From time to time, I'm asked how the downturn in the economy has affected the horse industry. Here's my perspective as an equine attorney.
Although Equine Legal Solutions always receives a lot of calls from boarding stables about boarders who aren't paying their bills, the situation seems to have reached nearly epidemic proportions, particularly in California. Our practice spans California, New York and Washington, and most of the calls about past-due boarders come from California, with an increasing number from Washington. Over half of our free phone consultations are now about non-paying boarders, whereas those calls typically represent more like 20% of our call volume.
In more and more of the non-paying boarder cases, the boarding stable has no way of reaching the boarder. Sometimes, the information the boarder gave the stable was completely fictional - the boarder intended to dump the horses on the boarding stable from the very beginning. (Note that screening potential boarders would help eliminate this problem.) In other cases, the boarder's contact information was initially good, but the boarder's phone has now been disconnected, and the boarder hasn't visited the stable in quite a while. Often, the boarding stable has sent the boarder a certified or registered letter, which has been returned unclaimed. The boarding stable is often desperate for solutions and wants to know when the boarder's horses are considered abandoned and what the stable can do with them.
Now more than ever, the boarding stable is usually better off not executing on its agister's lien. The horse market has declined significantly due to the slaughter ban and the recession. Horses that would have brought at least $500 at auction a few years ago now have no value at all. Meanwhile, hay prices have increased dramatically, making it more expensive to feed horses while waiting for foreclosure proceedings to conclude. And, the chances of being able to collect past due board through traditional methods are slimmer. The boarder may be out of work, with no wages to garnish, and/or may be preparing to file for bankruptcy. Usually, the best thing a boarding stable can do is to get the boarder to come and take the horses, even if the boarder owes the stable money. Getting the horses off the property stops the meter from running on the hay bill and it also cuts off the stable's potential liability for the horses' care.
More boarding stables are having to enforce the payment, lien and eviction portions of their boarding contracts. Unfortunately, many of them are finding their contracts don't adequately address the issues they face. These old, outdated contracts have unwieldy and difficult notice procedures for eviction involving certified and/or registered mail (which most deadbeat boarders will not claim). Often, they require the stable to give the boarder 30 days' notice of termination, even if the boarder owes the stable thousands in back board, effectively making the stable feed the boarder's horse for free for yet another month. And they contain virtually no practical remedies for collecting past due board and getting rid of abandoned horses and tack. As a result, more boarding stables are weighing the high cost of dealing with boarding problems, and deciding that having a boarding contract they can rely upon to protect their interests is well worth the relatively small price.
Most breeders booked fewer breedings in 2009, and many of the bookings were made later than usual, simply because mare owners needed to wait to make sure they had the money to breed this year. Mare owners are being more selective, opting to breed fewer mares. Large breeders are downsizing their broodmare bands, keeping the best and offloading the rest. Many smaller breeders are exiting the breeding business altogether, finding that it's less expensive to buy young stock than it is to breed their own. As a result, there's a glut of broodmares on the market and prices are at historic lows.
Given the significant costs associated with shipping cooled semen and artificially inseminating mares, some breeders are finding that offering live cover and on-site artifical insemination services is drawing more local breedings. Breeders are also keeping costs down by doing more of the work themselves and involving veterinarians and stallion stations less frequently.
As usual, discounts are available to mare owners who book early, book multiple mares and/or have mares with proven production or show records. However, these discounts are more widespread, the discounts are deeper, and even the top stallion owners are offering them. Hoping to draw budget-conscious mare owners, some stallion owners are waiving collection and shipping fees on initial shipments, and others are significantly reducing stud fees and eliminating booking fees. Other stallion owners are offering enhanced live foal guarantees, some with no stud fees due until a live foal is born.
It won't be news to anyone that horse sales are down, and so are horse prices. Craig's List abounds with free horses, and not just junk. More and more of those free horses are sound, registered and/or well-trained. Breeders are having more dispersal sales, and sending more young stock and broodmares to auction.
At the same time, there are fewer buyers at those auctions, and the buyers who do attend buy fewer horses. Sellers are less likely to "no sale" low-selling horses, opting not to haul them home.
Some horse buyers are being more careful. They're making fewer impulse purchases, not buying as many horses sight unseen over the Internet. They're using horse purchase contracts, insisting upon some accountability from the seller. Some horse buyers are taking horses on trial and/or making payments in installments. More sellers are agreeing to these relatively risky terms because they have no other buyers, but conscious of these risks, they are seeking out higher quality horse sale contracts in an effort to protect themselves.
Other horse buyers are cutting costs unwisely, opting not to get a pre-purchase vet exam or not have radiographs or blood draws done during the exam. And some horse sellers are also accepting risky deals that they wouldn't have even considered in a better economy, simply because they need to move some horses, and they need to do it now.
It should come as no surprise that many families consider riding lessons a luxury, so children's lessons are eliminated or reduced when a family experiences financial difficulty. Adult amateurs are also doing without lessons, opting to ride on their own instead.
A lot of horse owners who would have sent young horses to a trainer are now either letting those horses sit, selling those horses as unbroke or greenbroke, or doing some of the training themselves. As a result, I think we can expect to see even more untrained young stock for sale in the coming months. Other horse owners who normally keep their horses in full-time training are bringing their horses home, or cutting back to part-time training, filling in the gaps themselves. Fewer training clients are going to shows, and many of those still showing are opting to attend fewer shows and show in fewer classes this year. More and more trainers are opting to use training contracts, fearful that they won't get paid, or will get stuck with a client's horse.