Chester County, with its rolling hills, verdant meadows and lush pastures, is an equine Eden.

It is home to more than 15,500 horses, and at least as many people who love horses, ride horses, show horses, breed horses, race horses, hunt with horses, buy and sell horses, worship horses.

It includes the fabled Devon Horse Show grounds and the pristine horse country where conservation-minded landowners with deep pockets and hefty trust funds have protected their pastoral paradise from the twin serpents of progress and residential development.

But the ill economic winds that have buffeted Wall Street and Main Street have not spared the horsey set.

"A lot of people are struggling to keep their heads above water," says Melvin Dutton, 70, a horse trainer who runs Breaking Pointe Stables in Atglen. "I see a lot of people who are worried about whether they can afford to keep their horses."

Not everyone is feeling the pain, of course. Fitzgerald was right about the rich - they are different, mainly because, as Hemingway noted, they have more money.

"My wealthy clients are still buying horses and still having their lessons every week," says Sally Lofting, 33, a trainer who specializes in eventing and dressage. "They're not holding back as far as spending money."

Though the term horsey set evokes images of florid-faced, dividend-cashing Social Register types riding to the hounds in their hunting pinks, Chester County's equestrian class also includes plenty of folks of lesser means who are no less passionate. For them, the bills are mounting.

Owning a horse can cost from $300 to $1,000 and more a month. During the last year, the price of feed, hay and straw has climbed sharply. In addition to the cost of board at a barn or stable, there are fees for veterinary care and regular visits from the blacksmith and dentist. Lessons, training, and traveling to shows can add thousands.

Dutton hasn't seen any decline in the number of people coming to him for lessons, but fewer people are bringing new horses to him to break.

"I know of some little stables that are closing up," Dutton says, "and I've had calls from people who want to give their horses away because they can't afford to keep them over the wintertime."

Attendance at major horse shows such as the Vermont Summer Festival was robust and organizers expect a healthy turnout for the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida, but Dutton has seen evidence of the reeling economy on the local show circuit.

"The shows I judge normally have as many as 100 horses and usually go to 5 p.m," Dutton says. "Lately, I've been to a couple of shows where there were only 20 to 25 horses and they were over by 11 or 12 in the morning."

A major reason: The cost of transportation.

"People have these big rigs and vans, and it's costing them a fortune for diesel."

So some are being more strategic about which shows they compete in, Dutton says, or skipping the show circuit altogether.

The wallet-thinning effect of the recession has been felt most acutely, not surprisingly, by middle-class folks. Typically, both parents work, and the rider in the family (usually a girl) enters the sport through a pony club, says Lofting. They'll buy a horse for $10,000 or less, take lessons once every week or two, and try to keep the horse in field board or at a cheaper facility to reduce expenses.

"The working-class people I'm involved with have definitely started watching their pennies," Lofting says. "They're not taking as many lessons, and people who maybe 12 months ago might have been looking for a new horse are hanging on to their money."

Janice Dugan trains and sells horses with her husband, Vince, at Vince Dugan Stables in Unionville.

"I've been doing this for 23 years," says Dugan, who is 53, "and my husband, who is 75, has been doing it for 60. As far as sales go, this is about as bad as it's ever been. I heard from a fellow trainer in Middleburg, Va., who can't even get people to come look at a horse."

The high-end market - horses that sell for $100,000 and up - has been largely unscathed, Dugan says.

"In our price range - horses selling from $5,000 to $50,000 - things have just shut down," Dugan says. "A horse is a luxury item, and the majority of show horses are sold to teenage girls and middle-age women. If you're thinking about buying your teenage daughter a horse, you're probably thinking you can wait till next year."

Because sales are slumping, those brave enough to buy can find bargains. A friend of Dugan's recently bought two unbroken 2-year-old paints at auction in New Holland, Lancaster County, for $300 each. Some breeders are giving away horses because they're too expensive to keep.

"A breeder in Maryland has given us three horses in the past year," says H.L. Schwartz 3d, who with his wife, Sara Cavanagh, publishes the Horse of Delaware Valley, a 20,000-circulation monthly that Schwartz says is the largest regional publication east of the Mississippi devoted to horses. "We have another friend who had six yearlings. He said if he couldn't place them, he was going to put them down."

Chester County folk who breed thoroughbreds for the racetrack report that the big horse sales this fall in Lexington, Ky., and Timonium, Md., were a bust.

"The business has taken a nosedive," says Jonathan Sheppard, 67, of Unionville, a Hall of Fame steeplechase trainer who also owns and breeds racehorses. "The majority of breeders are taking a good beating in the sales ring.

"I'm feeling the pinch a bit myself. I have no private wealth, so my livelihood is dependent on the money I make in the horse business. I'm having a harder and harder time making ends meet. At one time, I was making a profit. Then I was breaking even. Now I'm losing money."

Though the thoroughbred business may be sagging, for the foxhunting crowd it appears to be pleasure as usual. The woes of Wall Street have yet to deter the 150 or so members of Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Fox Hounds from enjoying the thrill of the chase over Unionville's hill and dale, says Russell B. Jones Jr., 73, master of fox hounds and a professional horse breeder and bloodstock agent.

In fact, the oversupply of racehorses has proved a benefit. In the last year, the hunt has been given four or five racehorses that, as Jones puts it, "have lost their fastball, can no longer perform on the track, and may find riding with a pack of hounds more appealing."

Moses Cornwell, 76, who has been foxhunting since he was a boy, still follows local hunts such as Cheshire and Radnor by car.

"The last time I was out following the foxhunt, it seemed there were about the same number of people enjoying the sport and the same quality of horses and clothing," says Cornwell.

"People who go fox hunting tend to be pretty well off and to have their funds nailed down. If they're being affected by the economy these days, they're being pretty circumspect about it and certainly not bitching about it."

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 610-696-3249 or acarey@phillynews.com.