Written by: Liz Brown
While finding buyers for your horses can involve a certain degree of both timing and luck, you can increase your chances of a sale by following some basic strategies.
When I began asking equine professionals to share their tips on how they are selling horses in a challenging market, responses ranged from “that’s the million-dollar question” to “it’s all about the price” to ‘I wish I knew the answer!” But it seems that no matter what the economic climate, some trainers and breeders still manage to make a viable living in the horse trade.
“There are always people out there who can afford to buy horses,” says grand prix show jumper Hugh Graham, head trainer at KingRidge Stables in King City, ON. Graham has been selling horses for 40 years and in that time he says the fundamentals of the business haven’t changed much. “Now I’ve ruined your article,” he says, laughing.
But while honesty, fair pricing, and good quality may still be the pillars of successful sales, those hoping to move their horses must stand out and grab the attention of the people who are buying. Here, some of the most successful share ways to close the deal.
It used to be there were only a few breeders in Canada who were importing and breeding quality warmbloods and sport horses. However, Windswept Farm manager Elke Mulholland says the number of good-quality horses available for purchase has significantly increased. “A lot more people are breeding horses, and the horses have been getting better. Everybody is looking to breed really good horses,” she says.
“You have to realize that certain horses are more commercial than others and most of the time we’re selling horses not to some big pro. We’re selling them to an amateur and it’s that amateur who needs to get around and be safe and have a good time,” adds Graham.
As a result of these demands and the increase in quality of horses, buyers have become more discriminating. “More people know about breeding and the stallions thanks to the internet,” says Mulholland. “They are more educated and have higher expectations for lower prices. Everybody wants a beautiful horse that moves really well with a perfect temperament. Everyone wants the perfect package, and I don’t blame them.” To meet these demands, breeders have to be more selective about the foals they are putting on the ground. “Today, it makes more sense to only breed the exceptional ones, rather than raising too many and getting below-average prices for some, because they all cost you the same to feed.”
As a farm manager with more than 50 Hanoverians in her care, Mulholland says that often the marketing of horses can fall by the wayside. “You get so caught up in the day-to-day things at the farm,” she says. One workaround she has found useful for marketing her horses is to make an arrangement to keep a horse at the trainer’s barn, gaining the necessary training and show miles it needs to be saleable. When the horse sells, the trainer takes his or her training and boarding fees out of the end sale price. “It just relieves us of some of the costs and they usually sell that way,” she says.
These cooperative arrangements are more common now than a trainer taking a large commission from a sale. “I think the days of trainers adding on great big commissions are over,” says Bobbie Reber, a hunter and equitation judge and coach in Langley, B.C.
Another trend that Reber has noticed among buyers – especially those of very high-end horses – is that they are looking for a return on their investment. “When I first started doing this in the 1970s, the buyers never said to me “what will I get for a return on my money?” Now, with the best horses being so expensive, I have to try to protect my client’s investment.” Highlighting a horse’s future potential for breeding or resale may attract interest from buyers who are looking for a return on their investment.
Reber says she’s also noticed that leasing is much more common in today’s market – another way for the seller to defray care costs and keep their horses within sight of potential buyers. Lease arrangements can be structured with an option to buy after so many months. This arrangement can be particularly good for horses that have X-rays that make buyers balk, but have good show and soundness records.
“Another thing a lot of people are doing now is pre-vetting,” says Reber, “because sometimes a buyer looks at 20 horses, finally narrowing it down to one or two – and they fail the vet. They get some x-rays and video of the flexion test done and send it to their vet before buying the plane ticket.” In Europe, it is common for the seller to have the X-rays ready for potential buyers.
Sellers should try to ensure client satisfaction in order to build a relationship with buyers, as a satisfied buyer can become a repeat buyer. One of Mulholland’s biggest customers is an individual from California who has been buying horses from her since 2008 because of the success he’s achieved with them. And Graham says he’s even taken horses back if they aren’t working out for the new owner, because reputation is as important as buyer satisfaction.
The virtual world
The internet has made it easier for buyers and sellers to connect, but it’s been a mixed blessing, according to all of the professionals I spoke to. “It certainly beats going to the post office and mailing a buyer a video,” jokes Mulholland, who posts photos and videos of sale horses to her website (windsweptfarm.com). But the downside is that she can receive inquiries from people who have also sent inquiries to dozens of others of sellers. “You can spend a lot of time responding to emails and taking photos and then not hear anything back, so sometimes it’s a little frustrating.”
Reber believes the interconnectivity of the internet can pose a problem for someone trying to market a horse, because, Kids get on Facebook and say things, such as they saw a horse have a bad day at a show – and all horses have bad days – and then the horse gets an undeserved reputation,’ she says.
Regardless of the drawbacks, the internet is an important marketing tool and if you are in the business of selling horses, it’s essential to have a website. Janice Byer, owner of Equine Web Design (equinewebdesign.ca) says that horse people are generally visual people, so it’s important to have compelling visuals on a site or online ad. Head, body and conformation shots should all be included along with video; if funds permit, a professional should be hired to take the footage.
One recommendation Byer makes that seems to go against the grain of traditional horse selling is to include the price of the horse on the site or in the ad. “Some may feel that by leaving the information out so that the visitor has to contact them, they will have a chance to make a sale. However, if they include everything there is to know about the horse and how much it is selling for, they can avoid calls and emails from people who may feel the horse (or the price) is not right for them. It will save you unnecessary time responding to people if you have it all up front for them to see,” she says.
Those looking to make their business in selling horses should hire a professional web designer, who will ensure the site is SEO (Search Engine Optimization) friendly. These are strategies designers use to dramatically increase the visibility of a website to search engines such as Google and Bing. “Generally, people will only click through from search engine links on the first three pages,” says Byer.
While a website should be used to promote and advertise sale horses, sellers need to use a different strategy for social media. Tools like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can be useful for drawing attention to a sale horse, but the seller needs to be sharing other useful information, too. “It is highly recommended you share and post more than just your horses or items that you have for sale. If all you do is post things for sale, you will tick off your friends and followers and they may go elsewhere or “unfriend” you. Share helpful posts you have seen from others, include helpful tips, etc. Make your social media presence a community for your friends and colleagues,” says Byer.
She recommends that the website also offer more than just information about the farm and horses for sale. “I would recommend posting free valuable information. If you have a blog you can do regular updates in posts regarding what is happening around your farm. You can also share resources that help others in one form or another,” she says.
A dose of reality
While some of the ways selling horses and reaching buyers have changed, Graham is still adamant that some basic points still hold true. “We may be more sophisticated with websites and it’s great to see a horse on YouTube before you go try him, but I’ve sold 400 or 500 horses over 40 years and it comes down to having a buyer and having the right price.”
“The big thing is to be realistic on the price. A common problem is that people think their horses are better than they are and consequently they increase the price. Know your market and know the prices. You have to take the emotion out of it. If you’re emotional, you shouldn’t be selling horses.”