Just the thought of selling a well-loved horse is enough to throw most owners into an emotional tailspin. But when circumstances tell you that selling the horse is the thing to do, the number one concern becomes finding the right home. You want a new owner who will not only take good care of your horse, but who will also appreciate him for his unique personality and abilities.
The effort you put into the sales process may be the important element in finding your friend a great home. So where do you begin? The normal advice that applies to selling anything from a car to a couch applies to selling horses, too. You'll have to research the market and accurately assess your horse's strengths. But that's just the starting point.
To get into some of the nitty-gritty aspects, we talked with Drenda Chappell, a broker who specializes in matching performance horses with new owners, but whose advice carries to selling horses of all types.
"Since horses can't talk, it's our responsibility as owners, sellers, buyers, agents, and trainers to do what's best for the horse," Drenda points out. "It's in our interest, as well as the horse's, to put in a sincere effort to place a horse well.
"That first effort begins with being emotionally prepared to sell," she continues. But that's often harder than the owner thinks it will be. Drenda has seen sellers who get grumpy or find fault with every prospective buyer that comes to look at the horse. In those cases, she tells the sellers that they aren't ready to sell.
"Since you are the one who knows the horse best, you're the one most motivated to find the right situation for him. If you are ready to let the horse go, then you'll treat the prospective buyers well, and you'll have the best chance of finding a good match," she confirms.
Selling is a numbers game. As with selling a house, you will have to be prepared to show the horse to a number of potential buyers before the right one comes along. That means you have to be prepared to be hospitable and to interact warmly with someone coming to look at your horse.
In Drenda's experience, you probably won't know on the phone whether the person is a serious prospect or a "looky loo." Often, lookers become buyers when they fall in love. Like romance, there's chemistry involved in finding the right horse. Even if a particular criterion doesn't match-the buyer really had in mind a chestnut and your horse is a bay-people are drawn to horses for different reasons.
If your horse is coming off the show circuit, he may be up to snuff in terms of grooming and training. But if he's been on vacation for a while, or just sitting in your back pasture, you'll have to get him ready for sale. The better trained your horse is, the easier it will be for other people to ride him, and the bigger your pool of potential buyers.
Brush up on his training, and represent it accurately to someone who will come out to see him. The last thing you want is an inexperienced rider on your out-of-condition horse. You may need to enlist the help of a professional to get him to a point where someone can try him. Or be clear to any potential buyers that the horse isn't ready to be ridden, and don't allow anyone to ride him when they come to see him.
To help attract the right kind of buyer, consider making up a flyer with a good photo to give people a feel for the horse. You can put the flyer up in feed stores and vet offices, and give it to trainers, farriers, and interested horse people. If you have a show horse, take the flyer to horse shows and distribute it to anyone you think might be interested, including professionals. You can go high-tech and make a DVD, which will give people an even better idea. However, if the DVD doesn't show your horse well, it may turn off a potentially good buyer.
Beyond that, Drenda suggests advertising in your local newspaper or local horse magazines. "The big advantage of local advertising is that it reaches people who are more likely to come see the horse than someone far away." If the horse has a show record, advertise in breed journals or with a broker who has a specialty in your sport or type of horse. Agents and brokers all work differently and their commissions vary, usually according to what they do to sell the horse.
Once a potential buyer makes contact with you, the work of determining if this is the right home for your horse begins.
On the Phone
Drenda feels the most effective thing an owner can do to find a good home is to take time with a potential buyer on the phone. "Selling is not telling. It's asking the right questions and really listening to the answers," she reminds.
Of course, you'll give the buyer the basics, just as you did on your flyer. But then you'll want that person to tell you about their current and past horses or horse experiences. You might start with a question such as, "What events do you do?" or "What kind of riding do you plan to do?"
If the person has owned horses before, Drenda suggests that you draw the person out by saying, "Tell me about your most recent horse." As you listen, you'll get an idea whether horses are like a vehicle to that person, or if they had a relationship. You might ask how long they had that horse. That will tell you if they kept him 20 years or two months. And where did he go after he left the person's care? Did she send the horse to a sale, or is he right down the road teaching someone else to ride?
Drenda says that people will probably tell you the truth.
"A potential buyer isn't going to second guess whether you'll approve of their decision to sell their old horse," she notes. "People like to talk about themselves and their horses. And by asking, you'll get to hear the story and you'll get to know the person. Let him or her do the talking because this is your opportunity to feel out if this will be a good relationship with your buddy.
Drenda emphasizes that you-the seller-are in control. You don't have to let the other person come try your horse just because he or she responded to an ad and wants to see your horse. If you feel confident enough to proceed with showing the horse, you can set up a time. But if not, politely tell the caller that you don't think this is a fit. You can take things one step at a time.
One of the mistakes that sellers make is telling the prospective buyer too much about the horse on the phone, observes Chappell. Right up front, it's important to tell the buyer if the horse cribs, weaves, has vision problems, chronic colic, or lameness, and to answer any direct questions. But much information beyond that discourages the process.
