Is it really possible to make money selling horses or is it more a matter of breaking even while enjoying the lifestyle? Stephanie Bateman investigates
With top-class horses selling for seven-figure sums, some people expect there’s plenty of money to be made from dealing in horses. But as mid-level horses are likely to go for thousands rather than millions, how prosperous is the reality?
Sport horse producer Tim Brown believes it is possible to make money from horses.
“Look at the Schockemöhle empire — they wouldn’t be as big as they are if they weren’t making money,” he says. “It’s like a car or a house — if the fundamentals are right, and you spend time and money investing to improve it, you can make a profit.”
Tim and his wife Antonia specialise in young sport horses, paying on average £15,000 to £25,000 for rising four-year-olds from the Netherlands, producing them for a year and selling them as five-year-olds with a competition record for £50,000 plus.
“We buy horses with the correct breeding, the correct conformation and correct mechanics,” says Tim. “It’s then the horse’s training that increases its value — producing it to perform at a higher level and make it rideable so anyone can ride it.”
The pair usually turn over 10 young horses a year, training and qualifying them for young horse championships before selling them to competitive riders to take up the levels.
“When you add up our costs to run a horse for a year, you are looking at £200 a week for its livery, plus £100 a week for training and competition costs, so you’re looking at upwards of £10,000 a year just to keep that horse,” explains Tim. “We aim to make around £10,000 profit per horse for a year’s work.”
All of Tim’s horses are for sale from the moment they are purchased.
“They are always for sale, but we prefer to sell them as trained horses, because they are more valuable,” say Tim. “We would however sell them before they’re trained to people we know have the capability to bring them on.”
Tim believes it’s all about potential with young horses — once you know a horse’s performance ceiling, their value is capped.
“As young horses, you are buying a dream of what they could aspire to, but once you get a horse into full competition, you are more aware of its potential and that creates a benchmark of its value,” says Tim. “There are special horses that progress year on year all the way to the top, and they are the ones who are worth a lot more money.”
Alongside producing and selling horses, Tim and Antonia have liveries.
“They are a regular source of income and help cover the horses that don’t make the money you were hoping for,” says Tim. “It is a big gamble when you think about it, but it’s also a lifestyle that many people love and can make a success of.”
Turning over enough to make a living
Sometimes it’s not about making big bucks, but simply turning over enough to make a living. Natalia Thorpe runs NT Equine in Surrey and has been buying and selling horses for 10 years.
“I’ve been lucky enough to build a great client base, both in the UK and internationally, and I get a real kick out of seeing my horses go on to make people happy,” she says. “My passion is jumping ponies, but to make ends meet I also sell all-rounders.”
When it comes to the nitty-gritty, Natalie finds doing her tax return “depressing” due to her capacious expenses.
“My yard, which costs me £1,000 a week to run without paying myself, just about breaks even,” she says. “I work on the basis I need to sell two per week; it’s either this or have the yard full of sales and schooling liveries just to cover my costs. If I didn’t have to pay rent, business rates and staff, life would be a lot easier. I also expect to lose one or two horses a year through injury, colic or ongoing issues.”
When working out profit margins, Natalie needs to know a horse will have at least £1,000 profit on top of what it will cost her.
“The horse might stay with me for two months before sale and I could fill that box with a £500 a month livery,” she says “Once I’ve added time and advertising fees, I’m really just covering costs.”
As with most dealers, Natalie’s horses are for sale the moment she purchases them.
“If someone offers you decent money for a horse, you’re a fool not to take it, as you have to remember how fragile horses are and that they can break themselves easily,” she advises. “I always have a few I keep to produce and compete myself, but they are always on the market.”
Despite enjoying her job, Natalie believes that amateur producers kid themselves that they are making money.
“I started doing this as I have a passion for producing young ponies and horses. It meant I had the lifestyle where I could enjoy my own horses, but you can’t buy cheap horses over from Ireland any more,” she says.
“The Irish and Dutch markets are strong and buyers have to realise the days of being able to buy a quality all-rounder for £4,500 are long gone. Every day I question my sanity and am tempted by a less demanding job with a steadier income.”
Selling horses certainly has it ups and downs, and as quickly as people fall in love with the game, they can fall out of love with it.
Avril Roberts of Equine Agents in East Sussex sold horses for 15 years, but is now focusing on equine transport.
“I’m not selling like I used to,” she says. “I used to sell between six and eight in a weekend, with 25 horses in to sell at any one time, but you can’t get the stock now and the clientèle aren’t what they used to be. People’s expectations are ridiculous, and I just stopped enjoying it.”
Avril used to make enough money to run the yard and pay two full-time members of staff, but in the past year she has dropped down to one part-time groom and runs a livery yard alongside the transport instead.
“I used to get my horses from Ireland, but the Irish market is so different now — they are all warmblood crosses and the riders I have coming to buy horses now can’t handle their temperaments,” Avril explains. “The price of horses has increased, too, which it rightly should as everything else has gone up. People think we pick a horse up from Ireland for £25 and sell it for £4,000, but you don’t. The maximum I’d make on a riding club horse was £500, but others would make a loss, so although you make a living, it’s certainly not enough to ponce about in a big Oakley lorry and a Range Rover.”
‘I love my lifestyle’
Julia Martin runs Kingshill Equestrian Limited in West Sussex.
For her, selling horses for the past 30 years is a lifestyle that she wouldn’t change for the world.
“I can wake up in the morning, look out of my window and watch the sun rise over the beautiful Sussex countryside with the horses grazing contentedly,” she muses. “I have children who are immersed in the world of ponies and horses and I love my lifestyle.
“However, the reality of horse livery and selling is not glamorous, nor is it the road to riches. It is hard work and the remuneration is poor.”
If there is money to be made, “the profit margins are small”, and as many other dealers are finding, “there is a shortage of good horses to sell.”
“I specialise in selling Irish horses that tend to be steady, good all-rounders,” says Julia. “My margins are tight and therefore I rely on a regular supply coming in from Ireland. I can always sell more horses than I can acquire and also sell horses on behalf of private owners for which I charge 10% commission. Most of these horses sell for between £5,000 and £9,000 and I aim to sell them within a three-week period. I am lucky that I can return any horse that I do not feel is right, either on medical or temperament grounds, and therefore I can stand behind every horse I sell.”
Julia has dealt with the same horse exporter for the past 20 years.
“Anyone trying to make reasonable commission on the sale of horses, rather than very large gains on the odd horse that has been produced, needs a reliable source from someone they trust,” she says. “It is not the horse you are buying, it is the man you are buying it from.”
It’s not the route to a quick buck, but for those with a passion for selling who have the right set-up and some trusted contacts, the lifestyle makes it worthwhile.
Seven selling tips
- Sell it while you love it. Unless the horse is super-special, your first offer is normally your best offer (Natalia Thorpe)
- Accept you don’t make lots of money; your motivation for doing it has to be real passion, otherwise you simply won’t go the distance (Natalia Thorpe)
- Always look after your clients, honour your terms and be as honest as possible when selling. If you think a buyer isn’t right for your horse, don’t be afraid to say so. Likewise, if you think a horse will do the job, don’t be afraid to stand up for it and let the horse prove itself to them (Natalia Thorpe)
- Buy something that is correct for the job you are selling it to do (Tim Brown)
- Use a vet whom you trust for vettings (Tim Brown)
- Be open-minded that there is nothing perfect and always be prepared to lose money on a horse, through injury, death or it being sent back (Tim Brown)
- Be honest about your expenses when working out profits and what a horse is worth (Julia Martin)
Ref Horse & Hound; 13 February 2020