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MISSOULA — Veterinarian Bill Brown gets no rest when it’s springtime in Montana.

For Brown and others saddled to Montana’s equine economy, this is a time to make hay.

On any given day, Brown is burning up Highway 93 from Hamilton to the Ninemile Valley, helping to keep the region’s growing horse herds healthy and soothing their worried owners.

Today, he’s steering his beast of burden, a new pickup loaded with all his tools and medicines, to a cluster of Bitterroot clients.

First he’ll artificially inseminate two carefully bred Overo paint horses, owned by a Bitterroot psychologist whose horses are her hobby.

Then it’s on to another tucked-away, mini-ranch to inspect a Kieger mustang mare whose owner plans to breed her to an Arabian stallion, hoping to start a new, groundbreaking line of endurance horses.

Before heading north to Missoula to see more horses, Brown will check on a wobbly, day-old Hanoverian filly, whose lineage traces to Germany by way of Canada.

The four-legged patients, he said, are fairly representative of the wide-ranging horse flesh now commonplace in Western Montana, horses that fetch $5,000 to $50,000 — sometimes more.

“I’ve seen a big change in the business,” Brown said while checking a mare’s pregnancy with ultrasound equipment. “Twenty years ago, everybody had two old appaloosas in the back yard and went hunting with them. If you asked someone what a Hanoverian was, or any of these other specialized breeds, they’d have no idea.

“There are all these specialty groups that have a presence here, and there is a level of affluence here now,” he said. “I’m as busy as I can be, and all I do is horses.”

Yet this economic horsepower remains largely hidden to state agencies and private organizations.

No one in the state tracks the equine economy, in part, because it cannot be easily corralled: Is it a hobby, a sport or a business?

The horse economy strays between the realms of moneymaking enterprises and matters of the heart.

Despite its status as the quintessential symbol of the American West, the number of horses in Montana is unclear.

Because we do not eat them, horses aren’t considered a commodity, like cattle or pigs, and therefore aren’t tracked by state agriculture and livestock agencies.

The only equine numbers available come from a 1999 state survey, which showed that Montana has about 130,000 horses.

The survey, however, was a random one — not a thorough measuring of the state’s horse hot spots, including Ravalli, Missoula and Flathead counties.

Numbers reflect only the people who responded to the survey, said Peggy Stringer, statistician with the Montana Department of Agriculture.

“We all disagree with the numbers, and all of us think they are low,” said Ralph Peck, director of the Department of Agriculture, who discussed the state horse survey recently with ranchers at a meeting of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

“I don’t think we identified all the horse owners in Montana when we did it,” Peck said. “And we can’t go to the tax records, because not everyone reports them. When you stop and look at county tax rolls, there are a lot of individuals who don’t report them, or don’t know they are supposed to report them. But it’s up to each county assessor’s office to decide what to do about it.”

The Montana Quarter Horse Association alone lists 83,000 purebred quarter horses registered in 2000, said Louis Hill, president of the association.

Hill said there is no telling how many horses in Montana are not registered, because participants in the growing competition sports such as reining, cutting and jumping don’t care about the horses’ bloodlines — just their talent.

Furthermore, if horse owners don’t intend to breed their horses or compete in breed-specific shows, they may not want to deal with the paperwork and fees involved with registering their animals.

Complicating things too, Hill said, is that people regularly crossbreed horses in an effort to combine the best qualities of both breeds.

No regulatory board oversees the horse industry, either.

Horse-breeders, trainers and farriers don’t need licenses to operate, so there is no way to effectively or accurately account for their numbers, Peck said.

Those who have day-to-day contact with horses, however, say the equine industry is booming in Montana, particularly in the western part of the state.

Rob Johnson, a Ravalli County Extension agent, said he’s been following the increasing numbers of horses in the Bitterroot Valley for years.

He’s watched as the valley has become filled with ranchettes, many home to one or more horses.

He also notices the many snazzy horse trailers going north and south on Highway 93 at all hours of the day.

“They’re nicer than some people’s houses,” Johnson said. “They’re fancy; you can’t help but notice them.”

Out of curiosity, Johnson said he’s attempted to track down the number of horses in the valley, but the number remains a matter of guesswork.

He chuckles at the Ravalli County’s tax assessor’s report of 6,409 horses for the year 2000.

And so do veterinarians Robert Brophy, Earl Pruyn and Brown — all of whom estimate that the actual number easily runs thousands higher.

Brown estimates there are perhaps 35,000 or 40,000 horses in the Bitterroot Valley alone.

In Missoula County, Brown estimates there may be about 20,000 horses.

A survey taken at the request of the Flathead County commissioners produced an estimate of about 17,000 horses in that county.

“As an industry, the horse business has become big bucks,” said Brophy, a veterinarian for 35 years. “The change is in the value of the horses, and everything else with keeping a horse has increased. I’m not sure that there are more horses. It’s just the activity of horses has changed — cowboys ride four-wheelers now and everyone else rides pleasure horses.

“Horses are more like a pet these days, not a working animal,” he said. “In the Bitterroot, there’s more and more indoor arenas, huge horse buildings and a tremendous amount of money geared for horses. They’ve become quite the center of social activity.

“This whole trend certainly seems to require more equipment, more attention and more time,” Brophy said. “There’s not as much goofing around as there used to be. Horse people take this very seriously, and I think it has something to do with the amount of money being spent.”

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