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Pricing, Buying, And Selling Saddlebreds

pricingahorseheaderPhoto by Julia Shelburne-HittiIt’s time to sell your horse or buy one, and you have the equivalent of sticker shock. If you’re selling, quoted prices sound low and if you’re buying, they sound high. The business of buying and selling horses is not easily relatable to other businesses, and it can be a steep learning curve for those new to the marketplace. The majority of Saddlebred owners buy and sell through professional trainers who act as agents in the transactions and receive commissions, somewhat like real estate, but not exactly. It’s often confusing for newbies, and frustrating even for veteran owners.

Google says the term “horse trading” has a bad reputation, “. . . due to the difficulties in evaluating the merits of a horse offered for sale.” I won’t argue with Google’s assessment. Pricing horses can be tricky, but does it have to be a bad or difficult experience? Not as long as you seek advice, do your homework, and have realistic expectations.

The Market

It is impossible to discuss pricing horses without talking about the state of the market. Owners and trainers agree that how and for what purpose we buy and sell Saddlebreds has changed in the last 50 years, but basic economics still apply.

“It’s supply and demand,” says LaFleur Stables owner Marlene LaFleur.

And according to Scott Matton, owner and trainer at Knollwood Farm, the supply isn’t there – at least not like it used to be. “The quality of horses is up, but the numbers are down,” he said.

But, while breeding and registration numbers may be lower than in decades past, Donna Pettry-Smith, of Skyline Stables, said that it hasn’t affected the top of the market much at all. 

“I have not seen a huge change in the elite horse market in the last 10 years,” she said. “Even more people are buying the high-price horses.”

Because of that she offers a caution.

“It keeps those prices up there and widens the divide,” she said.

Exact dollar amounts are always a delicate subject, but six figures multiplied by how talented the horse is, the level of training, and the ultimate criteria of being competitive at Louisville, is a good formula for elite level horses according to those training and showing today. That “divide” Donna mentioned? For a while there were only “elite” and “non-elite” horses, with a huge gap – and a steep price drop – in between.

“There was no middle market for the $10,000 to $40,000 horses,” Donna said.

However, over the past few years, the proliferation of pleasure divisions, western horses, and the burgeoning hunter classes have expanded the market to include horses of more varied talents and abilities. More places and ways to show horses translates to more horses sold. Top performance horses will always command top prices, but for those horses who are not going to make it at that level, the newer divisions offer a place to market them, and for a wider price range.

Donna and husband Kenny Smith envisioned the Monarch Series of shows and classes to continue filling that gap as well. It speaks directly to that “middle market,” giving breeders and owners more directions and levels to market and price horses. With classes for ranch horses, single-bit classes, pattern classes, and showmanship in-hand, it opens a market for horses suited to these activities and offers more opportunities to sell and buy a horse at a middle price point.

Setting a Price

In the Saddlebred show world, most owners buy and sell with the help of a professional trainer/agent. You see a horse that strikes your fancy, but it is your trainer/agent who will make or field the offer, whether you’re buying or selling. Your trainer is also your adviser when deciding where to set a price. Stories abound about owners dealing on their own, and they seldom have a happy ending. Standard commission to your trainer/agent is 10%. You’re paying for their expertise in horses and the horse business as well as for their knowledge of you, your ability and expectations.

But what factors do trainers use when evaluating the monetary worth of a horse? Real Estate agents refer to “comps” when pricing a house; look up what similar properties sold for in a given area and you have at least an idea what the marketplace is bringing. It’s a bit more difficult in the horse business, where so many horse sales are in the unreported private sale area. However, auctions, where prices are transparent, have always been a staple of the horse business, and they have recently found an even broader platform thanks to the internet and Facebook. These public auctions, both in person and online, like Robertson Equine Sales run by Jimmy and Helen Robertson, can give a better idea of viable, current prices.

“The Teater family ran sales at Tattersalls for years and we Robertsons had a sale at Rock Creek during the Kentucky State Fair,” Jimmy said.

Their 2021 Fall Sale recorded horses from youngsters to finished horses, bringing prices from $3,000 for broodmares and very young prospects, to $40,000 for a ready-to-go road horse, and $72,000 for a finished pleasure horse with a strong show ring record. The final hammer dropped on many entries falling in the mid to higher five figure marks. The more recent innovation of online auctions reveals horses priced earlier this spring at $165,000 for a finished show horse with a proven record, $30,000 to $25,000 for quality amateur horses to $25,000 for a show ready road horse. A 2-year-old on a lead line was priced at $3,000 while an older horse under saddle and wearing a double bridle had a $30,000 price tag.

Does Jimmy advise clients if he thinks a price on a horse is out of line? “Depends on who it is,” he said. “If I know the seller personally, I might tell him I don’t think his horse will go that high, and if we can see a horse is not getting the bids, we might suggest coming down.”

When it comes to price, the old adage, “They have to be wearing leather” holds true. Outside of futurities, there is not a strong in-hand division for Saddlebreds as there is in other breeds, so markets for weanlings or yearlings are negligible. Saddlebred buyers want a horse doing more than trotting on the end of a lead line because Saddlebreds are a performance breed, and breeders have to exercise patience to get that colt they raised to a marketable level, in harness or under saddle. Jayne Tillman, a breeder and exhibitor for years from her home base in Illinois, now relocated to Shelbyville, Ky., said that “patience” equals “dollars.”

“Those top-level horses will always sell and so will a really nice 2 or 3-year-old,” she said. “But the breeder also has a sizeable investment already in any 2 or 3-year-old you’re looking at in a training barn.”

With the explosive growth of the amateur business, the top horses also have to be amateur ready to garner the top prices. A solid record in the show ring also adds value to a horse’s price. If you or your trainer have seen that horse show, you already have an idea where it will be priced.

Individual stallions and breeding lines can influence price to a point. Some stallions’ names come up frequently in a given time period. If they produce colts who are athletic, trainable, and winners, the market for and price of their get can increase, but only if those horses perform up to expectations and buyers see their potential under saddle or in harness. We have all seen full brothers and sisters of World’s Champions who are never going to achieve that lofty status. Pricing still comes down to an individual’s talent, trainability, and show record.

It may also matter who trained the horse. “Particularly at a sale I want to know who raised the horse and who trained them,” Scott Matton said. “That way I know they’ve had regular worming, proper vet work and they were started right.” It’s a good rule of thumb for any purchase, and it also informs price.

Soundness, disposition, and safety are also pricing considerations along with a horse’s ability. Your two best advisors in this area are a professional trainer and a veterinarian. Most trainers recommend a vet check, paid for by the buyer, often with X-rays to spot current or potential health problems. It’s a good investment whether you’re buying for the show arena or to take home as a pleasure riding horse. Professional trainers have knowledge of many horses and can spot behavior issues an amateur might miss. Matters of soundness or behavior can definitely nix a sale or become negotiating points.

So how do you price a horse? Do your market homework. Listen to expert advice.

Define your expectations and keep them reasonable.

“It’s still possible to get a really nice horse for a reasonable price,” Scott Matton said.

And remember that there is a difference between price and value. Laurie Stollenwerk who moved from Wisconsin to the Lexington, Ky., area and shows along with daughters Olivia and Lydia, has found this to be true.  

“Some horses are investment horses, but it comes down to, can you replace a particular horse if you sell it,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t. A horse’s value to you is important.”

Pricing can be tricky, but the market is bigger than ever and becoming broader. It’s all about enjoying the sport and breed we love. There is a place, a special horse, and a price out there for everyone.

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