By Elizabeth Arnold
Business and pleasure—for many in the horse industry the terms are synonymous. For some, it’s more one than the other. While a deep appreciation for the animal connects us all, it’s no secret that horse ownership can take on various forms. For some, showing horses is strictly a business. Some competitors, due to constraints on their location, time, or pure preference, choose to keep their horses in full-time training. Still others take on traditional roles of horse ownership and keep their horses at home, either for all or part of the year.
Whether you’re able to see your horse in the pasture from your porch, or you make weekly treks to your trainer’s barn to ride, our horses become an integral part of our lives. Some would even consider them members of the family. Such competitors know it can be extremely difficult when the time comes to move on from one horse to the next. Yet, for a majority of owners, the financial necessity of selling a trusted partner in order to purchase the next horse is an often-difficult reality.
As someone who equally values their horse’s well-being, and their own desire to maintain a competitive edge, how does one draw the line between making a profit to ensure you can continue with your hobby and the reality of selling your best friend?
To Sell or Not to Sell?
Select Amateur competitor Marty Oltjen of Robinson, KS, lives on a 5,000-acre farming operation with her husband and son. Together, she and her horse, Credit Rate, aka “Dusty,” have earned many all-around awards and Top Ten wins. In 2015, they were the NSBA Reserve World Champions in Select Showmanship. Due to Dusty’s advancing age, Oltjen recently made the decision to move on to a new mount.
For her, the decision came naturally. She says, “In these past eighteen years of showing, I have had four horses. Each has become part of the family with a lot of miles and memories. I feel like each horse had taken me as far as that horse was able to achieve with his skills. Now, I am at that crossroads with Dusty.”
Oltjen believes her equine partner has reached his peak and the best option for both of them is to find new partners. “Dusty has given me so much success, but, for the last two years, we have only done Showmanship and Horsemanship. It was not fair to Dusty to make him do five classes at each show. As we all know, when we get older, health comes into the picture. Horses are the same as people; some days we just hurt,” she says.
She goes on to say that because her goals and her horse’s abilities no longer align, she’s found a new partner. “I wanted to get back to doing more all-around classes, so in April I purchased a new horse, Can’t Be Caught. But, I still had to decide what the right thing was for Dusty. As of now, I have decided to lease him so someone else can enjoy the success he can bring by taking them to the next level.” She adds, “It’s nice to know that while his show career is finished with me, it’s just the beginning for someone else.”
Julie Napier of Abilene, TX, faced the decision to sell early in her AQHA career. For years, she’d shown primarily in English events, so when she and her trainer purchased a Western Pleasure prospect, she realized the horse might not be the right fit. She shares, “Jake was a six-year-old gelding that excelled at Western Pleasure. I did not. My trainer at the time, Joe Blair, found Jake a new home at a very nice return on my investment. I only owned the horse a year, and showed twice, so my emotional attachment was not too high.”
Today, Napier has built a bond with “Freckles, aka Hotrods R Lucky Too. Together they compete in Select Amateur Trail under the guidance of Terry Cross. Recently, Napier brought the gelding home to her ranch where he spends his days working cattle. “The recent downturn in the oil industry prompted me to either sell Freckles or bring him home. At this point, I’ve opted to keep him. I have him home now and am pleased that he seems to be settled into the quiet ranch life,” Napier says.
For Sarah Nimigan of Paris, Ontario, showing horses fuses business and passion. Nimigan, who recently won the BCF Two-Year-Old Non-Pro Hunter Under Saddle Futurity at the NSBA World on her stallion, Like A Boss, says her situation is somewhat unique. “My serious show horses stay in full-time training in Florida. But, what a lot of people don’t know is that I usually always have a prospect at home that I work on for the purposes of selling, along with my old retired show horse that’s more like a family member.”
Just because Nimigan approaches horses with an eye for business doesn’t mean the emotional bonds don’t often come into play. “Some horses are family members, and you can’t help but approach them differently. It all depends on the circumstances, but I think it’s time to sell when you know you have accomplished all you could hope for. At that point, it becomes that horse’s job to teach someone else and make another person’s dreams come true. It’s sort of cyclical. Once the partnership has reached its potential and the challenge is gone, it becomes less interesting for me. That makes it easier to reconcile selling the horse to someone who could stand to learn and grow with that horse,” she says.
Nimigan believes having multiple horses helps ease the sting of selling a beloved show partner. She says, “If you have several horses, some are more suited to fulfill your goals and dreams than others.” She adds, “Because I have studs and am involved in the breeding side of things, there are always babies and mares coming and going. You begin to approach the idea of selling horses differently than when you have just one that you show and connect with on such a deep level.”
The Price is Right
However, for many, the option of owning more than one horse simply isn’t reality. Thus, when their career with one horse is over, they must inevitably say goodbye. But, how do you put a price on a beloved partner, and what steps do you take to ensure the horse’s future success and well-being? Oltjen admits that determining an unbiased price is perhaps the most difficult factor when deciding to sell.
