E-quine Deal

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At first glance, shopping for horses on the Internet may seem an unwise, if not unnatural act. But while it lacks the intimacy of visiting local barns and collecting referrals from trusted friends, it offers something that you won’t likely find in your own back yard—a stunning variety of selections and prices.

Just pick a horse. Need a middle-aged palomino that’s a good jumper and at least 16 hands? Or a Tennessee walking horse that’s a proven winner on the show circuit? Chances are pretty good that the right horse to fit your needs and those of your clients are only a few keystrokes away.

“At first, I was absolutely hesitant about the Internet,” says Cindy Parkhurst, who runs a small stable in Millbrook, New York. “I felt very unsure whether anyone was telling me the truth.” In several weeks of browsing through scores of horse ads, Parkhurst saw about a dozen that caught her interest. She contacted the owners, collected more information, and finally drew down the list to three finalists. After visiting them, she settled on a draft cross about 40 miles from her home. Today she relishes the outcome of her quest. “He’s a dream,” she says simply.

A few years ago, the business of buying horses on the Internet was perhaps suited only to the most adventurous equestrians. Today it is commonplace. Dazzling statistics demonstrate the public’s embrace of the online marketplace. For example, Equine.com, reputedly the biggest of the online horse markets, claims an army of more than 50,000 horses for sale at any given time.

“Last year, 20,000 horses were sold through our website,” says Aaron Bromagem, who founded Equine.com in Phoenix almost 10 years ago. “Every month, we get 2.2 million to 2.5 million visits with as many as 800,000 unique IDs.” According to Bromagem, the majority of his buyers are women ages 35 to 55.

The average asking price on Equine.com is $4,500. Prices vary around the country, in part because of differences in the overall cost of living and in part because some breeds are more popular in some places than in others. These differences can be critical to buyers.

“I bought an Arabian in western Pennsylvania,” says Helen Ross, a stable manager in Cape Cod, Mass. “I figured that even with transportation costs added in, I could save about $2,000 over what I would have had to pay to someone around here.”

Long-distance buying is becoming more common. Bob Aichele, whose Family Equine Services specializes in training horses and riders at a 12-stall barn just outside of Ithaca, N.Y., sells horses online as a sideline. He is constantly amazed by the distances people are willing to travel in search of the right horse. “Ten years ago, if you went 100 miles to get a horse, that was a long way. Now that people are using the Internet to look for horses, it is not unusual for them to go 250 miles or more.

“The Internet has leveled the playing field between us and stables that are much larger,” he says. “We sell horses to places as far away as Canada, the Midwest and the South.” Aichele notes that his website gets about 100 hits a day—far more attention than he could ever hope to receive from ads in local newspapers.

Of course, while a willingness to travel is often a good way to get a good deal, a long-distance purchase can be problem-prone. After all, it’s not an easy matter to drive hundreds of miles to see a horse you may or may not like. Often the easiest way to handle this all-important review is to send a knowledgeable surrogate.

“We recommend that people get a pre-purchase exam from a veterinarian living in the area where they want to buy their horse,” says Janet Williamsen, who owns the sale site DreamHorse.com, which is based in Loveland, Colo. If possible, it’s also a good idea to see a videotape of the horse. Some websites, such as Aichele’s (www.familyequine.com), have streaming video that you can watch on your computer.

In addition to the potential pitfall of buying a lame or otherwise unsuitable horse, online buyers sometimes fall victim to outright scams. Last year, Americans reported $200 million in online fraud losses to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. However, other than the possibility of not getting the horse you want—or not getting a horse at all—potential problems are relatively minor.

Because many sites offer text-only ads for free, sellers sometimes fail to take down ads after their horses are sold—a minor annoyance to latecomers who get interested in a horse that’s long gone. Generally, websites periodically clear out old ads.

On balance, Internet sales offer more pluses than minuses. While searching for “that perfect horse,” Jim Wilson of Springfield, Mo., quickly concluded that the Internet was a much better place to go than local newspapers or anywhere else. His experiences launched him into a new career as a broker who works with sellers to price and offer horses on the Internet.

Wilson says that while you have to be on guard for unscrupulous sales tactics, the biggest danger for buyers is “simply failing to ask the right questions.” He recommends asking about behavioral problems, vices, how the horse is around children, etc.

These are some of the points covered in a questionnaire on Wilson’s website that he asks potential sellers to fill in.

However, before you start asking questions on the Internet, you first need to find the right websites for your research. There are plenty to choose from. In addition to those already mentioned, others include Thehorsemarket.com, Horsedirect.com, Thehorsesource.com, Horseforsale.com, Equineauction.com, Buyhorsesonly.com, Virtualhoss.com, Equinesite.com, Freehorseads.com and Horsequest.com. And, often, many breed and discipline organizations also carry classified ads on their websites.

When choosing a website, there are several things to keep in mind. Although every site can be viewed everywhere, some are really regional—make sure your area is well represented. Some sites may specialize in certain types of horses. Look for a site with a good selection of what you are looking for.

After these criteria are met, the most important thing to look for is a well-organized website with an effective search engine. A good example is DreamHorse.com, which has a clean, clear layout. The site is searchable by ZIP code, state, owner, breed, bloodline, geography and so forth. Both video and photo ads are available.

Finally, a word to the wise. Beware of any “great deals” online. “Horses are always a gamble,” says Aichele, “but if you see what looks like a terrific horse for only $700, you might be better off taking your money to Atlantic City.”

SELLING HORSES ON THE INTERNET

Services like eBay have demonstrated the public’s appetite for buying an astonishing array of goods and services online. But being the seller of a live animal immediately sets you apart from the purveyors of, say, vintage motorcycles, fireplace screens and player pianos: Most of those people do not care who the buyer is but, mostly likely, you do.

“Our experience shows that this information is important to sellers,” says Equine.com’s Bromagem. “We have found that most people who part with a horse want to feel comfortable it is going to the right home.” While anyone can walk through your virtual doorway, there are ways to help prevent your horse from ending up in the wrong hands.

First, it’s a good idea to run ads only on sites that specialize in horses. Second, just as buyers should ask sellers a lot of questions, the reverse is also true. Ask buyers how they plan to use a horse and then make a judgment about whether the horse and owner-to-be are a good fit. It will save everyone a lot of trouble down the road.

While treatment of your horse is one concern, how the buyer treats you is another. One group of “customers” you must beware of are scam artists. Never mail a refund check to a “buyer” who has sent you a cashier’s check for more than the asking amount. That cashier’s check is likely to be fake.

While getting comfortable with the buyers, make sure buyers are comfortable with you. Be ready to supply references of people who have done business with you in the past.

Of course, finding the fair market value is tricky. Quarter horses might be hot in Minnesota but not in Maryland. Discovering the right price for a particular breed in a particular part of the country takes research, although some websites might be able to advise you on how best to reach your target audience.

While websites specializing in horses generally accept horses of every price, there is at least one exception. Elitehunterjumper.com carries only horses that have a price tag of $15,000 and above.

Most sites charge little or nothing to list a text ad. However, it is usually worth paying extra to post a photo, and even better to make a videotape available. Kate Lindon, who manages classified ad content for Equisearch.com, also offers this vital bit of advice: “Proofread your ads!”