The reality of life with horses is that, while it would be lovely to have every horse that comes into your life be The One, selling horses from time to time is an inevitability—certainly for those who do this for a living and for many who don’t as well. Maybe the horse is not going to be what you need them to be, or maybe you’ve taken him as far as you can go together, and the horse is ready for his next person, or maybe it’s just not a good marriage.
Whatever the reason, your first step is to determine a price tag. How do you determine what a horse should cost?
Name Your Price
First and foremost, a horse is only worth what someone will pay for it. If your horse is wildly commercial, the type of horse that would suit a large chunk of the horse-buying population, it’ll probably be worth some money. If it’s weird, unsafe or has health issues, it’ll be worth less than something that looks and goes just like it but isn’t weird, unsafe or with health issues. And a horse that could be worth a lot to one person isn’t necessarily going to be worth that to everyone. I usually invest in tall horses for myself, as I’m quite tall, but my 17.3-hand behemoths—even made wonderful and fun and educated—would not be worth it to someone who is 5 feet and 100 pounds soaking wet. In the same way, the Valegro of Ponies is worth nothing to me.
Next, there are two things you pay for when you’re paying for a horse: potential and/or proof. Young, big moving, sexy things are very expensive, particularly if they’re pleasant and have good X-rays, because that’s what every professional and skilled kid or amateur in the world wants: all the raw material for excellence. Not-too-old, safe, uncomplicated and educated horses also are very expensive, particularly if they have an uninteresting veterinary history, because that’s what every learning-focused kid or amateur in the world wants: a known quantity, both in terms of training and competition record, with veterinary records to show the horse got to that level without struggling physically.
Anything else is a trickier venture. There’s an age line between potential being sufficient and a horse being expected to show proof of that potential, usually somewhere in the 6- to 9-year-old range. Occasionally those horses are priced less than their younger counterparts because they’re off of some imaginary “schedule,” the one where they all must have a change at age 6 and a pirouette at 7 and half steps by 8. That “schedule” is one of many paths, and being “behind schedule” is actually a ludicrous concept, but it can work to a buyer’s advantage.
Adding Value, Proving Concept
So let’s get to the good part: how to add value to a horse. Let us say that you are in possession of something green, not too old and not too scandalously priced. If you’re a confident, skilled trainer of horses (either professionally or not), congrats! You now get to go do your thing: install skills, install manners, install a show record (or at least an education record; in dressage-land, at least, we can make our way up the levels without as lengthy a show record).
You’ll pay for the things that all horse owners pay for: shoes and shots and Coggins tests, tack and supplements and show entries. You’ll probably need some coaching along the way, which you’ll pay for, and you may even need to get a few innings of relief pitching from the fresh arm of your coach if you run into trouble, but hopefully you can do the lion’s share of the educating yourself.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you’re not. Let’s say you’re learning along with your green horse. While there’s a trope that green on green equals black and blue—and that certainly can be the case—this isn’t necessarily a disaster, especially if you’re getting good help along the way.
And here’s the reality: Unless you are fantastically self-sufficient and need very little training help, you’re going to pay for the path up the levels in one way or another. If you buy a trained horse your path certainly has the potential to be easier, but it’s likely to be a big cost up front. If you bring one up the levels yourself it may cost less up front, but you will need to pay for professional guidance along the way. I’m not saying one path is better than the other. Just know that the young horse route isn’t guaranteed to be less costly; in fact, I’d hazard that for many, it ends up costing more over time.
Cost Vs. Price
So the value of the animal, the price tag you decide on, isn’t necessarily going to represent the amount of money you’ve put in. And that’s a tough pill to swallow, because not everyone is skilled enough to add value to an animal, nor can value be easily added to every animal.
It is unrealistic to factor the cost of board into the price of your horse. I once had someone reach out to me about a horse they’d bought for $20,000 as a young horse and then done virtually nothing with it educationally for five years. It had gone to some schooling shows at training level, a few unrecognized puddle-jumper type horse trials, but it did not know more than some first-ish level work, and it was 10 or 11. She told me that she’d added up the amount of board she’d paid on it to conclude that he should sell for $60,000. Good luck to you, ma’am.
Yes, those board costs are big or at least a big percentage of the horse budget for many people. But you’ll be spending the money on board, regardless of whether you have a sale horse or a horse to ride just for joy, so abandon that notion outright.
There’s also the training and representation cost. For many people, the idea of representing their own horse for sale is a bear. It’s a lot of work, and frankly, as a professional, I am very, very wary of going to see a horse represented by its amateur owner out of that owner’s private backyard stable or a boarding stable. I may catch heat for saying this, but I feel that the amateur owner, operating alone, is much less likely to be steely-eyed in their assessment of their horse. While barn blindness affects professionals, too, it’s a much more common phenomenon with folks who don’t do this for a living.
But at $2,000, $3,000 or more a month for full training board, plus a 10% commission upon completion of a successful sale, you’re not guaranteed that money back in the form of an increased sale price. It’s important that the horse be in excellent condition before arriving at the trainer’s to sell—no veterinary issues, no major training holes that will take time to address—so the owner can maximize that time with the trainer or the sales barn, rather than spending weeks (or months!) getting a horse ready to be presented.
It’s hard. It’s really hard. I do this for a living and it’s hard, so I can’t imagine what it’s like, for someone who doesn’t, to be facing those costs.
Value Vs. Price
To keep myself from going insane, I focus on this: The value I get out of a horse isn’t just about a dollar amount at the end.
Maybe a horse I put years of time and energy into won’t be worth, in dollars, much more than his purchase price. Maybe he’ll be tricky. Maybe he’ll get hurt. But hopefully along the way, I’ll have been able to show and make some waves, even if the horse doesn’t go all the way up to the Big Hairy Levels. And while my dreams are Big and Hairy, there are plenty of achievements to be had along that road, both in the ring and in training at home. What fun it is to go to the regional championships or the U.S. Dressage Finals, at any level! What joy it is to learn how to install flying changes, even if it’s on a horse that isn’t going to the Olympics, because you’ll use those skills when your next horse comes along!
The value of learning cannot be overstated: I have many, many students who’ve started with “budget” prospects and learned skills with that horse that they later take to their first prospect of quality, and they’re grateful for the opportunity to have made the inevitable mistakes one makes when one is bringing their first (or second, or fifth!) horse up the levels on something that wasn’t their entire budget.
And so when it comes to pricing and sales, I come back to this: My goal is sell each horse for enough money to go buy the next one. If it’s the next two, that’s gravy. And if it’s the next two AND a new truck, then all the better.
But “need”—as in “I need to get X dollars out of this horse”—is a recipe for heartbreak, because there are going to be horses that don’t work out. While I cannot stress enough how much better and wiser it is to take good veterinary care along the way, rather than cut costs there and up with a Big Hairy Veterinary Problem that can’t be fixed down the road, there is no amount of money, knowledge or skill that trumps bad luck. They can step in holes. They can colic, even if they live a wonderfully holistic life. They can fail to meet expectations, fail to increase in value at the same rate as the time and energy and money you put in, fail to be what your wallet needs. It’s a hard business, that of trying to be both good and profitable at the same time. And so I wish upon every shooting star that I see for the Good Luck Gods to smile upon me, so I can keep going.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own string of young horses with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.