12/10/2004 1:00AM

New group raising public's awareness


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Kentucky Equine Education Project raised at least $2.5 million at its fund-raising all-breed stallion season auction in Lexington last week, and KEEP executive director Claria Shadwick said the organization will put that money to good use in coming months.

Since its formation on May 5, the group has recruited more than 3,300 members, hired Shadwick, and appointed volunteer horse industry spokesmen in 77 of Kentucky's 120 counties. The immediate goal

of the group, Shadwick said, is to educate the public about the horse industry and its importance to the commonwealth's economy. Members of the group have made dozens of appearances at civic clubs, riding clubs, and public meetings across the state, Shadwick said.

Three state legislative committees also invited KEEP to make presentations: the Horse Farming Subcommittee, the full Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, and the Task Force on Economic Development.

"Right now, we are mainly engaged in educating people about our message," she said. "We want to educate and inform folks about the importance of this industry to the state, in terms of financial dollars, and to educate the public about the challenges the collective horse industry faces."

Those challenges include everything from taxation to other statebred Thoroughbred programs that could draw breeders away from Kentucky.

"Our ultimate goal," Shadwick said, "is to formulate some solutions, which would include legislative solutions, to the challenges facing the entire industry. We haven't specified a particular legislative agenda yet. We will, but our first step is to raise awareness and collect information from our time on the road around the state."

Shadwick said KEEP county representatives are combating what KEEP believes are misconceptions the public has about horse breeders and owners.

"There's certainly a lot of misinformation out there," she said. "Many folks are completely unaware that the horse industry is our state's number-one cash crop. Most are also shocked by the disparity in the tax policy that horse farmers face. If you buy a sack of feed for your horse farm, you pay a 6-percent sales tax. But the same sack of feed isn't taxed if you buy it for cattle, llamas, or similar agricultural animals.

"There's a misconception that the horse industry is a bunch of wealthy hobbyists. People don't realize that there are a lot of mom-and-pop horse farming operators who, like other farmers, struggle to meet the bottom line."

To fight that impression, KEEP is working on a marketing and education plan that includes a print-media campaign, and possibly television ads, Shadwick said.

"And we'd like to devise a fourth-grade or eighth-grade early education program focusing on the horse industry as part of Kentucky's history and heritage and as a major contributor to our economic well-being. We'd love to get that in our schools."

Mule breeders get organized

One of the stallion seasons auctioned at KEEP's recent fund-raiser reminded people that Kentucky's equine industry isn't just about horses. It's also about donkeys and mules.

Paul Stamper, a mule breeder who owns Mountain View Farm in Maytown, Ky., donated a season to his mammoth jack donkey, Tyler's Bubba. Tyler's Bubba is a mammoth jack, meaning he's much larger than the average donkey. He stands about 15 hands tall.

Tyler's Bubba, who was this year's reserve world champion in a conformation class at the National Mule Show in Shelbyville, Tenn., normally stands for $300. But the KEEP season sold to WinStar Farm co-owner Bill Casner for $6,000.

"It was a lot," Stamper said with a laugh. "I thought maybe we ought to sell more like that."

Thoroughbred purists might wince, but Thoroughbred mules - produced from a jack crossed with a Thoroughbred mare - make useful hunters, jumpers, and field hunters, Stamper said. Also in increasing demand: gaited mules, produced by crossing walking horse mares or Rocky Mountain horse mares with a jack, and draft mules, which are popular for heavier work.

Such animals are becoming popular enough that mule breeders formed the Kentucky Mule Association in 2003. The group's president, Mark Strain, estimates there are about 40 serious mule breeders statewide, people who bred 15 to 20 mares a year.

"We have tax issues, too," Strain said. "We also want to be recognized as an agriculture. Right now, there are grants available to agriculture through the tobacco settlement, but where I am there aren't a lot of people breeding horses; it's mainly cattle. It's hard to get the county extension offices to recognize us as an agricultural business."