Recreation: Return of the Horse

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The horse has long since been pushed off the highways, and a decade ago it looked as if he might have lost out on the backways as well. There were 4,500,000 horses in the country in 1959, the year that the U.S. Department of Agriculture took its last horse census and decided to discontinue counting heads.

The Department quit at just the wrong moment; since then horses have staged a surprising comeback, now total more than 7,000,000, of which 85% are saddle horses. Nor has the demand by any means peaked. Nearly every breed is still on the increase, from Tennessee Walking Horses (91,000) to Shetland ponies (119,000). Arabians — the currently chic horse in many places — stood at 16,015 in 1959; today there are 46,266 registered in the U.S. and Canada. The Appaloosa, the unusually spot ted horse that got much of its vogue from Walt Disney's 1966 Run, Appaloosa, Run, has climbed in the U.S. from 11,000 to 92,500. The American quarter horse, still the nation's most popular breed, expects to top half a million this year, and Thoroughbreds are not far behind.

No longer is horseback riding restricted to traditional horsy enclaves, dude ranches and city bridle paths; it has now massively infiltrated suburbia and even spread to blue-collar areas, where a new status symbol, instead of a second car, can be a stable alongside the garage. In Rolling Hills, on Los Angeles County's Palos Verdes Peninsula, there are now 2,000 people and 4,000 horses. In Kansas City, teen-agers ride their horses through the streets after school. In Lakewood, Colo., an unprecedented 1,100 horsemen turned up for this year's Easter parade. In California alone, horse owners this year will spend $200 million equipping and feeding their mounts; nationwide, the cult of the horse may top $4 billion this year.

Hard Hat & Breeches. "Our whole American civilization is built on the horse; it's part of our heritage," says Los Angeles' Don Burt, who was voted best horse judge in the U.S. last year. "As we get more citified, there's more demand for release, for open spaces. Now that people can afford horses, it's bound to grow." Increasingly, families are discovering that a brisk morning canter is not only fine exercise; it also opens up new country—even in relatively built-up areas.

Riding also seems to answer some deepseated, atavistic urge. Movie and TV westerns have kept alive the picture of the cowboy as a heroic figure, and many first-time owners, especially men, prefer to ride Western. But such tack is not for the upwardly mobile. For the ladies, the model is Jacqueline Kennedy astride her bay gelding Winchester, while the daughters as avidly keep track of Caroline's every outing with her ponies Macaroni or Leprechaun. Sniffs a Boston dentist, whose whole family rides English, outfitted in boots, breeches and hard hats: "After all, if you ride, you should dress for it. You really can't get the feeling of it in sneakers and jeans."

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