Since the pandemic began early in 2020, the horse market has been as hot as the real estate market. Just as home buyers have been buying houses sight unseen, paying asking price or above, horse buyers have been purchasing based on social media or online ads, paying full price and in some cases, forgoing pre-purchase exams and trial periods. And the market shows no sign of cooling yet.
Breeder and trainer Claire Hunter, owner of Braecrest Farm in Barrie, Ontario, feared the pandemic would create a lot of uncertainty in her industry. “To my pleasant surprise, sales took off. While lesson programs shut down, people who owned horses could still go and ride. People weren’t travelling so they were spending their play money on other things and horses were an option.” She sold all five of her own foals in 2020 and any horse in her barn going under saddle went quickly.
Brandon Hall, Ontario Equestrian’s marketing director who trains and sells horses as Hall and Co. Equestrian, sold 29 horses last year. All but two were sold sight unseen from posts he made on social media, usually within 24 hours of posting. This year, he concentrated on coaching a show team but is planning to ramp up his training and sales program again in collaboration with Lake House Stables in Ashburn, Ontario.
Hall noticed that a lot of people bought young, higher-end project horses ‒ one reason being that trained horses are in short supply. “All the young, quality horses were scooped up and there are not a lot of competitive horses available. Large ponies and children’s hunters are the hottest thing.”
Many of Hunter’s sales are based on the bloodlines she uses in her breeding program. But in the last year and a half, people who want the Braecrest bloodlines have had to purchase younger stock than in the past. She has not done a lot of marketing for her young horses this year, as she doesn’t have many available for sale.
The Success of Online Auctions
The hot market isn’t confined to Ontario, either. The Fall Classic Sale held online by the Canadian Warmblood Breeders Association in Alberta the first weekend in October saw record prices for young horses. The prospects under saddle category broke two records: one was the average price of $29,900 and no under-saddle prospect sold for less than $15,000. The top seller, a three-year-old Canadian Warmblood hunter prospect, went for $62,500 to a US buyer ‒ another record price. The weanling group also had a dressage-bred Hanoverian colt sell for a record $49,500. Thirty-seven of 44 horses offered in the auction were sold and the overall average price was $19,900; 25 horses sold outside of Alberta and 12 are headed for the U.S.
Rebecca Bechinor, a member of the sale administration team, says the overall prices were the highest she has seen in her six years involved with the sale. She says while Covid has been a factor, there are other reasons for the sale’s success and record prices: people have embraced online purchasing and are comfortable buying a horse that way, the quality of horses being bred in this country has improved dramatically and buyers are realizing they can get high-calibre Canadian-bred horses, and the high cost of importing horses from Europe has more buyers looking for North American options. And North American marketing programs, such as the one for the CWHBA’s sales, have become more sophisticated and have wider reach.
The current hot market is forcing buyers to make quick decisions, says Hunter. People used to look at multiple horses and would hem and haw before they made up their mind.
She doesn’t sell based on who can offer the highest price, however. “It’s really important to me that the right horse matches the right person.” She plans on breeding and selling for a long time and says if people are happy with their purchase, that results in more referrals and boosts her reputation.
This year, Hunter got to experience the flip side of the business when she tried to find a lease or purchase for a client who was getting back into riding after many years and was on a timeline due to her health and life goals. “I am really grateful to have the connections I do and was able to get one on trial for a few days for her to try, so she could think about it and process.”
Hunter advised her client that while there was no pressure to snap that particular horse up, she cautioned if she didn’t it would be really tough to find another suitable mount. The client bought the horse, which luckily turned out to be suitable for her.
The market is challenging for buyers of all types of horses, says Hall, noting that a ready-made horse has doubled in price since early 2020 and that’s forcing people to take risks. Due to the drought in Alberta, there are truckloads of horses that were slaughter-bound coming to Ontario to fill the market demand for trail or pleasure horses. Most are untrained and many are unhandled, but he says the sellers of those horses are giving them an opportunity for a new life and that’s commendable. But some buyers may not have the skills to deal with them.
“Because the market is forcing people to buy unhandled, green or sight-unseen horses, there could be an influx of people who are over-horsed,” he says. “I am hoping those people will invest more in the training side rather than in competition.” He has also noted that people buying horses for less than $10,000 are not doing pre-purchase exams, although he always recommends it for horses above that price point and if the buyer intends to keep the animal long-term.
