Creative Purchasing

The standard means of providing for the horse farm is to pick up or have delivered bales of hay and sacks of grain when you run low, to purchase outright your horses and equipment, and to pay for your labor. But there are alternative ways that might be more economical for obtaining what you need.

Depending on the size of your herd, the goals you have with your horses, and your particular financial situation, you might find that covering the cost of feed, equipment, horses, and even labor could be more cost-effective through co-operative or co-owning arrangements, bulk buying, or leasing--especially if you have a large herd where small savings per horse multiply out to big savings overall.

Buying Hay and Grain

Buying hay and grain in bulk or through a co-op is a cheaper alternative than purchasing smaller quantities. "Buying in bulk offers the purchaser better buying power and leverage: A lot of the local farmers like having a steady, close market for their product versus the mileage to hay auctions and erratic prices," says Michael Stone, DVM, of Oak Harbor Veterinary Hospital in Oak Harbor, Ohio, and Westview Veterinary Hospital in Fremont, Ohio, and the owner of 54 Belgians at his Oak Haven Belgians farm.

Also, a producer or supplier is usually willing to shave the price a bit in exchange for selling more product at one time--especially perishable products. Even if you don't have storage space, you can often pay the farmer a storage fee to keep the hay for you, an option that's usually cheaper than paying for higher-priced hay during the middle of winter.

There are a few ways to buy in bulk:

* A year at a time. Paula Hitzler, BS (Animal Science), manager of the Horse Teaching & Research Center at Michigan State University, oversees the daily care of up to 120 horses. To save on costs for the herd, Hitzler determines the amount of hay she needs for the year, contracts hay purchases from a local grower in early spring before the farmer knows what kind of hay season it's going to be, then takes delivery of the hay later in the summer.

"If you wait until June or July to buy hay, and if it's been a bad hay growing season, you'd pay a higher price," Hitzler states. "Usually hay dealers know what the average price of hay will be; you can also check prices through agriculture reports, your local feed store, county equine extension agents, or at an agricultural university. As long as your horse numbers stay relatively constant, the hay amount (number of bales) should be similar to the previous year. I've never paid one price early that later went down, although this could occur."

Mary Herbert also buys for the whole year. She owns Forrestel Farm Camp, a summer riding camp with three dozen horses in Medina, N.Y. Herbert says, "We buy all our hay from a local farmer in the summer, straight from the field; this saves money as the hay does not have to be transported to and from a hay supplier. We store the hay in our barn for the winter."

Continues Hitzler, "Buying hay for the whole year works really well only if you have a place to store it or if the hay dealer can store it for you. It may be worth penciling it out to see what you would save in hay cost and the cost of building a hay barn. You may, over the long haul, pay for the building if you are feeding a large number of horses."

* Buy grain by the season. Hitzler buys oats from a grain elevator. "I watch the market, then buy as much as I can store (about three or four months' worth) when the market is low. I have a big bin where I store the feed, along with a smaller storage area where we scoop out the daily rations."

Make sure the type of feed you buy in bulk stores well. "We feed oats, and they store really well," says Hitzler. "Watch for rodents and be sure your storage container/bin is appropriate for feed. Your feed dealer/feed mill can help you with storage requirements."

* Buy through a hay broker. Jeanne Ross, office manager of Colorado Trails Ranch, a dude ranch with about 80 horses in Durango, Colo., buys hay by the semi-truck load through a local hay broker. "He has been able to supply us consistently with good hay at acceptable prices," Ross explains. "But we also watch classified ads for hay on sale and buy it if the quality and price are good. The broker delivers the hay to us as we need it. He has good storage for hay and we do not, so it is very convenient to call for our hay as we need it."

The ranch purchases hay throughout the year, but uses more in the winter when pasture grass isn't available. "We buy by the ton as opposed to buying by the bale because the cost is more consistent," she says. Bales don't always weigh the same, so paying by the bale means you end up spending the same for light bales as you do for heavier bales.

* Buy through a co-op. If you don't have enough horses and/or storage space to support bulk purchases, buy in bulk with friends and other farms. "Get together with other horse farms to split the load," Hitzler suggests. "Talk to other horse farms and find other people who can share hay and feed."

Notes Anne Stahl, owner/trainer/instructor at Rosehill Farm, a private dressage training facility with about two dozen horses in Northville, Mich., "I buy in bulk for myself, but also buy for a smaller farm; the owner comes and buys hay at the same price from me, which keeps her expenses down.

