The proof is in the figures. In 2014, the equine industry generated as much as EUR 800 million in Flanders. In that same year, the sector employed more than 2,700 people and exported no fewer than 4,276 registered living horses worth a total value of EUR 85 million. What’s more, the region is home to over 200,000 equines and has the highest number of horses per capita (0.046) in Europe.
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Flanders’ equine sector is galloping forward at full speed
Zooming in on this important socioeconomic impact and the sector’s international allure, Jan De Boitselier, manager at sector federation PaardenPunt Vlaanderen, explains the how and why behind Flanders’ position as a prominent horse region.
The success of the horse industry in Flanders doesn’t come out of the blue. The region has a centuries-old tradition of breeding horses. “Initially, Flanders focused on breeding draft horses,” Jan De Boitselier explains. “Between the two World Wars, the region’s economy was quite literally pulled forward by draft horses, with more than 40,000 foals per year being bred in that period of time. In 1950s, the focus started shifting toward riding and sport horses. At the time, many quality animals were imported from countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, and various equine bloodlines were combined in Flanders. Because of this tradition, the region has accumulated a huge amount of knowledge about horse breeding.”
The majority of Flanders’ breeders are small: about 93% of foals are born to breeders producing only up to three foals per year. This proofs that Flanders really focuses on quality and flexibility. “Moreover,” Jan De Boitselier proceeds, “the region is perfectly located between the breeding areas of France, Germany and the Netherlands. Besides that, horses are perfectly adapted to our mild and relatively wet climate. Consequently, they can run outside as much as possible here. This is especially a plus in the equestrian world, where each day spent in a stable is one too many and puts a mortgage on a horse’s sporting career.”
This golden combination of location, climate and quality focus ensures healthy horses that perform brilliantly by all accounts, but Flanders focuses on one discipline in particular. “We specialize in show jumpers,” Jan clarifies. “Ours are among the world’s best.” And he’s right. The local jumping breeding is absolutely world class. For example, at the 2016 Olympics, more than a quarter of participating jumpers had Belgian origins. Additionally, 19 of these 25 horses were from Flanders. Even American celebrities are aware of Flanders’ quality equines. For example, Bill Gates gifted his daughter with a stud farm in Flanders to support her horseback riding career.
In addition to show jumping, Flanders also enjoys an excellent reputation when it comes to other breeds and equestrian sports disciplines. “To highlight just a few examples,” Jan De Boitselier points out, “Arabian stallion QR Marc was bred in Flanders and received the title of world champion in Dubai in 2012. Meanwhile, Bernard Fonck, an equestrian from Flanders, was the first European and second non-American ever to be crowned world champion in individual reining at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games.”
The cherry on the cake: Flanders’ long-standing history in successful horse breeding is reflected in its studbooks’ track records. Jan De Boitselier: “We have some of the best studbooks. In 2018, the Belgian Warmblood got the second place in the WBFSH Jumping Ranking, out of 43 studbooks. In other editions of the ranking, the breed even made it to first place – and so did the Zangersheide studbook.”
We have some of best studbooks. In 2018, the Belgian Warmblood got the second place in the WBFSH Jumping Ranking, out of 43 studbooks.
IVF for top horses: R&D from Flanders in the saddle
Horse breeding in Flanders is not just big, but also an innovative business. Using IVF techniques, for example, breeders grow embryos containing the genes of successful horses. Some of these embryos are frozen and sold all around the world. In Flanders, horse breeder Mares of Macha specializes in this technique. But there’s much, much more. Flanders-based player Keros, for instance, has built an impressive and innovative track record in horse embryo transplantation, having brought forth Olympic champs such as Big Star, Verdi, Taloubet and more.
To top it all off, some of the world’s leading forces in artificial insemination (AI) and embryo transfer (ET) for horses come from Flanders. Stallion owner and veterinarian Joris De Brabander doesn’t need much introduction in this regard. His ‘de Muze’ breeding farm – complete with cutting-edge AI and ET Center – is a global reference for show jumping horses. Meanwhile, he himself is considered one of the world’s best horse breeders and a pioneer when it comes to applying the intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) technique. “When we started with embryo transfers in the 1990s, we were – in fact – the first generation of modern breeding farms,” De Brabander explained in a 2020 interview with breeding platform Equ.Breeding.
