A look at how equine registrations, transfers, and memberships have risen and declined over the past 20 years

Does it seem like we have fewer horses in the United States than we did 10, 15, or 20 years ago? According to American equine registration data collected over the past two decades, if you’ve noticed more empty pastures and smaller breed shows, it’s probably because breeders are producing and registering fewer animals. Debbie Fuentes, registrar of the Arabian Horse Association (AHA), based in Aurora, Colorado, collects and curates that industry data. Each year for the past decade she has contacted her contemporaries at 13 American horse registries and solicited registration, transfer, and membership numbers.  

Fuentes, who’s worked at the AHA for nearly 20 years, has watched and documented equine registrations as the major breed associations hit their peaks—in 2002 with a total of nearly 328,000 horses registered—and then crashed following the Great Recession to a low of less than half the high (about 151,000) just a decade later. (Have you ever wondered why it seems like there are so many senior horses today? Consider that 1995 saw nearly a quarter million horses registered, which all entered their 20s this year.)

These numbers don’t represent the entire U.S. equine population, but rather papered horses in specific registries included in Fuentes’ data set. These associations track breed or breed mix numbers, register foals born each year, record and confirm pedigrees, track ownership transfers, and tally show results. However, in the 2005 USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s (APHIS) National Animal Health Surveillance Monitoring study—the most recent of its kind; the next study is currently underway, and you can read about it at TheHorse.com/35502—researchers found that just less than 50% of American horses are unregistered (or their papers are lost), grade, or mix-breed.

Nevertheless, gathering registration numbers helps Fuentes monitor the industry and plan for the future. Her data include the number of horses registered each year (presumably foals and young horses), ownership transfers, and association membership numbers. The breeds she tracks include the:

  • American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), in Amarillo, Texas—the world’s largest equine breed registry;
  • American Paint Horse Association (APHA), in Fort Worth, Texas;
  • U.S. Trotting Association (Standardbreds), in Westerly, Ohio;
  • Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC), in Moscow, Idaho;
  • Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA), in Lewisburg, Tennessee;
  • Miniature Horse Association, based in Alvarado, Texas;
  • American Morgan Horse Association (AMHA), based in Shelburne, Vermont;
  • Pinto Horse Association (PtHA), in Bethany, Oklahoma;
  • Pony of the Americas Club (POAC), in Indianapolis, Indiana;
  • The American Saddlebred Horse Association (ASHA), in Lexington, Kentucky;
  • The Jockey Club (registry of Thoroughbreds), also in Lexington;  
  • The American Paso Fino Association (APFA), in Lexington; and
  • Of course, her employer, the AHA (Arabian and Anglo- and Half-Arabians).

“I look to these numbers as a basis for comparison to see how we (the AHA) are doing in relation to the other breeds,” she explains. “I am not comparing the actual registration numbers as much as I am comparing the trends: Are we all experiencing a decline in numbers? Are some breeds closing the gap and getting closer to staying flat?”

As the purveyor of registration statistics, Fuentes is often asked to present this information at industry meetings throughout the country, including the American Horse Council (AHC). The AHC’s last industry survey took place in 2005, prior to the economic decline of the 2000s, which, according to Fuentes’ data (and to what many of us have felt), took a dramatic toll on the horse industry as a whole. Fuentes has shared her most up-to-date data with The Horse.

A Look at the Numbers

After sharp registration and membership declines during and following the Great Recession, which officially ended in 2009, a few associations added registrations this past year. “In 2014, a handful of the breeds saw an increase in their registration numbers,” says Fuentes. “Although it was just a few of the breeds, it’s more than it’s been for the past several years. This is a positive sign. I expected the trend in 2014 to be similar to that in 2013.”

Of the associations she tracks, the AQHA saw the most horses registered in 2014, a total of 83,146 and a year-over-year increase of 12% from 2013. The TWHBEA had the biggest dip in registrations, falling from 4,152 horses registered in 2013 to 2,825 in 2014, a decrease of more than 33%.

Breed Registration Trends

Registration numbers typically include foals and horses younger than 2 (the age at which most associations’ graduated registration fee scheduled increases dramatically).

Data courtesy of Debbie Fuentes.

While registration numbers mostly reflect new foals and young horses produced, a number of registries, including the AHA, have offered “amnesty,” “aged-horse specials,” or “hardship registration” with reduced fees for older horses, to help increase numbers, Fuentes says. “Our registration numbers were up last year,” she says. “We’re celebrating the increase even though we recognize that it can be attributed to our amnesty program, which for us is an aged-horse special in which we offer a decreased fee for the registration (of horses) 2 years and older. We have done this three times in the past 12 years, and each time it was successful.”

Jockey Club registration numbers reflect the recession’s impact on the Thoroughbred industry, which caused breeder attrition and resulted in an estimated 43% decline in registered foals from 2005 to 2014. Additionally, unlike show and recreational breed registries, the Jockey Club doesn’t offer aged-horse-type incentives to bolster its registration numbers. Instead, the industry relies more on demand from the racing industry’s yearling buyers for breeders to produce more foals.

Ownership transfers of horses were a mixed bag in 2014, Fuentes notes. The American Morgan Horse Association experienced the largest percentage increase of transfers, up nearly 11% from 2013 with just over 3,000 horses transferred. The AQHA had the largest number of horses transferred in 2014—nearly 124,000—up 0.53% during the same time period. The POAC saw the biggest drop in transfers from 2013 to ’14 at 47%, or just 676 registered POAs transferred.

Breed Transfer Trends 2001-2014

Registration transfers show sales activity within a breed association. This is required for showing and breeding. However, many registered horses are not officially transferred between owners.

Data courtesy of Debbie Fuentes.

Membership numbers fell across the board for all associations with returned 2014 surveys. The PtHA had the smallest decrease of 0.23%. The AQHA, which had the most members for 2014 (263,528), showed a 2.65% decline. The TWHBEA, with 5,912 members, saw the biggest decline, surpassing a loss of 22%.

U.S. Breed Association Membership Trends 2001-2014

This data reflects the number of dues-paying members belonging to each of the tracked breed associations. Members are breed enthusiasts that enjoy affiliation with their associations, as well as membership benefits. Members often include active breeders and competitors.

Data courtesy of Debbie Fuentes.

Predictions for 2015

Based on these numbers, Fuentes believes the horse industry has leveled out since the rapid registration declines seen during the mid-2000s. She and her contemporaries at other associations repeat the mantra of “level is the new normal.”  

“I expect 2015 to be very similar to 2014,” Fuentes says. “I think it will still be only a handful of associations that experience an increase in registrations. However, I would be very pleased to see more (registries) remain flat, rather than experiencing another drastic decline.”