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As Commodity Prices Rise, Vets, Farriers Feel the Pinch

by Suzanne Bush

As fuel costs increase, consumers make choices. They drive less. They combine errands. They carpool to work.

But what about people whose livelihoods require them to drive…and drive…and drive? They don't have the luxury of choice. Veterinarians, equine dentists, farriers and others who care for horses are facing daunting challenges as gas prices rise. They don't have the luxury of driving less, because the distance between the veterinarian and a horse in trouble doesn't lend itself to economics.

"I average about 50,000 miles a year in my truck," says Ernest Kilby, an equine dentist based in Lancaster County. He says that he has not added a fuel surcharge to his services yet, but it's something he's considering.

In business for just three years, Kilby has seen dramatic changes as a result of fuel costs—from the costs themselves to everything else that is affected by them. He says he thinks some of his clients are forgoing dental care for their horses to save money. "Right now business is slowed down because of the economy."

Last year Kilby took care of about 2,000 horses, and he hopes to grow his business to more than 3,000 this year. That means more miles and more expenses before he even begins to pay for his supplies and for routine maintenance of the tools he uses. He's concerned about the long term impact of the energy prices. "It's probably going to push some people out of business." But he points out that, like farriers, equine dentists provide care for two of the most basic elements of equine health.

Gas, Steel and Global Competition

Dr. Robert Kraybill visits equine patients within about a 50-mile radius of his Carlisle office. Anne Kraybill says that the economy is causing some people to hold off on vet services.

"They're not having as many procedures done because money is tight," she says. And the cost of fuel mounts up quickly for the veterinarian, who often drives a couple of hundred miles a day. She says that, while business is slowing a bit, there's still plenty of work. "I don't think people are panicking yet. There's a shortage of equine doctors and they're always busy," she says.

Dan Etheridge, a farrier in Chester County, has a different perspective on rising fuel prices. "Gas is still relatively cheap compared to where I come from. But it is a big part of my expenses," he says. Etheridge, who has been in the area for about a year, is originally from Hampshire, England. "I try to justify the gas price by thinking I don't have to rent an office."

Both he and his wife, Annie, are farriers, and he says that if they were in another line of work, they would probably spend on rent and utilities what they currently spend monthly on gas. He says he drives about 75 miles a day, shoeing horses in the Unionville area.

"Steel prices have gone up," he says, though. "We pay more here in the US for a set of shoes than in the UK." The steel prices, like everything else, are being driven in part by the energy costs in making and shipping steel.

But there's also another factor in the cost increase. Johnny Glick, of Amsterdam Farrier Supply in New Holland, says that a lot of steel is going to overseas markets, like China and India. "We buy from all over the world," he says, and competition for steel is increasing. "Most of the increase in steel pricing is freight," he says, "but aluminum shoes took a pretty good jump, too."

How Did Owning Horses Get So Complicated?

The economics of Pennsylvania's equine industry are increasingly dominated by global forces. In the not-so-distant past, the forces that shaped the industry were local and more accessible. But those days are gone. At its most fundamental level, the care and feeding of horses has been catapulted into the global arena, and there is no turning back.

China, once the world's largest importer of steel, is today the largest producer of steel as well as the world's largest consumer of steel. Because the Chinese government heavily subsidizes the country's steel industry, it's hard for American companies to compete in the manufacture of steel. It's difficult for the United States to challenge China's subsidies, because China is also financing our nation's debt through the purchase of billions of dollars in Treasury bonds.

In late April, the average price for a gallon of gas in the Central Atlantic region, which includes Pennsylvania, was $3.498. Compare that with prices one, two and three years ago, and it's clear that people who spend their work days driving hundreds of miles are facing mounting pressure to either change their business or raise their own prices. In April 2005, a gallon of regular gas cost less than $2.30 a gallon.

Experts warn that there is no end in sight to consumers' gas pains, and that businesses operating with small margins will have to raise their prices or reduce their services in order to survive. All of this puts enormous pressure on the horse owner who is already struggling with increased feed, hay and bedding costs. It's part of an emerging crisis that is rapidly reshaping the equine industry.

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