"Some sellers think they are doing a horse a favor by telling a prospective buyer every little detail on the phone. But what one person thinks is a big deal, another person doesn't care about. So a seller is likely to talk about something that doesn't matter to the buyer and may discourage a potentially great buyer from coming to see the horse. You have to be honest and clear, but don't bring a lot of detail into the discussion before the person has seen the horse. You want them to weigh things as they go," advises Drenda.
When she talks with a prospective buyer on the phone, she also asks about the person's goals and schedule. For instance, if the person says, "I trail ride on the weekends, but not during the week because I work long hours," Drenda goes on to ask whether the horse will be stalled or turned out, and so forth. That way she can assess whether the interests of the horse and person line up. If not, she can suggest that this may not be the best horse, but she offers to keep her eye out for a more suitable horse. For example, if your horse has lots of energy and is absolutely miserable in a stall, you'll know right away that an indoor boarding stable with minimal turnout might not be a happy situation for your horse.
If the goals match and the buyer would like to see the horse, she makes the buyer a part of the next step. She asks questions such as, "Would you like the horse saddled or not saddled when you arrive?" That starts to build trust and makes the buyer feel more in control of the outcome. The more comfortable the prospective buyer is with the process-and the seller-the better.
The First Look
Of course, you want to give your horse every advantage, so that means having him clean, clipped, and ready to show to the prospective buyer on time. And it means that you have to reach out to the buyers. Be friendly and as accommodating as is reasonable. Remember that you are in control, but work at helping make the buyer comfortable. You can stop the process at any time, so put your best foot forward.
Watch carefully to see how your horse and the buyer get along. Look for the little signs that your horse likes the person or the person is working to understand your horse. It may take a while for them to get the signals worked out, but observe their approach and skills.
On the other hand, if you don't like the way someone is handling or riding your horse, stop her. Do it in a nice way, but you can say something like, "I really appreciate your coming out to see this horse, but I don't think your riding style is a good match for him," or "I don't think he'll do well with that technique."
Drenda emphasizes that while it's the seller's job to provide information, you don't want to talk too much. Allow the prospective buyer and horse to interact, and listen for the buyer's comments. It's not uncommon for someone to feel that they want to think it over and come to ride another day. If you feel that it may be a good match, encourage them to come back.
Since your objective is to sell your horse, you have to present him looking his best. The standards vary according to your riding discipline, but squeaky clean is always the first step.
• If you have a show horse, clip him and turn him out like he was going to a show. (Don't braid the mane, but be sure that it's well trimmed and lying flat.)
• No shavings in the tail.
• Fly spray the horse if need be.
• Feet well cleaned, and hooves polished, if it's appropriate for your discipline.
• Clean ears and nose with a damp towel.
• Use a good saddle pad and saddle.
• Clean your bridle, and use a good halter and lead.
• Have handy any required equipment, such as a longe line.
• Clean the stall or paddock. Sweep or blow the barn aisle.
• Be sure the prospective buyer has a place to park.
• Drag the arena, or at least clear it, so the buyer can try the horse.
• Have your liability form handy for the buyer to sign, if that's your farm policy.
• Have helmets handy, in case they didn't bring theirs.
• Have someone watch your children so you can concentrate on your horse and buyer.
• Make sure you and anyone who is going to show the horse is clean and presentable.
• Offer water or refreshments after the ride, especially if it's hot.
"I don't normally recommend a trial period or guaranteed sale," says Drenda. "That introduces too many gray areas. I'd rather the buyer come a few more times to try the horse and then make a clear decision. Usually three visits are sufficient."
Drenda emphasizes that really liking the horse is important if this is to be the right home. Horse ownership will have its ups and downs, and you want to know that the buyer will have a real commitment to the horse.
Making the Sale
If you feel comfortable that a particular buyer is a good match for your horse, you'll need to advance to the process of closing the sale. It may feel awkward, but it's necessary to work through the terms of the agreement.
Pay attention and try to work with the buyer. Someone may not be ready to take it to the next step after the first ride, but you can always ask an open-ended question such as, "What do you think?" Depending on what they say, you can lead the discussion farther down the path with questions such as, "Do you want to arrange for a vet check?" or "Would you be picking him up or do you want me to deliver him?"
Once things are in motion and you feel okay about the match, watch that you don't interrupt the process. If someone asks, "Can I pick him up on Thursday?" you want to be sure to be available on Thursday.
Before the vet check, be clear about who pays for any services so there's no misunderstanding. And if there are any important conditions to the sale, put them in the contract. For instance, if you want the first option to buy the horse back if he should come up for sale again, put that in writing.
You are in control right up until the money changes hands and the buyer drives out the driveway with the horse. If you've represented your horse accurately, listened to the buyer, and carefully watched how your horse acts with her, your equine friend will have a new owner that he can be proud to call a partner. And you'll have done a good deed for your old buddy.