It’s been a long time since I’ve posted (so much for that particular New Year’s Resolution), but as we are growing and expanding our programs this year, I’ve noticed something of a trend in people asking for, and expecting, so much for so little. So, I thought I’d speak to that here for a bit.
I don’t think anyone in horse world lacks understanding that horses are expensive. And, they require commitment outside of just financial – they require time, effort, emotion, and more. If you’ve been involved in horses for any amount of time, you know exactly what I mean – and you’ve probably lived it to some extent, too.
Here’s the thing: this level of commitment never changes. It varies to some degree, but it doesn’t change. No amount of “paying your dues” changes what horses require of us. What I mean is, at no point in time should expect something for nothing, or perfection for little to no cost. It doesn’t work that way, and it never will.
I saw the other day a post somewhere on the internet (Craigslist, social media…?) from someone who was in search of a jumper that was able to do 3′-3’3″ and she specified that the horse shouldn’t be too strong to the fences, etc., among other things. Her price point was $1,500 or less. Are you kidding me? I hope that there was some kind of typo on the posting and that she really meant $15,000, because that extra zero is the minimum needed for a safe and quiet 3’+ horse. However, this is not the only post I’ve seen like this. In this part of the USA (Colorado), a horse that is capable of 3′ and is trained to that height would start (likely) at no less than $10,000 (and that’s conservative). Prices would vary, yes, for conformation, vices, health, soundness, and more, but let’s be reasonable – if a horse is jumping over 3′, then some of these points are minimal issues. Her 3’+ horse for $1,500 doesn’t exist (if it does and you have it, call me).
Another scenario I’ve seen popping up more and more around here lately are people who expect to pay less than $30 for a 45-60 minute private lesson (usually on a lesson horse!!! – see below for the cost of horse care). Perhaps this exists elsewhere in the country, but not here and not for high quality lessons from an experienced and educated (and insured!!!!) trainer/instructor. Let me explain. Learning to just sit in a saddle (western, likely) and wander around getting comfortable with horses does not carry the same time and financial investment (nor business risk) as learning to jump does. (I apologize if I’ve offended someone out there, but it’s true – not to say that trail riding doesn’t have its place, but there is a significant difference between the two disciplines). You can read this on my “About” page, but here is a brief rundown of what I’ve invested in my equine career: lessons, at least 1x per week from age 5-13; showing every summer during those years; college education (4 year degree); leasing and purchasing a horse; hours working for free (as in no pay, not that I wasn’t learning – so I was more than willing to trade time and labor for invaluable education); hours reading and studying and sooooo much more (this doesn’t include working for minimum wage grooming every day before college classes or internships in college, cost of tack or equipment or clothing, or any other lessons and training during the over twenty years I’ve been in the horse industry). Since opening Five Star over three years ago, I’ve invested time, money, risk and effort (in addition to working a full-time job) into building this business, with no guaranteed outcome. I pay for insurance, I do this business the right way, ethically and otherwise. So, with me, and many other hunter/jumper (and other – eventing, cutting, reining, etc. etc. etc.) trainers out there, you are truly getting what you pay for. You’re getting our years of experience, sacrifice and education, often hard-won, in the cost of lessons (and this by no means says that I know it all – I’m constantly reinvesting in myself and this business to be the best I can be for my clients). And, I don’t know a trainer that won’t go above and beyond for their clients and students. It’s a bit of an insult asking for us to be available at a lesser rate. Let’s be honest, horse people are all crazy (trainers, too!) and while we love our clients, being in the industry takes a lot of patience – and we are here because we truly love it – but it’s not viable at a certain point if we sell ourselves short, literally.
