There’s nothing cuter than a foal, but cute is as cute does. If you’re raising horses as a business, you need to sell those adorable babies at a profit. And that isn’t easy—buyers can’t try them, and young horses have no performance records to tout.
For guidance, we turned to successful breeders from all corners of the horse world. There are no secrets to selling youngsters, these breeders say. You’ll succeed if you have the right product for your market, price it right, and get the word out.
Target Your Market
Who are the potential buyers for your youngster, and what’s important to them? Marketing strategy begins (or should) before a foal is born—in fact, before it’s conceived.
“Breeding is not for the faint of heart, and there are no guarantees,” says Camille Greer, who stands the leading hunter sire Alla’ Czar at Darkhorse Farm in Gilbert, Arizona. Nevertheless, she says, careful matching of sire and dam improves the odds that you’ll get a quality foal that will fetch top dollar. “Choose your mare as carefully as you choose the stallion to compliment her. Do not expect the stallion to be a miracle worker. You have to start with a good mare,” she cautions.
In selling a youngster, you’re really selling its potential. Thus, breeders say, you should focus on factors that predict future performance as you plan your breeding program.
Pedigree is an important selling point for Hanoverians, says Pat Limage of Bae Prid Farm in Gainesville, Virginia, who stands the Hanoverian stallion Wallstreet Kid. “The German Hanoverian Verband, or breed association, has had such strict requirements for approvals that pedigree is a fairly reliable indicator of a youngster’s temperament and potential for dressage and jumping,” Limage says.
In Germany, stallions and mares are rated based on their performance in tests and in competition, and on how their offspring have performed. The results of these ratings for stallions are published in the Stallion Yearbook, as a “breeding value.” In this country, there is no comparable rating system as yet, but the American Hanoverian Society (AHS) licenses stallions for breeding and inspects mares as three-year-olds for conformation and movement. Performance testing is required for stallions and optional for mares, and these inspections and tests are key factors in the marketability of their offspring, says Limage.
In the stock horse world, too, buyers weigh what the baby’s family has done. San Diego horsewoman Sandy Arledge, who has consistently been named leading breeder of performance horses by the Pacific Coast Quarter Horse Association, says the records of the dam and especially her other foals can be key. “It’s helpful to get points on a mare before breeding her, so you have a show record on her as well as the stallion,” she says, adding that new technologies such as embryo transfer have made it increasingly possible to both breed and show a mare.
But pedigree doesn’t count as heavily in all markets. P. Wynn Norman, whose Sportponies Unlimited is based at Willow Oak Farm in Salem, New Jersey, says bloodlines are less important to the trainers who buy her ponies. “My stock doesn’t have the most popular hunter pony bloodlines,” she notes, “but most trainers don’t care. They’re interested in what the pony can do and in its temperament.” When a youngster has a calm eye and a quiet temperament, Norman steers it toward the hunter ring. Those that are more forward and athletic are sport pony candidates—ponies that can compete with other horses, with a long stride and big jump.
“Casual breeders often focus on color and appearance, but breeders who want to sell should focus on what trainers want,” she says. “For the hunter ring, that means a good temperament, an automatic lead change, enough stride to get down the lines, and movement that’s good enough to get a piece of the hack.”
A horse’s price depends on the market, says Limage, but you need to approach pricing from a business perspective. “Figure the cost or value of the mare, prorated over her expected number of foals; the stud fee; the upkeep for the mare during her pregnancy and foaling; and a share of the general farm overhead. That gives you the base figure you need to cover your costs,” she says. “If you have a spectacular foal, you can do much better than that. If the foal is not so hot, drop the price and cut your losses.”
The breeders all caution against setting too high a price. Overpriced yearlings grow up to be overpriced three-year-olds, still hanging around your farm.
A basic rule of thumb in the Quarter Horse industry is 2-1/2 times the stud fee, Arledge says, but prices vary widely. “Mine range from ‘Would you like to have this one?’ to $10,000 for an exceptional yearling, with $3,500 to $5,000 the average,” she says. “As a horse gets older and shows more potential, you can ask for more. Once a horse is two or three and has begun to earn points at shows, his price jumps.”
