International horse fair bucks financial crisis in Germany
Equitana Essen is considered one of the world's leading fairs for all things horse-related, from high-tech tack to nutritious snacks all the way to the beasts themselves.Essen -- Julia hands over six 50-euro notes as nonchalantly as if paying for a packet of chewing gum. "Billy will be so happy," she smiles as she slips the horse toupee into her Gucci handbag.
Julia is one of 200,000 horse-lovers that visited the 20th Equestrian World Sports Fair Equitana last week in the western German city of Essen, where business is still galloping ahead despite the economy going underfoot.
A hairpiece for her prized horse Billy is Julia's latest acquisition. "His mane is getting a little thin," she says.
"I saw a riding blanket with an integrated thermostat which I quite like too, and I can always be tempted into buying a new saddle," she adds.
Equitana Essen takes place every two years and is considered one of the world's leading fairs for all things horse-related, from high-tech tack to nutritious snacks all the way to the beasts themselves.
More than 1,000 horses and 40 different breeds are presented in 17 huge, bustling halls, covering more than 100,000 square metres (1.1 million square feet).
For Cynthia Luck, a saleswoman for Alexandra Ledermann -- a luxury brand of woman's riding wear that shares its name with the 1996 French Olympic medallist for show jumping -- the financial crisis is miles away.
"We are a new company that started up last year just as the markets were starting to crash, and we have not noticed a thing," she says.
"Of course the financial crisis is a problem, but one look at all the people here with their shopping bags makes you think the financial crisis may actually just be a dream," Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod from India tells AFP.
He is the director of the Indigenous Horse Society of India (IHSI), a government registered organisation with over a thousand members worldwide dedicated to promoting and preserving breeds of horse indigenous to India.
"We're here to promote our society -- especially India's horse tourism -- but also to learn about European breeds," he says. "We went to a similar horse fair in Kentucky in 2003 but the number of pure-breed horses here is exceptional."
Dundlod and his employees annually organise weeklong horse-treks for tourists. He admits the financial crisis has had an impact on business, but adds that his relatively wealthy clientele are still keen to saddle up.
Other exhibitors agree. For Denis Hodgins, director of Britain-based European Technology for Businesses (ETB), Equitana is a springboard to promote computer technology for the analysis of a horse's gait characteristics.
Software and sensors cost up to 10,000 euros (13,000 dollars), but Hodgins is optimistic.
"We are experiencing an economic crisis, but this is a completely new product and demand is therefore high."
It is not the first time that the equestrian industry has weathered a financial storm. In the depths of the 1930s Depression, America became obsessed with the racehorse Seabiscuit.
Once derided as weak and puny, Seabiscuit took the international racing world by storm, winning virtually everything in the world of racing and helping people to forget -- for a while -- worries about where their next meal would come from.
According to the Federal Association of the German Sports Goods Industry (BSI), sales in traditional equestrian sports countries have indeed remained stable since the markets crashed last year.
"We sell custom-made saddles for around 3,600 euros (4,700 dollars)," Helmut Alt from the company Cobra told AFP, "and our sales have been going as strong as ever."
But Alt, who has had a booth at Equitana for the past 19 years, also says there appears to be slightly fewer visitors this year than two years ago.
"I can only speak for myself, but I do get the impression that there are less people and that they do think twice about spending."
Despite the optimism of traders and exhibitors, exhibition spokesman Mike Seidensticker has said that the number of expected participants has dropped by about 50,000 from 250,000 in 2007 and ticket prices have also had to be cut.
But bearing in mind that the German equestrian market has an estimated annual revenue of over two billion euros (2.6 billion dollars), riders, exhibitors and visitors of the Equitana 2009 refuse to dwell on economic woes.