Goin' Shoppin'

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You’re a trainer and your profession is just horse training, right? Not really. In order to train horses and make a living doing it, you have to ensure that your clients, who pay you for your excellent services, have the right mount. An equestrian industry dominated by clients who haphazardly and impulsively bought their own horses would be everyone’s worst nightmare, and realizing that, the professional’s job description has evolved to include horse sales. We talked to four busy and respected professionals whose advice can help you develop and adhere to wise sales policies.

Keep it Clear

Todd Sommers of Whitesboro, Tex., holds two NRHA Open Futurity Championships, an NRHA Open Futurity Reserve Championship and multiple NRHA aged event Championships. He’s won big in the NSBA and has 20 National and World Championships in the AQHA, APHA, ApHC, and PHBA. He also scouts futurity horses for his clients, checking out 200 two-year-olds a year. As you might expect, he knows a thing or three about buying top horses.

“First, I call around and try to find the best ones. Usually I go look myself, or I may take clients with me,” he says. “If I go alone, I’ll videotape the horse and show it to the client. At the big sales with top-quality horses, I read the catalogue and the produce records. But a good horse is a good horse, no matter how it’s bred.” If he’s evaluating a yearling, he’s more easily motivated to go look at a horse if the prospect is well bred.

The pay for his services??“Everything is pretty standard when a horse sells. The trainer—that’s me—gets 10 percent, but if I’m buying a horse for my customer from another trainer, we split the commission.” If Sommers’ client finds a horse, he’ll decide if it’s appropriate for him and his customer. “I’m the one who has to make it work. If they’ve found it and I put my name on the line, it’s a standard commission.” He’s flexible, though. If Sommers chooses a horse that’s a great fit but beyond budget, he might charge five percent instead of 10, considering the future payoff. “Take care of that customer, and keep him or her for a long time,” he says.

It’s a sensible approach shared by other savvy trainers. Larry Joseph Hoffman and his wife, Jody, focus on Arabians and Half-Arabians in Hastings, Minn. When shopping for one of their 25 clients, Hoffman first identifies the discipline to be shown: Western, English, hunter, Half-Arabian or purebred—then specifies a budget and a program. “Will it show immediately with the client, or will I compete it in the Open, or will the client invest a year of sweat-equity in training before showing?” he asks.

Then he calls contacts—he can’t remember when he bought a horse from an advertisement. And about those videotapes? “Clients probably see only 10 percent of what we receive; the others are weeded out,” he says.

Larry sits on the USEF Arabian Committee and says that the Arabian industry is different than, for example, hunter/jumper: the seller pays the commission, the buyer nothing, as in real estate. It’s normally a minimum of five percent, usually 10. Buy from another trainer and the commissions could be split. The buyer pays any of Hoffman’s travel expenses. “Nine times out of ten, I go by myself. A lot of our clients are busy people, and they’ve been with us for years. We know what they want,” he says. Finally, his number one rule: “If my wife and I don’t totally agree, we don’t buy, no matter what. We’ve learned.”

No Double-Dipping

Tammy Hildreth of La Cresta, Calif., is highly fluent in Friesian. She’s a director of the International Friesian Horse Show Association and chairperson of USEF’s Friesian Committee, and has won most every major category award within the breed. She conducts her training business by the credo, “You need to show by example.” She sells horses, but says she’s “not a broker.”

If someone outside her Friesian Quest operation (www.FriesianQuest.com) wants to shop non-Friesian Quest horses, she’ll charge $100 to $150 a day plus expenses to watch another trainer ride; $300 plus expenses “if I’m taking the bumps and grinds myself.” For a horse returning to train with her, no day fees are charged.

Typically when buying horses, Hildreth and a regular client will view the paperwork and videotape “to evaluate the horse’s potential and clearly discuss expectations—especially if it’s a horse that may not meet the expectation and/or the need of the buyer.” She doesn’t charge for this service, but “if I have to go through the trouble to find an animal in the U.S. or abroad, and it’s a lot of work to find the right mount or brood stock,” her standard commission is 10 percent.

“I’ve seen ‘double dipping’ and sometimes more commissions (paid on both sides), and that’s just great until people start talking about you! This is a very small community,” she warns. Another Californian, hunter judge and trainer Dale Pederson of Valley Center, is very clear to everyone involved about the 10 percent commission he receives.

“When a trainer looks at a horse for sale here, I ask him or her, ‘Do I have to include you in the price, am I going to pay a commission out of that price, or will you receive a commission from the client?’ Ninety percent of the time, the good professionals have produced a rate sheet that states the commission when they find a horse for the client.” Pederson often patiently but firmly explains to parents and first-time buyers that the commission is for “the trainer selecting, trying, evaluating the horse and arranging the pre-purchase exam. It’s for choosing the best horse that the client can buy with the money they have to spend. I, as the trainer, have to live with the horse, and when it gets back to the barn, the client knows ‘this is the horse you picked out for me.’ They’ll also be in a position to ask, ‘Why isn’t it going the way it was when we bought it?’

“It’s important to let your clients know what the commission is for,” Pederson affirms, “even though you might find the horse on a first visit, while it may take five outings for another client.” The rate sheet is a superb tool, as is having all policies in writing, especially when “layers” start to accrue among trainers during conversations, and perceived agreements are only verbal. “That’s when expected commissions can become a problem,” counsels Pederson.

In fact, horse sales are probably the most potentially controversial area of your business. No matter your discipline, say our experts, keeping dealings up front and clear to all parties is the best way to alleviate headaches while consistently growing your business.