Norman sells her ponies after they’ve been started under saddle, and their prices depend on what they can do. Jumping ability is important but often not the most important factor for hunter buyers, she says: “There are hunter divisions for every height, but the horse needs a good stride and a lead change for all of them. If the horse has an automatic change, you can add $5,000 to the price.”
Other factors may influence the price you decide to ask for your babies, says Camille Greer, who raises three to six foals of her own each year. Like the other breeders we spoke with, she gives consideration to factors such as the quality of the home a buyer will provide and whether the buyer will show the youngster, something that can help build the reputation of a breeder.
Get the Word Out
“The key in marketing is your reputation—that counts as much as the quality of your horses,” says top Arabian breeder Sheila Varian of Arroyo Grande, California. Varian Arabians stands six stallions and had a 2003 foal list of more than 30 babies.
Showing your horses, or selling to people who will show them, is one way to build a reputation. “You need to get the babies out where judges can see them,” says Greer. Alla’ Czar offspring have shown around the country, making him USA Equestrian National Hunter Breeding Sire of the Year in 2002 and 2003.
But once a farm’s reputation is established, many breeders say they no longer do much showing themselves. Most buyers come to Varian by word of mouth. Limage does little showing, other than Hanoverian inspections at which foals, as well as sires and dams, are presented. “The inspections usually place the top colt and filly, and that definitely helps those horses sell,” she says. Arledge no longer shows her young stock. “It’s hard on weanlings to keep them in a stall day in and day out. I believe it can compromise their future soundness,” she says.
These successful breeders still market their youngsters, however. All place occasional ads in breed publications or publications that reach their target buyers. All maintain attractive websites that showcase young stock. “My website is helpful because it allows me to get information out quickly—if I keep it up to date,” says Arledge. She also makes sure her foals are nominated in appropriate breed incentive programs and futurities, giving buyers a chance to win money down the line.
U.S. breeders are also trying new programs. For example, Limage is involved in the Mid-Atlantic Hanoverian Breeders Club, which holds a Fall Sales Fest. Rather than an auction, it’s a sort of horse fair—breeders bring sale horses of all ages to a central location, where buyers can see them and meet the breeders.
Varian sells many of her youngsters during the Summer Spectacular Weekend she holds each year at her ranch. This event features demonstrations of horsemanship, food and drink, even cowboy poetry. It gives her an opportunity to educate prospective buyers and fit the horse to the buyer. “It’s a mistake to sell to someone who can’t handle a youngster,” she says.
“Many breeders don’t take marketing seriously and neglect the basics,” Varian adds. “Do your homework and have good photos and videos ready to send out, to answer inquiries. Mow the lawn and make the place look good. Clean up the horse and present it proudly, in a clear, clean area.”
Greer concurs. “Spend the time required to make youngsters saleable. Work with them daily,” she says. “If you want to sell them, you have to participate.”
At What Age Should You Sell?
The selling age for your foal depends largely on your market.
California Quarter Horse breeder Sandy Arledge raises more than a dozen foals a year at her San Diego ranch. “My goal is to sell them by the time they’re 18 to 19 months old,” says Arledge, who has been in business since 1975 and stands the Quarter Horse stallions Goin Out In Style and Ima Smokin Zipper. “My babies go mainly to people who want to show but don’t want to pay $30,000 or more for a top, made-up show horse. They buy a weanling or yearling with potential and invest the money incrementally, in training,” she says. And with stock horse breeds, buyers don’t have to wait until a horse is broke to saddle to get him into the show ring. Besides halter classes, yearlings can enter longe-line futurities that offer substantial prize money. Paint shows have begun to run in-hand trail classes for yearlings.
The hope of getting a top show horse at a reasonable price also brings buyers to warmblood breeders like Pat Limage of Virginia. When a mare has an outstanding production record, says Limage, her foal may even sell in utero—before it’s born. But that’s an exception, and not something she encourages.
Pony breeder P. Wynn Norman faces a different situation. Norman sells most of her ponies between the ages of 3 and 5, after they’ve been started and buyers, who are mostly trainers, can get a sense of their temperament and ability. “Trainers are not buying babies,” she says flatly. “They want something they can make up quickly and will do its job safely. Few have the time to start a youngster.”
For many breeders, sale age falls somewhere in between. Arabian breeder Sheila Varian is typical; she sells a few yearlings but keeps most of her young horses to age 2 or 3, to better see their potential.