Whatever method you use in buying bulk, project your needs correctly to avoid having more than you need or not enough to get you through the season, Stahl advises.

Creative Horse Owning

The standard way of having a horse is to buy him, then house him at your farm or at a boarding or training barn. He's yours to use year-round. But some riders can't afford to buy an expensive, high-quality horse outright. Other riders anticipate outgrowing a horse's level within a couple of years of competition. Still others don't use their horses year-round. For situations such as these, it could make more sense to lease or co-own a horse rather than to own one yourself.

Typically in a lease arrangement, one person owns the horse and leases or half-leases the horse to someone else for a monthly fee; cost of feed, board, veterinary and farrier care, and/or training might or might not be shared, depending on the individual lease arrangement. Generally when a horse is co-owned, the owners split the purchase cost of the horse in addition to other maintenance and training expenses. But there are other leasing or co-owning arrangements.

Stahl recalls that the first really good horse she owned was a young, expensive Hanoverian imported from Germany. He was purchased in partnership with a client. "The client's daughter was the other rider," she says. "I traded training for equity in the horse. I originally put down one-third and worked off the rest to own half. When her daughter left for college, I had built up enough equity to own the horse outright."

Another time, Stahl bought a horse in partnership with a different student. "She could not afford the horse all on her own," explains Stahl. "I paid for the horse and she paid the expenses. He was an older horse with a great deal of training. She rode the horse and learned from him while I was able to use the horse for some lessons."

In an ongoing arrangement at Stahl's training barn, Stahl leases show horses from students who can't give their horses the needed time and exercise. "I lease from them the ability to use their horses in a supervised lesson. It benefits the horse, the students, and me because it's cheaper for me to have a better horse if I lease that horse's time than if I went out and bought it myself."

At Colorado Trails Ranch, where the dude season runs from the end of May through September, Ross loans, borrows, and shares horses (and wranglers) with a dude ranch in Arizona that operates during the winter. "The Arizona ranch owns about 16 horses and uses another 16 or so of ours during the winter," Ross says. "We own the rest and use their 16 during the summer. We are well acquainted with the owner and head wrangler of the other ranch and therefore we know the horses will be well taken care of." No money exchanges hands.

Because of this arrangement, Ross does not have to purchase extra horses during the vacation season or carry the cost of caring for his horses during the off-season. Veterinary costs belong to the ranch that has the horse at that particular time. Both ranches coordinate shoeing, deworming, and vaccination, with horses dewormed and vaccinated prior to going to the other ranch. Shoeing is done immediately prior to the season, usually by the receiving ranch. Careful management is necessary, Ross states, to make sure that shared horses don't become run down and that they can handle the change in terrain and weather.

Forrestel Farm Camp also does not use their horses through the winter, so they arrange for riders to free-lease camp horses through the cold months. Explains Herbert, "We try to place our horses with camp families or local barns. The horses' workloads are not too strenuous, but they're ridden. This way, we keep the horses in tip-top shape and save money in the spring because we do not have to go out and buy or lease more horses for the summer program."

The lessee is responsible for the horse's expenses, including feed, shoeing, veterinary bills, and so forth. During the winter, Forrestel Farm staff phones or visits the barns where their horses reside to make sure the animals are receiving good care.

When leasing or co-owning horses, be sure to get the details in writing. "We have leased some horses in the past," reports Stone, "and have had good and some bad experiences. It's very important to have all agreements in writing to make sure there is no confusion or memory problems."

Adds Stahl, "Consider using a professional agent (or attorney) to advise you on the leasing contract. The contract should cover monthly payments, late or missed payments, insurance, where the horse stays, veterinary and training responsibilities, emergency care, feed costs, horse use, access to the horse, and so forth."

Obtaining Equipment

Having a tractor, a spreader, and other equipment for the horse farm significantly reduces the time and effort associated with manual labor, especially when there is a lot of acreage or horses. But is it better to own or lease?

Margaret Evans, breeder/owner of Kikkuli Farm, a Thoroughbred racehorse/performance horse breeding facility in Lindell Beach, British Columbia, feels owning your own equipment is hands-down the best option for them.

