Thursday, May. 23, 2024

Marketing Young Horses Requires A Multi-Faceted Approach

Finding buyers for the products of their breeding program is one of the biggest challenges breeders face.

You’ve stayed up all night on foal watch, invested thousands of dollars, and now you have the end results—fuzzy foals—running around in your pastures. But what do you do now?

The market for young, unbroken horses in the United States is notoriously difficult. The vast scope of our country’s geography makes the elite auction system that’s so successful in Europe unrealistic here.

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Finding buyers for the products of their breeding program is one of the biggest challenges breeders face.

You’ve stayed up all night on foal watch, invested thousands of dollars, and now you have the end results—fuzzy foals—running around in your pastures. But what do you do now?

The market for young, unbroken horses in the United States is notoriously difficult. The vast scope of our country’s geography makes the elite auction system that’s so successful in Europe unrealistic here.

And U.S. buyers historically want horses that are ready to show. What’s a breeder to do?

The answer is to market effectively.

Here, breeding professionals such as general manager and breeding manager Natalie DeBerardinis of Hilltop Farm (Md.), Matt Davis of Crooked Willow Farms (Colo.) and noted hunter breeder Tish Quirk share their strategies for bridging the gap between breeder and buyer.

All three agree that it’s tough—but not impossible—to sell unbroken youngsters.

“Everyone has to decide their own marketing approach. Foals and anything that’s under saddle are pretty easy to sell. The gray area is the yearlings and 2-year-olds. If I haven’t sold them as foals, I figure I’ve pretty much made a commitment to keeping them at least until they’re 2 1/2 or 3 years old, at which point we evaluate their free jump and decide which ones we’re putting under saddle and which ones we send to other trainers,” Davis said.

Quirk has resigned herself to the realities of the market.

“In this country, most of the buyers want a horse who can go on and do a job,” she said. “So, if they’re buying show horses, they want to be able to show them. For me, it’s been best to keep them long enough that I can get them going and started in an ongoing program that develops the horses into what the trainers are looking for. Obviously, that takes a lot more time and money. And lots of breeders aren’t comfortable with that.”

But all three have some practical advice and knowledge on the subject of promoting young stock to potential buyers.

Price Realistically

It’s hard, when you’ve invested hours of effort, sleepless nights of foal watch and countless dollars into your foals, to put a monetary figure on their worth. But top breeders emphasize that you have to separate your emotional investment with the foal from financial reality.

“I think this is where small breeders struggle a little bit,” said DeBerardinis. “When you go to price a horse, there are three things people consider—what you have invested into it, there’s what you think it’s worth, and what it’s actually going to sell for.

“Those can be three very different figures. With our own young horses, when we make a decision to sell one, we’re going to price pretty aggressively,” DeBerardinis continued. “We’re not going to factor in how much we have invested in the horse or what I think it might have sold for last year. If that horse needs to be sold, we’re going to price it so that it’s going to sell. I think a lot of small breeders struggle with the concept of, ‘Oh, I have X amount of dollars invested in this horse, I have to get X dollars back.’ And the reality is that you’re not, sometimes.”

DeBerardinis added that if a horse needs to be sold, the breeder needs to determine what it can realistically sell for. Pricing this way is a much better strategy in many ways.

“Price for the market, not for the dream,” she added. “If you’ve priced the horse unrealistically, and it doesn’t sell for five months, then you have that much more money into it.”

Davis has identified three critical points at which he evaluates his young stock and assigns them an asking price.

“They’re born, and they’re cute and cuddly, the way all foals are. But the moment they hit the ground, they’re worth essentially the same to me no matter how much I have invested in them,” he said.

“At 3 months, we do an extensive critical evaluation of each foal that we have—of their conformation and movement—and we pretty much set the price from what we see then. They frequently go through some awkward stages between then and when they hit 21⁄2, so I don’t change the prices at all in that period. I have this educated picture in my mind of what they’re going to be, and I don’t let the market or awkward phases they go through change that.”

Then, at 21⁄2 years, Davis free jumps the youngsters to evaluate their talents and price accordingly.

“At that point, we decide if it’s one that we want to put into our program and put the money into starting them under saddle, or send them out to one of the trainers we partner with,” he added. “And we adjust the price, depending on what we see of the horse then. All of ours go under saddle at 3, and at 90 days under saddle, we evaluate them again.”

