A new survey confirms what many Loudoun County residents already know: This county is horse country.

According to the Virginia Equine Report, Loudoun has 15,800 horses, more than any other county in Virginia. Fauquier is second with 13,700. The Virginia Agricultural Statistics Service made the count in 2001.

County officials say this proves that Loudoun still has and should have a rural economy. Rural economy groups say studies such as this prove that open space must be preserved in the state's fastest-growing county.

The horse business is big business. In 2001, county horses were valued at $294 million, an average of $18,650 each, more than in any Virginia county. The figures are high in part because of the many Olympic, thoroughbred and other quality horses in a county that has 185,000 human residents.

The survey also found that the average annual cost of caring for a horse in Virginia was $2,969. That means Loudoun horse owners spent $46.9 million on their animals in 2001, including upkeep, labor expenses and capital improvements. Horses sold in Loudoun in 2001 were valued at $16 million.

"This study will confirm the belief that we in this office have: Horses can take up a lot of land space. They can be our acre savers," said Warren Howell, the county's agricultural marketing manager.

Although the number of horses in the county dropped from 20,000 counted in a similar study in 1995, "they are the animals that will continue to expand as the numbers of more traditional animals, like beef and dairy cows, goes down," Howell said.

Although the number of beef cattle remained steady at about 43,000, Howell said their decline is inevitable as traditional cattle farms disappear because they require about 200 acres.

But the number of horses is likely to climb, or at least hold steady, as Loudoun's reputation as a destination for fox hunts and a place to purchase high-quality steeds solidifies. "Horses can survive on the same 200 acres if they're subdivided," Howell said. "They do very well on 10, 20, 30 acres, and people can have businesses on relatively small plots like that."

Horses will help Loudoun maintain and develop its rural economy, a goal of many in the county's department of economic development.

"The horse industry is one of the strong land users in the county, and that plays into the county's zoning ordinance and use of land and trying to reduce" development in western Loudoun, said Lou Nichols, Loudoun's agricultural development officer. "Landowners who are also horse owners will likely buy that land. They play a very strong role in the Loudoun County rural economy."

Wendell Cooper, superintendent and a veterinarian with the Middleburg Agricultural Research Center, said the Loudoun horse industry "is a strong force economically.

"The Middleburg area is the hunt country area and is very strong in horses, horses bred for hunters, event horses. Then there is a fairly good industry as far as racing goes, too."

The Middleburg Agricultural and Research Center, part of Virginia Tech and located on Sullivans Mill Road, breeds about 40 mares, whose foals are subjects of nutritional studies before being auctioned each October as yearlings.

One foal sold for $30,000 last year because it is a grandson of the famous racehorse Secretariat. The center has raised more than $600,000 through 11 auctions.

"People come from everywhere in the world to Virginia" to buy or ride horses, said Darlene Jacobson, editor of the Virginia Horse Journal in Marshall. "Each horse brings at least three people with it" who stay in hotels and spend money at restaurants, she said.

Believing that the horse industry is a huge factor in the region's economy, Jacobson and others on the Virginia Horse Industry Board voted to spend $50,000 of grant money on an economic impact study to be released this spring. The horse industry receives $75,000 from the General Assembly every five years to do the Virginia Equine Report, she said.

Jacobson said she wants more local residents to discover an interest in horse events "to see what the horse industry is really doing."

In addition, Jacobson said, she hoped that trails shared by all-terrain vehicles, hikers, bicyclists and others would soon be reserved for horses only because trail riding accounts for the most horse usage in the state. Of 170,000 horses, 75,700 are used for trail and pleasure riding, according to the survey.

"We are an extremely strong industry," Jacobson said. "We contribute so much to Virginia's . . . economy."

A pregnant mare grazed through the snow this week at the Middleburg Agricultural Research Center, which has raised more than $600,000 through yearly auctions of its foals.