She notes, “Putting a price on a friend is tough. Sentimental value always comes into play.” This is where having a trainer or trusted friend for guidance is helpful. She adds, “Getting someone else’s non-biased opinion of price can help keep the sentimental dollar out of the equation. Because, really, the price needs to reflect experience, age, health and talent.”
Connecticut native and amateur competitor Libby Rinder believes that different horses can fulfill different roles at different times. Her current show partner, Hot Rockin Potential aka “Sonny” has earned a forever home with her. However, she also owns several younger horses that she feels an attachment to, but plans to sell in the future.
One such horse is Smooth and Chocolate, or “Cody.” Rinder shares, “I love Cody and think he is a phenomenal horse. We bought him because we love having young horses, sending them to shows, and watching their improvement. Last fall, Cody was fourth at the World Show in Jr. Trail. He’s won a lot for us and now I’d love to see him go to an amateur or youth and have an all-around career.”
When it comes time to sell, Rinder says she would consider shopping around for new owners to ensure her horse found the ideal situation. In some instances, she may even consider less profit if it meant finding the perfect fit. “If I knew it would be a great home, then I’d consider the rationale of accepting less money. I believe I owe it to the horse. He’s been a good horse; he’s won for me; and he’s done his job. He deserves to be taken care of, even if it’s not with me,” she says.
Nimigan believes most in the business know that earning a profit doesn’t come easily, even in the most ideal of circumstances. “If you’re in the horse business to make money; you’re definitely in the wrong business,” she says. “To me, it’s never about making a profit; breaking even, maybe, if you’re especially lucky. Selling your horse is only the right move if it makes sense and feels right, and that could be for a million reasons, finances included,” she concludes.
Keeping Up and Keeping On
The horse world is a decidedly small one. Just because a horse is sold doesn’t mean it disappears. In all likelihood, exhibitors who sell a horse will run into their former partner from time to time. This begs the question of keeping in touch. Is it easier to move on and cut ties completely, or to stay informed about the horse’s progress? Napier says that if the time came to sell Freckles, she’d feel a bit torn as to the right decision. “I have seriously considered selling Freckles in the past, and I am comforted by the thought that Stephen [Stephens] and Terry [Cross] would find a good home. I know that I would keep up with him if I sold him, but I don’t know that it would be easy. I suppose watching that new owner’s joy would make it easier,” she says.
Rinder would likely agree that watching the horse go on to success would make the decision to sell a little less difficult. She says, “Obviously, I would love to see the horse continuing to compete and doing well. I’d love see win photos. But, I also wouldn’t mind if the horse was across the country, so long as they were doing well for the new owners.” She adds that with particularly tough sales, distance might ease the pain. “If it was a tough decision to sell, it would be harder for me to see my former horse more frequently. But, no matter the circumstances, I’d love to see it succeeding with someone else.”
As a breeder, Nimigan says watching her horses move on with their careers is thrilling. “Whenever I sell a horse, there’s nothing I want more than to see that horse go on and do great things,” she says. “I love staying connected and watching new teams flourish. Everyone who has ended up with one of my previous horses knows I’m their biggest fan.”
Sadly, in this industry, there is sometimes a flipside to this scenario. While in most instances, horses are bought and sold with the best of intentions; sometimes, things don’t work out for the new owners. As a previous owner, it’s surely difficult to see a former horse failing to thrive. When faced with such a situation, Napier believes it’s important to keep expectations in perspective. She says, “I think I would be sympathetic if I saw the new owner having trouble, because I know how much work it took to succeed.”
She adds that owners would do well to recall their own early struggles and how much work was required to build their team. “For me and Freckles, it wasn’t always a straight line,” she notes. Rinder believes that the horse’s health and physical well-being come paramount to any show ring success. She says, “It wouldn’t devastate me if it wasn’t working out. There is more to this than winning. If they’re just not getting along, that happens and it’s not anyone’s fault. As long as the horse is mentally happy and being taken care of physically, that’s all that matters.”
Nimigan agrees that sometimes there is more to the story than what one show or class can tell. She urges former owners to look at the big picture. She advises, “Let’s be honest. We all have bad horse shows and bad days at the horse show, and maybe it’s just one of those things. If they were to ask for help, support, or advice, I’d be happy to give it. Otherwise, I believe it’s best to let them sort through the issues on their own. Remember, we’ve all been there.”
Letting go of an equine partner proves difficult, no matter the circumstances surrounding the sale. Everyone in this industry — youth, novice, and amateur alike — work incredibly hard to build a winning connection with their horses. But the financial and logistical reality of the game means that, for most, it’s a one-horse show. With care, patience, and in some situations a slightly smaller profit, it’s possible to move on toward bigger dreams while witnessing a trusted friend carry their new rider to greatness.