Well-schooled, seasoned stock-type geldings like my homebred Jack used to pull a premium price, but what's he worth today?

Photo: Michelle Anderson

When I was 8 years old I went to ride a cowboy’s pony gelding named Beaver. After the handsome little POA babysat me for an hour as I rode him around and around the house, we untacked and turned him out. “A horse is worth $100 a roll,” the cowboy said. Beaver grunted, bent down on his knees, and hit the dirt for two and a half rolls. “Two-hundred-fifty dollars, and he’s yours!” the cowboy proclaimed. We shook on the deal.

That’s the easiest formula I’ve ever seen for pricing horses. Beaver, who carried me through trail rides, game shows, and to saddle club championships, set his own price much too low. In my eyes, a safe pony like that is worth more than his weight in gold.

Later, in my teens, a trainer told me his methodology for pricing a horse. For him any sound, papered horse standing in a pasture was worth $1,000. A pretty coat color tacked on an extra $1,000. A gelding? Add a $500 premium. A horse that could go forward, turn left and right, and back up was worth another $500. If it could side pass left and right and jog and lope slow on a loose rein, he’d get another $500. That gave any of his pretty, solid geldings a $3,500 price tag--$2,500 for bay, chestnut, or brown models.

The U.S. horse market hit its top in 2003, seeing more horses registered than ever before or since. The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) alone registered 161,000 foals that year. Coincidentally, my homebred Quarter horse Jack was born in ’03, and his yearling siblings easily brought $10,000-15,000 each. A handsome stock-type gelding could easily grab that same price at a ranch sale.

Post Great Recession, we live in a very different world, where average horse prices have fallen to all-time lows. Ten years ago, most owners and breeders considered a young horse an asset that could gain value with training and show experience. Today, in many cases, they’re liabilities, with their prices declining as they age.

Industry leaders have gathered at American Horse Council, the American Association of Equine Practitioners’, and breed association meetings to discuss and debate the issue. Some blame it on overzealous breeders, poor handling and training of horses, and a frigid economy with tight lending standards. They cite statistics that show Americans are moving away from rural life and into urban areas. Others attribute it to the closing of slaughter plants in the United States, a surplus of horses, and hay and commodity costs that climb year after year (or month after month). Still others blame it on fine-tuned diagnostics and overzealous prepurchase exams that scare off potential buyers.

What happens when we as an industry stop valuing the breeding, time, training, and campaigning that go into a horse? It's a big question without a straightforward answer.

On one hand, I’ve personally benefited as horse prices have fallen. Because of the soft sport-horse market, I’ve gotten to ride and lease dressage school masters (Piaffe? Yes, please!) and international-quality prospects that pre-recession would’ve cost as much as a nice starter home.

On the other hand, I’ve seen wonderful horses that at one time competed at the AQHA Youth World Show end up starved, neglected, and in rescues. I’ve also seen upper-level dressage horses, jumpers, hunters, and reiners with minor and manageable unsoundnesses, such as early onset arthritis or feet that need extra support,  advertised on Craigslist for as little as $500. I’ve also watched, slack-jawed, as well-built babies sold at once-prestigious registered-horse stock sales go for as little as $50 a head. If you've ever bred a horse, you know there's no profit in a $50 foal.

It all leaves me scratching my head.

I look at my own horses—one homebred and the other two bought—and I have no idea how much money they’d bring if I put a price tag on them. However, I do know what they’re worth. Marathon is an honest gentleman who’s taught me about patience while improving my dressage. Jack is a stunner, the kind of guy you want to take to town and show off, who has a lope like a rocking horse you can ride all day. And Atty is a sweet, quiet thing with a 10-plus temperament, heaps of talent, and years of potential in front of her.

While I don't know their current dollar value, to me--just like my $250 childhood pony, Beaver--my three horses are priceless.

How do you value your horses? And if you're in the business of buying and selling, how do you settle on a fair price?