With the recent economic slump, selling a horse isn't easy. It's a buyer's market, so you have to be smart about how you present your horse for sale. Courtney Cooper, an event rider who specializes in consigning sales horses and making matches between horses and riders, has some sage advice about how to make the selling process as pain-free and efficient as possible.
Courtney's golden rules when selling horses are realistic expectations and honesty. "Don't try to make the horse into something he's not," she says. "At the end of the day, people [buyers and sellers] don't want their time wasted. People want to be treated fairly. If you're selling a horse, treat a potential buyer as you would want to be treated if you came to look at this horse."
Which Horse Would You Buy?
Whether posing your horse for an advertisement photo or showing him to prospective buyers, he needs to look his best. The horse below does not. First, the halter's throatlatch is open, and the chain lead shank is incorrectly looped through the bottom and side rings. This not only looks sloppy, but it's a safety issue. The horse could easily get a front hoof caught in the halter if he stepped forward--at best this could scare him; at worst it could cause him to break a leg. In addition, he's filthy (his tail even has hay in it), his forelock is caught in the halter and the ratty lead lying on the ground is also a safety concern. This would be a terrible photo to use in an ad for other reasons, too: The horse is standing on a downhill slope, giving the impression he's built downhill. His casual leg placement and the fact that he's grazing do not show off his conformation and physical attributes very well at all. The busy background is distracting, and the shade makes him seem even dirtier than he is.
Below is how a horse should look in a photo or in front of potential buyers. His clean halter is fitted properly, and the workmanlike lead shank is correctly attached to the halter's lower ring. The horse's clean white coat practically glows in the sunlight. His forelock is not caught in the halter (though for a photo, his mane could be brushed all to the right side), and look at that snowy white tail! He's standing on level ground, which shows off his conformation, as does his leg placement--for a photo, this is especially critical. The horse's raised head, looking just a little to the camera, shows off his neck and kind, alert expression. The pleasing, lush green, uncluttered background makes all of the horse's positive characteristics stand out even more.
Honestly Evaluate Your Horse
The first thing you need to do is to honestly and objectively evaluate your horse, pinpointing his strengths, weaknesses, ability level and temperament. It's hard to do if that horse is your only one and you've spent years riding him and loving him. You tend to turn a blind eye to his flaws. But to know how to price and market your horse, you need to have a very clear, unbiased idea of what he is.
If you work with a trainer regularly, ask her for a frank opinion of your horse's good and bad points and how she would describe his niche. If you don't have a regular trainer, ask a professional to ride your horse and tell you what she thinks about your horse's ability and level. "She doesn't have to price your horse for you or act as an agent but just give you an objective opinion on your horse's strengths and weaknesses," Courtney says. "It's no different than selling a house. You have a realtor come in and tell you to clean up the clutter and repaint these rooms."
Being bluntly honest about your horse's capabilities and limitations will allow you to market him effectively to the buying audience he needs. It does no one any good to advertise your horse as an uber-talented, upper-level prospect if he's actually a solid citizen who's comfortable jumping around at Training level. You'll just frustrate potential buyers who come to see him with the goal of going Advanced, and the people who want and need a horse who is consistent and sane at Training level won't schedule a visit to see him.
Price Him Appropriately
Once you know what your horse is good at and where the upper limits of his ability are, it's time to put a price on him. It's important to eliminate any sentimental feelings in this process. He might be your best friend, but to a potential buyer, his worth is dictated by objective factors.
"I get unrealistic people on both sides of the coin--buyers and sellers," Courtney says. "But every horse is saleable if you price him correctly and he's sound in his brain and his body." Keep in mind that the recent economic slump has taken a toll on the horse industry as well.
"It's a buyer's market. Horses are usually valued 15 to 20 percent less than they were three or four years ago," Courtney says.
Two common traps sellers fall into are thinking their horses must be worth more than what they paid for them and that they need to price those horses at a figure high enough for them to be able to buy their next horses. You have to come up with a price that fits your particular horse and his abilities at that point in time.
Six main factors go into setting a price for your horse: age, height, intended job, temperament, performance record and soundness. There are always exceptions to the rule, but these are good general guidelines.
Age: "Age can work against you or for you, depending on what people are looking for," Courtney says. If you're marketing your horse as a "prospect," he's going to raise some eyebrows if he's over the age of 10. But an older horse can be very attractive to a buyer looking for a safe, experienced partner.
Height: It might be tempting to add a few inches to your 15.1-hand horse's vital statistics, but don't. If buyers are truly looking for a 16.1-hand horse and arrive to see your horse falling short, they're immediately going to be disappointed and wonder what else you were less than truthful about.
