot of people who want horses but don't understand all that is involved in the upkeep that is involved.

"Our basic goals are to promote interest in horses in the area, and in education."

Bagley points out that the equine industry has a greater impact on the region than just recreational purposes.

"You've got to have feed and hay, and there are the health-related products and the grooming products," he says. "And once you start going to shows and rodeos, then you're talking about money spent on hotels, restaurants and shops, not to mention the cost of traveling."

Indeed, a 1996 study of the equine industry in the nation, commissioned by the American Horse Council Federation, shows:

- The horse industry directly produces goods and services valued at $25.3 billion;

- The industry has a $112.1 billion impact on the U.S. economy when the "multiplier effect" of spending by industry suppliers and employees is taken into account;

- The horse industry pays approximately $1.9 billion in taxes to all levels of government;

- Nearly 2 million people own horses.

Bagley, who grew up on a dairy farm, makes his point with another figure:

"There are 48,000 head of dairy cows in Mississippi," he says, "and there are around 150,000 horses. The thing to remember, too, is that not many people own more than one or two horses, while some folks own a lot more dairy cows. So I'd guess for the 150,000 horses, there are probably 75,000 or more horse owners.

"It's a significant industry and it's reached the size where it's hard to ignore."

Ford says other areas the equine unit wants to develop are "therapeutic riding," and setting up classes for the underprivileged, who otherwise might not ever have the experience of riding a horse.

She says she also hopes to develop the facility to the point that school classes can come and learn about horses through hands-on experience.

"Working with horses and taking care of them," she says, "is something that's hard to describe."

Like Jim Buck used to say ....

(For information on the equine unit or to volunteer to serve on an advisory board, call the Research and Extension Center at 566-2201.)

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