DeBerardinis has seen that the recent economic downturn has affected Hilltop’s pricing strategies and the behavior of their buyers. “I will say that prices as a whole have adjusted downward some. For some horses, two years ago they may have been priced $10,000 higher, especially the ridden horses. I would say buyers are all wanting a deal, even if they don’t have to have a deal. There have always been people on a budget, but now we’re seeing even people who aren’t on a budget say, ‘Oh, the economy is bad; it has to be a good deal for me to buy,’ ” she said.

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Make Connections

The best marketing strategy is free. Networking can be the most powerful tool a breeder can use. Get local trainers and riders familiar with and supportive of your product, and you’ll find it much easier to sell horses.

“Word of mouth is the best advertising you can have. If you have someone who buys a horse and loves it, they’ll come back to you. And they’ll tell their friends,” said Augustin Walch, who runs the large sport horse breeding farm Charlot Farms in Ontario, Canada. “We have an established clientele, but I’d say that when people have just one or two mares it’s really hard. But there’s no secret formula. In the beginning it was also hard for us.”

Davis agreed. He’s developed a wide network of trainers in multiple disciplines who help him train and show his young prospects.

“I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and if there’s one thing that’s really paid off, it’s those partnerships with good, professional trainers that have longstanding relationships with clients who can campaign horses and do right by them,” he said.

“If you have the relationships with the end user, you’re going to be successful,” Davis noted. “It’s so hard to be just a breeder because then there are so many agents and middlemen between you and the eventual owner. It doesn’t mean that you have to be a trainer, but if you have relationships in place it makes it easier.”

DeBerardinis, at Hilltop Farm, targets the dressage buyers, but she believes that word-of-mouth is an essential strategy in the hunter/jumper market.

“I think that’s a market that tends to be driven more by the trainers, so there’s a difference in marketing strategy versus your amateur dressage rider,” she said. “We have a few trainers that we know well, and if we call them and say, ‘This is one you might be interested in,’ they know and trust us that it’s probably something worth coming and looking at.”

One way to network effectively is with other breeders in your area. Make it more attractive for a potential buyer to come look at your one yearling by finding other horses of the same age group at neighboring breeders’ farms.

Organized networks of breeders, such as the Central Texas Sporthorse Breeders, the Mid-America SportHorse Association and the Mid-Atlantic Hanoverian Breeders, to name just a very few, can present a united front, including a website with sales listings and information that will drive buyers to you.

“Some breeders are doing a very good job of networking together. I think groups like that are going to become a little more essential to marketing strategies, especially if you’re in a more out-of-the-way location,” DeBerardinis said.

Get The Word Out

Advertising has to be part of your overall marketing strategy, and in the past decade the Internet has revolutionized selling horses. Most larger breeding farms have websites with their young stock featured prominently.

“The website is critical. It doesn’t have to be a big website, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. Almost anybody can do a basic website from home; it’s not a truly daunting task,” DeBerardinis said.

She noted that most of her queries come through the website now, but she understands that just because you build a website doesn’t mean that people will simply find it in cyberspace.

“We do a lot of print advertising for the stallions that in turn drives traffic to our website,” she said. “We also advertise on other websites, such as popular horses-for-sale sites. We want to get people to see the horses. You need to make sure traffic is getting to your website—it’s not good enough just to have a website.”

On your website you can give potential buyers a good idea of what they might see if they come to look at your young horses.

“Online video has pretty much totally replaced sending DVDs,” DeBerardinis continued. “We have videos of the horses up-loaded on YouTube, and we have them embedded in our website. I think it’s nice for buyers because it gives them instant information about whether a certain horse is one they even want to call and ask about. It saves sellers and buyers a lot of time. It makes the queries that come in legitimate queries; they really are interested in the horses.”

And while digital advertising is growing by leaps and bounds, don’t forget that an advertisement in a print publication is a tried-and-true method of promotion.

“The Chronicle stallion issue, to me, has always been the Bible of quality stallions that are available right now. If you’re a breeder, and you don’t have enough confidence and faith in your breeding program to spend the money to advertise, that says a lot. And if you’re only going to do one ad, do it in the Chronicle,” said Quirk.

DeBerardinis recommended using print advertising to promote your overall program and your stallions, and keep your sales list on your website since you can change and update that more frequently. A catchy, informative ad about your program in general in print can drive a lot of traffic to your website.