Intended job: What job your horse does well is also a major factor in his price and one that requires brutal honesty. "As much as you'd like to say a horse who jumps three-foot-six well is X price, a horse who jumps three-foot-six with style and is quiet and easy and lopes down on a soft rein and can go be a show hunter is worth a lot more than a three-foot-six horse who is tense over fences, isn't careful in show jumping but jumps cross-country like a lion," Courtney says. In general, horses aimed for the show ring--equitation horses, hunters and jumpers--carry a higher price tag than event horses.
Temperament: In general, the quieter and saner a horse, the higher the price. "It's a lot easier to sell something that is not so talented but is a good citizen and is going to show up to work every day, than it is for something that's world-class talent but unpredictable on the day," Courtney says.
"Usually, I divide horses into four different categories--appropriate for Juniors, Young Riders, amateurs or professionals. An amateur doesn't want any nonsense. She's lucky to ride four days a week, and she wants to be able to get on and go with a solid citizen. The Young Rider wants a talented horse and will deal with some nonsense. The Junior needs something safe that she can learn on, who's not leaping up and down. And the professional usually gets the ones who are less rideable and more talented," Courtney says.
Performance record: In the Internet age, it's easy for a potential buyer to access a horse's performance record online. "If you want more money, the horse has to have records, and if he has records, they have to be good ones," Courtney says. "Sellers say, I don't want to spend money to show the horse just to have a show record.' That's fine, but know that the downside of that is that you're going to get less money selling him. No matter how well he's trained, if he's going to be a competition horse, people as a general rule will pay more only if he has competed."
Soundness: Courtney advises to look at soundness in relation to the job for which the horse is intended. "In some horses, you can live with certain problems because they're downgrading a level or going to a different career," she says. "Maybe an upper-level eventer is going to be a show jumper and not have as strenuous work overall. You have to think about what the new career is going to be."
Two somewhat less important factors in pricing are gender and color. Everyone is looking for the ideal of a 16.1-hand bay gelding. "If you've got a small chestnut mare, she will probably be worth less than a small bay gelding," Courtney says. "It's not right or wrong, but it's a fact."
You also have to take into consideration your location--if you're in the heart of a horsy area, your horse will probably be able to carry a slightly higher price than if he were in a remote location. Look at comparable horses in your area and see what prices their sellers are asking. But take that information as a rough guideline only. "It's hard because you see what horses are advertised for, but that's not necessarily what they're selling for," Courtney says.
Get the Word Out
Once you know what job you want to promote your horse for and have set a price, it's time to advertise. Courtney advises using all avenues possible--ads on websites and in print and by word of mouth. "I'm a huge believer in advertising, because I don't know what someone has for sale unless they tell me, and ads are the easiest way to do that," Courtney says. "I think it's important to get it out wherever you think your market is. That's expensive, but again, if you write a good ad and have good photos and video, it'll pay off. You'll get the horse sold."
The first thing to do is to get good photos and video to represent your horse. "If he's a competition horse, I prefer to see competition photos and video, because that will show you that horse in the situation you're potentially buying him for," Courtney says. "And if you say your horse jumps three-foot-six, it would be best if he were jumping three-foot-six in the photos and video, not two-foot-six."
Courtney also doesn't like to see edited videos. "If I see an edited video, I wonder what happened that you didn't want me to see," she says. "He doesn't have to be perfect on the video. I want to see how the horse handles it if the rider misses and jumps up the neck. I want to see him have a rail and try harder at the next fence."
Wording your ad well is also essential. Every word has to count. Be descriptive, but don't use vague, flowery adjectives. "I think if someone says ?Able to jump a big jump,' you have to clarify how big that is. To some people, a big jump is four feet. For a show jumper, a big jump is five feet. For a novice rider, a big jump is two-foot-six. The more detail you can include, the better the ad will be," Courtney says.
"If you say, 'Can win the hack,' I want to ask, 'Has he won the hack? Has he won a hack at an A show? Or at a local show?'" she adds. And if the ad has been published for a significant length of time, refresh it periodically with new photos and updates on the horse's training and show record.
Communicate with Buyers
When answering queries from prospective buyers, ask them exactly what they're looking for. And be honest about whether you think your horse might suit their needs. You can say, 'I don't think my horse fits that bill.' Why waste the time--yours and theirs? Say, 'Maybe in the future my horse will be that, but he's not that now.' If they're looking for a Junior Hunter who can step around at Ocala or Wellington, that's a very different creature than a Junior Hunter who's showing at the local shows," Courtney says.
"I think it's refreshing to someone looking at horses if you can say, Here are the good points, and here are the not-so-good points, and I'm hoping he'll work for you.' Rather than thinking, 'What is the seller hiding?' the buyer feels like 'She's not hiding anything, and I can make a decision.'"
