China and the USA trade places

The rivalry between China and the USA that is playing out in the news media – political and economic jockeying for first place – also translates into the world of horses.china-usa graphic

China and the USA have always had more horses than other nations*. They are large countries with a lot of people. During the 20th century China had many-many more horses than the USA. But this is no longer true.

China doubled its horse population from around 6.5 million during the early 1960s to almost 12 million by the late-70s (see graph below). But growth in the number of horses in China has been almost entirely reversed since. China is again home to around just 6 million horses.

A comparatively small number of horses remained in the USA after the industrial revolution and mechanisation of agriculture through the world’s 20th century wars. By the early 1960s the USA claimed fewer than two million horses. But this decline has been reversed. Large increases in horse ownership during the late-60s and most especially over the last 12 years make the USA the nation with the most horses – almost 11 million.

china-usa popn graph

While numbers of horses in China rose and fell during the later half of the 20th century, numbers have climbed dramatically in the USA, especially during the last 12 years. The USA is now the nation with the most horses. Data source:

Horse populations in the USA and China have been on opposite trajectories. Could the rise and fall of horse numbers in China be attributed to the macro-economic cycle? Early economic development made horses more affordable to more households but those horses were then replaced when wealth and investment facilitated the mechanisation of agriculture and transport.

The pursuit of equestrian recreation, sport and culture is made possible by extreme wealth because a horse can be kept although it offers no economic return. Affluent communities can explore and revel in their rich equestrian histories. New communities and cultures can form around the horse when disposable incomes are large. Does this explain growing numbers of horses in the USA?

lone ranger, old and new

The release of The Lone Ranger films, old and new, coincide with substantial increases in horse ownership in the USA during the 1960s and 2000s – revelling in equestrian histories and traditions, and reinventing horse culture.

If I am right then I predict that China’s horses will cease their decline and eventually grow in number again as its more affluent communities rediscover their equestrian traditions and culture. And the capacity of the USA to support horses should be saturated soon.

I will be investigating the relationships between economic development, affluence and nations’ horse populations in future posts.

Previously, I’ve also made comparisons between the populations of horses in countries other nations like Mongolia, Mexico and Sierra Leone. I described these as the ‘horsiest’ nations because they had so many horses, horses were dense, or most people owned horses. What are the trajectories of their horse populations?


* Horses numbers in the USA are largely FAO estimates but there were official figures for 1999, 2000 and 2005 which recorded a substantial rise in the population of horses in the USA. The official records for China are better. FAO estimates were used only for the 4-year period 1967-1970.


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