Make Sure They Look Good

If you’re going to spend the money to advertise your young horses online and in print, make sure they look their best. It’s a simple and basic concept, but it’s one that can make or break your ad.

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You can make the best conformed youngster look awkward with a bad posing job. But a well thought-out photo session, paying attention to all of the details, can make your horse look his best.

“No one has ever sold a baby off a picture of it grazing in a field,” DeBerardinis said. “You don’t have to hire a professional and spend oodles of money, but you have to realize it might take more than one day. There are times even here when we look at the video footage and say, ‘Well, it wasn’t a great day; let’s re-film.’

“You have to be able to put that time in to get the good material,” she added. “You’re better off not marketing that horse for a while than marketing him with bad material.

As the young horses grow and change, you need to update them. It’s really hard to sell a 2-year-old off their weanling photos. The easier you make it for a buyer, so that they don’t have to look through fuzzy and muddy, the easier it is to sell your horse. Little things—like pulling a mane and standing a baby up correctly—go a long way.”

If a buyer is looking at an unbroken young horse, they’re going to want some frame of reference for the horse’s potential. The best way to promote your weanling is with proof that its family tree has produced quality.

“I’ve sold weanlings based on their quality and bloodlines, but they’ve been the product of many generations of creating a legacy of horses that people want. That legacy is the marketing tool in and of itself,” said Quirk.

“The most important thing is to have a legacy,” she continued. “New breeders and new young horse owners need to seek out the proven bloodlines, the proven programs, the proven riders and trainers that have the ability to work with the youngsters. That’s how they produce the product that will market itself.”

If you’re a breeder, make a concerted effort to keep track of the performance records of the offspring you’ve produced.

“You need to be able to say, ‘This mare has had three foals, and this is what they’ve gone on to do.’ If you’re selling young horses, that’s all buyers have. If it’s not yet started under saddle, their best indicator is what its closest relatives have done,” DeBerardinis said.

Use The Available Young Horse Programs

Just about every discipline now has an established program for showing young horses.

In the hunters, the International Hunter Futurity has thriving regional and national competitions, as does the International Jumper Futurity for the jumpers. The U.S. Dressage Federation Young Horse competitions have grown by leaps and bounds, and the U.S. Eventing Association hosts the Future Event Horse and Young Event Horse qualifiers and finals. These performance classes add to the established in-hand showing programs in the hunter breeding and dressage worlds.

“I think all the young horse programs that are available are useful,” Quirk said. “All of mine, regardless of what they look like as yearlings, are nominated to the IHF and the IJF and the USHJA Hunter Development Incentive Fund. I can’t be positive that the weanling that looked like the perfect hunter baby won’t decide it wants to be a jumper, so I cover all the bases. All of the programs have a venue in which you can develop and promote the horses.”

Davis uses the IHF and IJF in addition to the hunter breeding divisions to promote his young stock.

“I really am passionate about those programs. I enjoy the hunter breeding divisions, and I think that getting them out and exposed to the show environment is important,” he said.

“It’s good to get them out in front of trainers,” he added. “It gives them a lot of exposure, whether a trainer buys them then or not. More often than not, I’ll have trainers come up to me and say they remember a certain one showing at a certain show and can they come look at them.”

DeBerardinis said that Hilltop’s approach to in-hand breed shows in the dressage world focuses more on promoting the stallions through their offspring.

“I think that a lot of times the people you see at breed shows are other breeders. The buyers aren’t at the show looking. I think they should—it’s a great place to see a lot of young horses—but that’s not how it is now,” she noted.

DeBerardinis added that saying a youngster has shown in-hand—it travels well, handles a show atmosphere, clips, bathes and trailers—is a bonus. “But do I think that placings or scores at an in-hand show are going to sell a horse? No,” she said.

It’s also helpful to keep an eye on what relatives of your young horses have done in these young horse programs, even if they’re not from your breeding program. If someone else’s 4-year-old by the same stallion as your weanling wins something significant, use that as a draw for your horse.

Whether at shows, in young horse programs, online or in print, your young horses have to be easily accessible to potential buyers.

“American buyers say, ‘Oh, we have to go to Europe to find the proven bloodlines.’ Well, they’re here—we just have to take advantage of it,” Quirk said.

Like This Article?

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing to The Chronicle Of The Horse. “Marketing Young Horses Requires A Multi-Faceted Approach” ran in the Dec. 4 Stallion Issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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