"We have nine horses on a 45-acre area that comprises two meadows, one of which is fenced off in early spring for hay production," she says. "Since we are able to hay part of our pasture, we invested in a tractor and haying equipment; for the past six years we've put up our own hay for the winter. This is a huge economic benefit, not only in the saving on the cost of hay, but in the time and cost of gas to truck hay from the local supplier or pay for deliveries."

Evans states that the initial cost of buying the equipment has been offset by the value the equipment provides. "The tractor and haying equipment began to pay for themselves immediately. Besides putting up hay for the winter, the tractor provides an effective way to remove and pile manure, then later to move composted manure, which becomes rich, black soil, onto the hay fields as fertilizer. The tractor and its attachments allow us to do land alterations, clearing, fence mending, moving jumps, maintaining driveways, and a host of other land chores you simply couldn't do without machinery. It's a huge cost to keep bringing in people to do the work for you.

"Purchasing the equipment has been an investment, not a cost," she states.

Herbert shares those sentiments. She says, "I own my own tractor and manure spreader. We use our tractor to spread manure, clean out the barnyard, and everything else. If you take care of the equipment, it will last for years and years. I believe it's more economical to own them outright."

But for MSU's 100-acre horse facility where lots of mowing is done, Hitzler says leasing the equipment is the best choice. "We lease a new four-wheel-drive utility vehicle and a mower every year," Hitzler says. "On a use/hour/cost basis we save money; it's cheaper getting new equipment every year versus the cost of buying outright and putting repair costs into older equipment."

Saving on Labor

Farms that maintain a number of horses often have to employ outside labor to do all the chores, which can be quite expensive. So it's important to use methods that help keep labor costs down. Explains Stahl, "For anybody who has a barn of over 15 horses, help is going to be the main issue because horses need so many things. This is especially true in a performance barn where the horses are coming in and out around their riding schedule. They're not just turned out where they stay out until they come in at 5; they're in and out, in and out, they're groomed, ridden, bathed, and their stalls are cleaned. It never ends."

To cut down on labor costs, she trades services by offering riding or training in exchange for labor. Currently three of her eight part-time employees opt for this exchange. However, it's important to consult an accountant if you will be trading labor since the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) puts limits on this, and it is better to be informed rather than to get into trouble with the IRS.

Stahl also organizes her barn schedule to make it easier and quicker for help to complete their chores. For example, she developed and sticks to a routine turnout schedule so the horses are out of the stalls at the same time every day when labor needs to clean the stalls. Coordinating the barn schedule with labor chores also reduces the chances of paying labor to stand around and wait while lessons are being completed.

"The hardest thing I have to do is coordinating the needs of 20 horses and my labor force," Stahl states.

Take-Home Message

Acquiring horses and equipment along with providing for proper care and maintenance can be an expensive and daunting proposition, especially as the number of horses in question increases. But by working all the angles and thinking outside the box, you can increase your equine purchasing power and make your resources work for you. 


When you need financing for horses or equipment, how do you find farm-friendly lending institutions? "Check with people who own livestock for a living," says Paula Hitzler, BS (Animal Science), manager of the Horse Teaching and Research Center at Michigan State University. "Find out from them where they bank."

Advises Michael Stone, DVM, of Oak Harbor Veterinary Hospital in Oak Harbor, Ohio, and Westview Veterinary Hospital in Fremont, Ohio, and the owner of 54 Belgians at his Oak Haven Belgians farm, "Using some of the familiar agricultural loan agencies like Ag Credit usually works well. These type of lending agencies are more experienced with the terminology and agricultural practices. (Those with horse businesses) will need a business plan; it is imperative to demonstrate to them this is a business with expected profit."

Local tractor companies often offer financing or leasing programs.

Sometimes buyers can finance a horse through the seller, says Anne Stahl, owner/ trainer/instructor at Rosehill Farm, a private dressage training facility with about 24 horses in Northville, Mich. "Don't hesitate to ask, as sellers often are willing to do the financing," she says. "If you finance through the seller, generally you have to know someone who will vouch that you're a good risk and provide a reference."

If you go this route, get all terms spelled out in a contract--down payment, interest, monthly payments, default or missed payments. "Some contracts dictate where the horse must stay," Stahl adds. "But before you get into a long financial arrangement, make sure the horse will meet your needs for that period of time. You don't want to be paying on a horse for three years when it only meets your needs for one year."--Marcia King

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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