The Politics of Horses
October 16, 2014
I have spent my entire life around horses: I grew up on a horse farm, now operate my own horse farm and have dedicated my professional life to the betterment of equestrian facilities for nearly 30 years. Yet, I am continually amazed at what a significant role horses continue to play in social life, the economy and, in particular, politics. Perhaps what intrigues me most is how horses have continuously adapted to man’s needs throughout history while becoming an economic power house, yet, unlike other large animals, they are not a major food source. Their value is deeper and more complex. Without question, there is no other animal on earth that has done so much for mankind. Horses have courageously carried man into battle, carried goods along the Silk Road, allowed us to settle this great land we know as America, become sports stars and movie stars and even served as a vital conduit between nations.
For an example, look no further than the relationship between Mexican President Jorge and US President Ronald Reagan. In 1981, President Jorge presented President Reagan, a man well known for his equestrian pursuits both on and off the silver screen, with a white Arabian stallion named El Alamein. This horse was raised by my family friend Justo Fernandez Avila, a well-respected AQHA breeder and operator of the Hipodromo de Las Americas racecourse in Mexico City. Later, El Alamein was the subject of a painting that was presented to Reagan by the Federal Republic of Germany. At the time, I was a bit too young and naive to see that this was much more than a gift among men; it was a gift among nations, the proverbial olive branch, but this one was very real and alive…and beautiful!
As the years passed and I moved from showing to playing polo to designing farms and venues, I began to realize the true power of horses. One of my favorite quotes is from Will Rogers, movie and vaudeville star, political satirist and horseman, who said “a polo handicap is a passport to the world.” As it turned out, he was right. My polo ability has opened doors, not only for playing, but more importantly, for business around the world from Russia to Singapore to Argentina to China. This shared love for horses and the sport transcends borders and politics.
One of the grandest examples of the politics of horses occurred this past summer in China. Over the past several years, Populous has established ourselves as well-respected in the rapidly growing Chinese equestrian industry, becoming thought leaders on the economic value of building a vertically-integrated industry in China. In May, the Chinese Government invited me to attend the International Akhal-Teke Horse Conference in Beijing, one of just a few hundred international guests. There are only around 6,000 Akhal-Tekes in the world and almost all reside in Russia and Turkmenistan, where they are a national emblem. Nevertheless, this largely unknown horse breed has served as a vital, albeit temporary, conduit between Turkmenistan and China to foster natural resource and economic cooperation on a grand scale. As in so many cases before, the horse was the common bond these key leaders needed to transcend borders and political differences for the betterment of their nations. During the conference, I attended gala parties and horse theatrical productions, meeting leaders and witnessing key international meetings between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow in the Peoples’ Hall. The morning after the closing ceremony, the front page of the China Post announced that Turkmenistan signed a deal to supply China with 65 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually through the world’s longest pipeline by 2016, a deal worth roughly $26 billion per year for Turkmenistan at current prices. Now that’s what I call the real definition of “horse power.”
While the equestrian industry has provided common ground for deals like these, politicians also know that horses mean money, both through venue revenue and economic impact for the surrounding communities. In areas that have a robust equestrian event business, this is well known and often, an aggressively protected business, with enormous capital investments and incentives to attract and keep events. We have also learned to harness the economic power of horses to fund and build non-equestrian public projects. For example, we have worked with cities to perform pre-election tests for major capital improvement bond elections that do not include equestrian components but may include roads, libraries, schools, performing arts, etc. and the polls have indicated that the election will fail. When we have added equestrian elements to the same project package and promoted the economic value to the community, the polls have indicated the elections will be successful, and in all cases they have been.
The economic power of the horse industry has benefitted entire communities, regardless of whether or not their people are directly involved in the horse business. Horses and the venues that house them are more than an animal or a facility – they are symbolic of economic value, capital investment and vital, cooperative development that can impact cities, states and nations for generations to come.