It's especially important to find out if the potential buyer might be a match for your horse if it's the only one you have for sale. "One of the benefits I have as a consignor is that I get to show them multiple horses and hopefully one of them is going to make them happy. I can start with the quietest horse I have and work up. I can see what horse might be suitable.
"If you're only showing one or two horses, it's in your best interest to really talk to the person and her trainer, if she has one. Find out what they're looking for, and ask questions like, 'You're looking for an upper-level prospect? What level have you ridden?'
"But if he's not the right horse for the job, he's not the right horse for the job. It's like trying to sell a two-bedroom house to a family with six kids. There's no point in doing a walk-through, no matter how pretty the house. They might be able to add on, but for right now, it's not what they need."
Ask a prospective buyer whether there are any veterinary issues that would be a deal-breaker for her. If you know your horse has slight navicular changes that haven't impacted his soundness, there's no point in going through the trial process if the buyer won't consider a horse with such issues. "We are all an accumulation of our experiences, good and bad, and if there's someone who has had a horse with horrible navicular problems, it doesn't matter how subtle your horse's navicular changes are, she's not going to buy him," Courtney says.
"It's better for the potential buyer not to spend hundreds of dollars on radiographs if you know that's going to come up. If you're speaking to the buyer, you can say, 'Is there anything I need to know from a vetting standpoint that will be an absolute deal breaker?' Some horses have jewelry that goes with them, and some people don't want to consider those issues."
Make A Good First Impression
Once you have a prospective buyer scheduled for a trial ride, make sure your horse will look his best when they arrive. "Treat it like a job interview for your horse," Courtney says.
"People forget that as much as they want to sell their horse, other people want to buy a horse. They want to buy a horse, but they want him to be special, and to be their next best friend. They want to fall in love with him. It's hard to do that if the horse is scruffy and doesn't look tidy. They shouldn't have to try and imagine him looking better than he is. When you go on a first date with someone, you want that guy to be special and to be dressed to the nines.
"There is no reason to present a sloppy-looking horse--it doesn't matter if it's a $500 horse or a $50,000 horse. They should all look clean and neat and tidy, trimmed and with their socks washed and their manes pulled. It's the first impression of what this horse is supposed to be, and if it doesn't jive with the image of what you said it was, then you're starting off working out of a hole."
Courtney's mantra is "The horse has to sell himself," but you have to put him in a position to do that. Don't hinder your horse's ability to show well--enhance it, with a clear picture of his capabilities, an appropriate price, effective advertising and honest presentation.
What More Can I Do?
If you're just not having any luck selling your horse, it's helpful to find out what went wrong with prospective buyers who have tried your horse.
"Go back to the people who tried him, and ask them why they said no," Courtney says. "Ask them for an honest opinion. [This is a lot easier by email, because people tend to be more honest in an email.] Sometimes maybe they'll give you some insight. It takes a bit of courage to go back to someone and say, 'I'm sorry it wasn't the right horse for you, but could you give me some insight into what you didn't like or what you did like? Was the ad not specific enough?'
"If you don't have access to a professional, you need that answer. People will come up with all kinds of -answers, like 'I wanted something that was a little more scopey,' or 'I wanted something that was more broke on the flat.' Or 'I didn't like that the horse was shown in a pelham.' Sometimes it comes down to the fact that they aren't ready to make a decision. Maybe it wasn't that they didn't like your horse, but maybe he was the second one they saw and they wanted to look at some more."
Whatever their answers may be, you'll have a better idea of what you're doing wrong or right in marketing your horse. And you'll be better able to know how to continue.
Courtney Cooper has had a wide variety of horse experience, including working for Michael Page in the hunter/jumper world and training with eventing coaches Jim Wofford, Phillip Dutton and Sally Cousins. She's evented to the upper levels, currently winning at Intermediate with her first homebred. She combines training and her own competing with a thriving business selling horses out of her C Square Farm in Nottingham, Pennsylvania.
In 1996, Courtney left behind a successful insurance business in Atlanta, Georgia, to start C Square Farm with her husband, Neal Camens. On the 20-acre farm with 14 stalls, they concentrate on training and selling. They sell between 40 and 50 horses a year.
"I have always enjoyed buying, selling and making horses and have dabbled in off-the-track Thoroughbreds, imported horses from Europe and domestically bred horses. We primarily sell into the eventing community but also do sell hunters, jumpers, equitation horses, dressage horses and foxhunters. We try to source what our clients are looking for," Courtney says.
"I came from a sales background [in my insurance career], helping people fill their needs, so when I decided to ride and train full time, it was a natural decision for me to start training and selling horses. I really enjoy meeting new people, helping them find a good match and then staying in touch and watching the success build."
This article first appeared in the August 2011 issue of Practical Horseman.
Are you planning to sell your horse? Go to Equine.com, the premier classifieds site of the Equine Network, and place your ad!