Hunter says prior to the market heating up, a lot of purchasers used the shopping process to determine the type of horse what they wanted. That’s not possible in the current climate.
“In this market, you have to ask yourself those questions before you shop,” she says. “Do you want short-term, long-term, a forward or push ride, what type of personality do you want, what are your show goals? You have to dig deep and answer those questions first.”
“Don’t play outside of your comfort zone and education,” advises Hall. “Have a trainer or professional help guide you. Create a checklist that is meaningful for you and look for a horse that can do the realistic job.” For instance, he says a horse that is sound and can jump 2’9” is perfectly fine for an amateur rider who likely will never show higher than that. Only 25 per cent of riders who are Ontario Equestrian members are competitive riders, he says; 75 per cent are recreational or pleasure riders.
Hunter says buyers may have to compromise on breed, height or age. Instead of a show-ready five-year-old, a buyer may have to start with an unstarted three-year-old. She says the current market has forced people to be more open-minded. “You have to drop the status symbol and crowd appeal and get to what riding’s really about rather than social pressures.” Hall adds that a horse with an issue that can be managed with Previcox or another treatment may still be able to do the job.
Hunter doesn’t see the horse market going backwards anytime soon, although it may stabilize. “People have rediscovered being outdoors and the joy of being around horses and what they offer us on a personal level.”
Tales from the Trenches
After years of taking riding lessons and part-boarding horses, Laura Adams decided to buy a horse of her own in mid-2020. She wanted a personal ride that would also be an investment horse. Her wish-list was for a warmblood jumper mare that was at least 16.2 h., preferably not grey, and similar in talent and temperament to a spicy, scopey Hanoverian mare she’d part-boarded. She and coach Ashley Sakaguchi of Lake House Stables felt Covid might yield some bargains, but were shocked when prices went through the roof. Laura’s already reasonable budget had to increase substantially.
Over the months, she found 30 to 40 prospects online that seemed promising, but many sold before she could even try them, or her coach didn’t think were suitable. Some were priced at double her budget. She and Ashley found sellers were not open to negotiating on asking price, nor were they receptive to off-property trials. One she tried didn’t have the scope to move up the levels; another had difficulty turning.
After a year of shopping in vain, Laura decided to buy an unstarted two- or three-year-old instead and made arrangements to view some. However, the day before she and Ashley were to do that, they went to look at a horse a contact of Ashley’s had. The six-year-old mare, Promdanz (Eliza) was a registered Westfalen, 17.1 h.; although green for her age and grey, Laura loved her. Although Eliza had some naughty quirks such as not standing at the mounting block, that didn’t faze Laura. She was allowed to flat the horse twice on the seller’s property as a trial. Within five days of meeting the mare, a PPE was done, the deal was completed and Eliza was hers as of August 25.
“So far, so good,” reports Laura. “We are figuring each other out but she’s coming along well and is so brave. I waited a year to find the right one.”
This spring, I discovered first-hand how tough the market is for buyers. I was looking for a small horse to replace the riding horse I’d retired to be a broodmare. My specs were: 14 to 15.2 h., three to 10 years old, suitable for low-level dressage but could also trail ride and jump small fences. I wasn’t fussy on breed, colour or sex. My budget was tight – $8,000 maximum. Green was fine but I wanted a good temperament and didn’t want to buy sight unseen.
Some horses sold almost as soon as they were posted. Some sellers didn’t respond to my messages. I booked an appointment to see a 14.3 h. Hanoverian-Welsh mare I’d seen online that was two and a half hours away. Two days prior, the seller asked if I had booked a pre-purchase exam and if I was bringing a trailer, as she had a long list of people waiting to see the horse. That caught me off-guard and I didn’t want to feel pressured, so I cancelled.
A week later, a Facebook ad popped up for a four-year-old, 14.1 h. paint Morgan mare in my area. She was green but had an uphill neck set and her movement seemed suitable for dressage. I arranged to see her the next day and to my surprise, two other people were waiting to try her after I did. After I rode her, the seller asked me if I liked the mare and I said yes, but I wanted to go home and review video a friend had taken.
Two hours later, the seller messaged me – she had turned down one buyer she didn’t feel was the right match but she had received another offer. However, she felt I was the best fit and wanted to give me first chance. So I said yes – and despite having to make a fast decision and forgoing a PPE, that little palomino pinto has exceeded my expectations and is perfect for what I want to do.