Apart from excellent and innovating breeding, Flanders also achieves a lot of sporting successes. “Flanders has some excellent riders, some of which coach foreign equestrians and country teams themselves,” Jan De Boitselier illustrates. “Highlighting just two famous examples: in 2010, Philippe Lejeune became world champion with Vigo d’Arsouille – and in 2014, the best horse of the World Equestrian Games was Cortes C, which is a Belgian Warmblood. One of the main reasons behind these and other successes shouldn’t come as a surprise… Horses that are well cared for perform better. In Flanders, this is an understatement!”
Flanders has some excellent riders. Some of them coach foreign equestrians and country teams themselves.
Indeed, various institutions in Flanders check all the right boxes in the animal health field. Take, for example, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the university of Ghent (UGent). Every year, about 20,000 animals are treated in its 50,000-m² stables and clinics. Almost 2,000 students, more than a quarter of whom come from abroad, follow the top-notch training program to become veterinarians. The animals also come from far away at times. This should come as no surprise, as the faculty has an outstanding reputation. For example, in 2018, UGent’s veterinary program ranked number one in the Shanghai Ranking of Academic Subjects for the second-consecutive year.
Also in Flanders, the university of Leuven (KU Leuven) has a strong reputation in this field as well. A specific division of its Faculty of Bio-engineering focuses on pet genetics, including those of horses. Based on various studies, their main goal is to develop ‘breeding value estimates’ of sport horses.
“Animal health is a core priority in Flanders,” Jan De Boitselier continues. “Various organizations in the region are currently working on projects that focus on different topics related to horse welfare such as safety and housing for horses. Another important undertaking is the ‘Equilabel’, which gives high-quality riding schools and boarding stables a chance to distinguish themselves. In the assessment, several criteria are applied, including customer service, animal friendliness and compliance.”
Nutrition for champs
“The right nutrition + the best care = top performance”. This is the vision behind Nutriquine, a Flanders-based company that specializes in refined horse feeding. Peter Bollen and Lieselot Hamerlinck have joined forces to establish this successful enterprise. Today, the firm is a global player in its field and has some very impressive clients. On top of that, the firm was a partner and supplier of the Belgian and Saudi Arabian team at the 2012 London Olympics.
Furthermore, the equine sector in Flanders is supported by a comprehensive and professional ecosystem. First of all, the region is home to numerous farriers, feed companies as well as stable and slope builders. Even more, there is no lack of professional training: “At LRV and Paardensport Vlaanderen, two well-known organizations within the horse business, you can gain an excellent basic education on the care and training of horses,” Jan De Boitselier guarantees. “This is very important for both horse and rider.”
The level of professionalism in Flanders’ equine industry is also beneficial to society at large. Horses are even represented in human healthcare. Using hippotherapy, for instance, people can improve both their physical and mental health. “This kind of treatment has been gaining popularity in recent years,” Jan De Boitselier explains. “It requires additional training offered by several university colleges in Flanders, including Arteveldehogeschool in Ghent and Vives in Bruges.”
Adding to the local equine industry’s international allure, the export of horses from Flanders is on the rise. In 2014, more than 4,000 horses were exported, worth EUR 800 million in total. The US, Japan and Brazil are among Flanders’ most important equine export destinations. But the socioeconomic relevance of the region’s equine industry goes beyond international trade.
For instance, the use of horses in sports and recreation is extremely popular in Flanders as well. This results in well-attended horse races which generate nearly EUR 270 million in revenue. Horsemeat processing is also an economically important activity in the region. In 2014, almost 30,000 tons of horsemeat were processed, which generated EUR 115 million and employed 120 FTEs.
There are 475 riding schools and boarding stables in Flanders where horses are accommodated. This activity generates a turnover of EUR 106 million and offers employment to 1,681 FTEs.
Last but not least, horses also play a major role ecologically in Flanders. Jan De Boitselier: “The horse sector contributes to preservation of valuable permanent grassland, which is good for the welfare of people and environment.” On top of that, horse pastures and hay meadows are a real asset for the realization of the European Directives on conservation objectives.
“We can say without a doubt that the equine sector in Flanders brings added value in several socioeconomic areas,” Jan De Boitselier concludes. “The horse is a noble animal that deserves our attention and the best care!”
PaardenPunt Vlaanderen: an authority on horses
Jan De Boitselier is manager of policies and advice at PaardenPunt Vlaanderen. This institution aims to strengthen and expand Flanders’ horse sector in a sustainable way. It represents more than forty recognized equestrian associations with hundreds of thousands of members, and supports – as a recognized consultation partner – the government in the development and adaptation of regulations. Members also use their knowledge and expertise to help empower every horse enthusiast.
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