Let’s turn to boarding (so long as you’re not already tired of me). Now, this is an area of horse world that has quite a bit of variables – more than anything else I’d say. For the sake of this, I’ll keep my thoughts to boarding in the Northern Colorado area, where we’re based (although I’ll likely reference Denver and Parker, as these are related horse areas). Boarding is more than just the cost of feed and shavings. Here’s a quick list of costs (variable and fixed) involved in boarding (*takes deep breath and…): hay, grain (if applicable), water, shavings (also, if applicable), equipment (pitchforks, buckets, wheelbarrows…), labor (we will come back to this), insurance, maintenance (facility, etc.), and mortgage (again, if applicable). I’m absolutely positive that I’m missing some, but that’s a big chunk of what it costs to run a boarding facility. As above, this doesn’t include any time invested in learning about horses, their care, and investing time and effort into starting the business. Most of these costs, I think, are self-explanatory, but let me say this: if you think you can accurately estimate what each of these categories might cost, multiply it by at least 1.5. It’s very easy to underestimate the cost of horses. Let me discuss the labor aspect, though. Running most boarding barns takes more than one person. Feeding horses a minimum of twice per day (not just throwing hay, but measuring grain and supplements), turning out (if offered), blanketing (if offered), daily cleaning of pens (there is NO reason pens shouldn’t be cleaned daily – this is a good indication of a boarding facility), cleaning and filling waters as needed (depending on the type of bucket/trough, this could be more than once daily), general facility maintenance (grooming/watering arenas, pasture management, repairs) requires a huge time commitment (seven days a week) and as such, most people cannot maintain even a small facility for very long by themselves. Now, ask yourself this: would you work for minimum wage to do any or all of the above (part or full time)? Consider the early and late hours, the weather, and the hard work. That’s right, labor costs money, and finding knowledgable, hard-working and ethical labor is hard (really, really hard). In today’s small business environment, labor likely costs more than it did five years ago (and I don’t just mean the increase in minimum wage). Let’s do some basic math. Let’s say your boarding facility is lucky enough to have labor at the price of minimum wage ($8) and there’s someone working full time (40 hours per week, which, by the way, probably doesn’t cover all 7 days). So, that’s $320 per week, or $16,640 per year. Let’s say your barn has only 10 horses. That’s $1,664 annually per horse – or just under $140 per month per horse (at minimum wage, let me remind you – at $10/hour, the monthly cost is just under $175 per horse for a 10 horse barn). That’s a lot of money to your board bill. Consider the amenities offered at your facility: how many arenas, what kind of arenas, condition of pens, pastures, barns, etc. etc. etc.? All of these things cost money to build and maintain. Is your barn reinvesting in the facility? That requires profit. Consider insurance costs. Utility costs. Guys, all I’m saying is it takes a lot of money and time to run a quality facility. If you’re getting full/inclusive care, you’ve got to be willing to pay for it, especially at a facility that has amenities like an indoor arena, pasture turnout, etc. Feeding 2x per day (of high quality hay), graining/supplementing, turnout, blanketing, cleaning, handling for vet/farrier, and a well-maintained and well-appointed facility is worth the cost. Seriously. What about trailer parking? It may not cost the barn anything, but ask yourself what money is it saving you? That kind of care and these amenities are rare. Where horses are big and money is plentiful (think Parker, maybe areas of Denver), it’s easy to get $500+ (in some of those places, it’s $750 and up) per month in board. But in Northern Colorado, most people think full care should be $400 or less. Costs don’t vary quite that much between the two regions, so you’re getting a lot for your money in NoCo, but don’t count out a place that costs more than $400 a month for full care – ask yourself what you’re getting for that money. Ask the right questions. And be honest with yourself with what your peace of mind is worth to you. Quickly, for those of you willing to self-care, please consider what image and quality of care your facility is trying to maintain. If you’re willing to show up every day (and, I mean EVERY DAY) to clean, water and maintain your horse to the facility standards, then by all means, ask. If you’re not, don’t. Don’t disrespect the work and investment the barn owner has made by letting them down with your level of self-care.
Lastly (I promise), I want to say this. I was raised by a single mom who couldn’t afford to lease or buy me a horse. She worked hard, with the help of my dad, to pay for consistent lessons with good trainers and for shows every summer. I worked at summer camps to pay for extra lessons, I sat around during other lessons to learn what I could and be a go-fer. I worked at shows to pay for other shows. I spent any money I earned on horse show clothes, tack and what not, and let me tell you, I didn’t have the fancy stuff others did (but what I had worked and I was proud of it). It’s important to know in what you should invest. If horses seem too expensive, take a step back. Invest in lessons, clinics, reading materials. Be willing to work hard. I was willing, and I had trainers who were more than willing to give back to a horse-crazy kid like me. I never expected it, but I was beyond thankful when I was given a no-cost opportunity. Invest in the right parts of this industry, be willing to work hard – because there are still trainers out there willing to help however and whenever they can, and never, ever expect something for nothing.