Jan Hartwell-Ruiz’s blond hair, drawn back in a braid, looks even paler against the dark weathered wood of the barn that looms behind her. Dressed in faded blue jeans, rubber-soled boots and an old vest, she has the healthy, hearty look of outdoors. It comes naturally — she is one of a fifth generation of farmers.
For more than 100 years, the Hartwell family has farmed the same 160 acres in Stetson. Little has changed over the years, despite the ups and downs of the economy, until now. Today, the century-old, gray-shingled barn that once sheltered her father’s dairy cows is home to a new type of livestock — horses.
“I get so irritated when people say `Oh, horses are a nice hobby,”‘ Hartwell-Ruiz says with feeling. “Having horses today doesn’t just mean a backyard pony for the kids — they are an industry.”
Maine’s 45,000 horses represent not just a few bales of hay and the extra space they occupy in the barn or shed, said Hartwell-Ruiz, but horse feed, veterinary services, tack, trailers, riding clothes, fencing and other requirements that, taken all together, make up a goodly chunk of the agricultural economy.
“I wanted the public to be aware of just how diverse the horse business is,” said the thirty-something farmer who now breeds and raises buckskins (a color breed) on the family farm.
To achieve this goal, Hartwell-Ruiz hosted the first Maine State Horse Fair May 2 and 3. Tents and booths scattered through the barn and yard displayed a wide range of horse-related products and services: electric fencing, saddles, feed and veterinary products. Demonstrations of English and Western riding techniques and tack were held in the paddock and lectures on horse care were given in the barn.
Despite the cold drizzle that fell most of the weekend, scores of horse lovers turned out for the event.
Surprisingly, as the economy has declined, the number of horses in the nation, including Maine, has grown steadily.
“I think people in times like this need horses,” said Hartwell-Ruiz as she lead visitors through the new stable she and her friends and family members built last summer in an old-fashioned “barn raising.”
“They represent a simpler, slower time. They are a great escape; in fact, I like to call them `fast lane therapy.’ ”
Isn’t that expensive therapy?
“Not really,” asserted Lillian Haynes, who came up from Pittsfield for the fair. “A horse doesn’t cost a whole lot more than a dog to feed.”
Haynes and her teen-age daughter, Ricky, a shy girl with wispy brown hair, just bought their first horses last summer and were at the fair to learn more about equine care. Haynes pointed out that compared to some hobbies, such as skiing or even going regularly to concerts and movies, owning a horse is “actually not all that bad. And it’s good for kids — it’s a daily responsibility and it keeps them out of trouble.”
When asked if she minded getting up early each morning to feed her horse, even on school days, Ricky grinned and shook her head. “I don’t care — just as long as they’re there!”
Betty Murphy of Alton who owns several horses said the animals “are just like my kids.” When asked by her husband if it came to a choice between his Harley and one of the horses if she would give up one of her equine “kids,” she said “No way!”
Hartwell-Ruiz, who was an animal welfare officer for four years, said horses are, on the whole, treated better than other pets. “It may be because they represent a bigger investment of time and energy and, at least initially, money.”
How will the eroding economy impact this situation?
“I think we may see more cases of `unintentional neglect,”‘ said Hartwell-Ruiz, “cases where people who really love their animals try to hold onto them even when they are just unable to feed them properly anymore.”
Failing economy notwithstanding, vendors at the horse fair said that the horse market was going strong. “In fact, they are coming out with new products designed specifically for horses and horse owners all the time now,” observed Carolyn Bates of Hampden, a salesperson with the Gallagher Fencing Co.
Pleasure horses account for most equines owned by Mainers, but draft horses are growing in popularity, and not just as state fair entries.
“More people are getting back into using horses on small farms and in logging,” said Hartwell-Ruiz. “They’re tired of the cost and hassle of mechanical equipment and they’re tired of the disaster skidders cause in the woods.”
But mostly, she said, horses are in the blood somehow. There is without a doubt something stirring in the sight of a well-trained, well-groomed horse being put through its graceful paces. The crowd that gathered around the paddock at the horse fair to watch a woman in an elegant English riding habit put a sleek, proud-necked Morgan through an exhibition of English dressage was spellbound.
“There’s nothing like riding!” said Hartwell-Ruiz enthusiastically.
A big grin lit her tanned face. “A dog’s neat — you can sit there and scratch his ears. But when you’re out there on your horse, be-bopping across a big field, the wind whipping through your hair — it just doesn’t get any better than that!”
Cheryl Seal of Monson is a free-lance writer.