Saturday, February 20, 2010
Economics of Training
by Grainne Dhu
Comments were made on this blog that small trainers and dealers are
being squeezed out of the low end of the horse market by rescues. That
there is no profit in training a horse for pleasure/trail riding. Is
this true? And if it is true, is it a good or bad thing? Would a
change of recommendations away from "rescue a horse in danger" serve
any good purpose?
Cost and market value are often two different numbers. It may cost
more to produce a certain item than the market will pay for it, the
two numbers may be similar or it may cost markedly less to produce the
item than the market will pay. If you want examples of items in the
third category, walk into a Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is full of stuff that
costs much less to produce than the market value of the item. Is horse
training like that?
Well, let's see. Let's start with Jane Rider, who has the skills to
train a horse from untouchable to being a safe and steady ride on the
trail. The standard working week in the US is 40 hours, usually worked
in increments of 8 hours over 5 out of 7 days. Since horses need care
7 days a week, Jane's working hours should be no more than 5.7 hours a
day. Looks to me like Jane could work 6 horses a day (slightly less
than one hour per horse) if someone else does the grooming and cooling
out but that person doesn't work for free either! To keep this simple,
let's say that Jane does all care for the horses, so that means she
probably only has time to work 4 horses a day.
How much should Jane get paid for that? Well, someone who in engaged
in physical activity needs to eat more than a package of ramen a day.
They need health insurance because everyone needs health insurance and
because injuries are a predictable part of handling horses. She should
also have disability insurance, again because horses and injuries tend
to go together. She needs to be able to afford a vehicle because most
horses live in places without public transportation. She also needs to
be able to afford a place to live and enough money to live on
So, here's my (conservative) guesstimates as to the cost of all these
things. Nutritious food for one person for one month at $500. Health
insurance at $400. Disability insurance at $120. Vehicle payment,
$250. Rent or house payment on a one bedroom, $600. Utilities,
clothing, recreational expenses, $500. Sub total, $2,370 per month.
Taxes on all of that would run around 35%, so add $830 for a total of
$3200 per month.
Now, the horses also have expenses. They have to eat, they need to
have their hooves done, they need vet care. I'm arbitrarily going to
decide that stall board with part day turn out is $150 (feed
included), hooves $60 per farrier visit but since that is once every 8
weeks, the one month total is $30. Vet care, say one yearly visit for
routine care and one yearly visit to fix whatever stupid thing the
horse did for a total of $500 per year; divided into 12 months, that
is $40/month. Horse total is $220 per month.
Jane plus horse expenses total $3420 per month. Divided between the
four horses she can care for, that is $855 per horse.
Remember that goal of turning out a horse that is stable and safe to
trail ride? How long would it take Jane, who is a gifted rider, to
train a horse to do that?
Assuming that the horse comes to Jane halter trained and with adequate
ground manners but has never had a saddle on, has never been bridled
and has only a very vague idea of what "ho" means (he thinks it means
slow down slightly). I'll guesstimate that it takes Jane a week of
ground work to get this horse comfortable being saddled, bridled and
taught that "ho" means stop moving every single hoof. By the end of
the second week, Jane has taught him that weight on his back, having a
human swing around in different positions near and on top of him is
okay and that he really and truly will not fall over if he has to take
a step with a human weight on his back.
By the end of the third week, Jane has him walking under a rider with
the rudiments of turning and stopping. By the end of the fourth week,
Jane has him beginning to balance himself at a walk and through big
By the end of the fifth week, Jane has him trotting under saddle,
walking with good balance and able to do serpentines at a walk without
falling into the turns. By the end of the sixth week, Jane has him
cantering under saddle in big circles in both directions, trotting
with balance through serpentines and has done some riding with him at
a walk outside the arena, in a familiar area.
By the end of the seventh week, Jane has him working at w/t/c in both
directions and able to balance himself through turns. By the end of
the eighth week, Jane has him able to do a reasonably balanced halt
from a walk, a trot or a canter, able to do medium and large circles
at the trot and able to trot around outside the arena in a familiar
In the ninth week, Jane focuses on working outside the arena. She
walks him in new places, but trots and canters only in familiar areas.
In the tenth week, Jane starts riding him in the company of other
horses and seeks out simple obstacles like shallow creeks or a steep
slope to help him figure out how to navigate.
In the eleventh and twelfth weeks, Jane seeks out new situations and
sets up simple challenges like walking across a tarp on the ground,
stepping across rails on the ground, etc.
Now, let's say that Jane started out with a four year old, low end
grade horse that may have had one grandparent that was a registered
QH. Hard to say from looking at him. His head is a little coarse, his
neck is adequate, he could use more shoulder angle, he's a whisper
high in the rear. Legs clean all around. But he does have a cute
little diamond shaped snip on his nose and he's got a naturally calm
disposition, such that even when really startled, his most extreme
reaction is to raise his head and stop moving until he can see what is
going on. Before Jane put three months into him, he was worth maybe
$500 at auction (people can't resist the cute little snip).
Horse and cost of training, $3,065.
So what is this horse's market worth? Anyone want to venture a guess?
I suspect that the market value of training is not nearly as much as
the cost of it. The hypothetical horse above could, I believe, be
fairly described as green broke, suitable for an intermediate rider.
He needs more hours under saddle and lots more experience to be
appropriate for beginner riders, although he does naturally have the
right sort of temperament.
Now say there's someone, Sally Trailrider, who has $3000 to spend on a
new horse. She's heard that if she goes to auction, she can get a
Quarter horse, Thoroughbred or Arab, complete with papers, minimal
training but a nice prospect. Or she could go to Jane Rider and get
the hypothetical horse who may have been worth $500 at auction before
he got all that training.
Does Sally have the skills to put the training into an auction rescue?
Maybe but looking at horse prices, I suspect not. Unridden horses are
worth less than horses that can be ridden through the ring.
Unfortunately, the difference is only a couple hundred dollars. Over
and over, when people talk about what they want in a horse, they
describe a horse that is, above all, bombproof.
Maybe Sally will be lucky and the auction horse turns out to be a well
trained horse that slipped through the cracks for some reason. The
auction horse will almost certainly fill the eye better than the
hypothetical low end grade horse, cute snip or not.
Does Sally really need a horse with good conformation? She rides 3
times a week, rarely more than an hour at a time and does very little
trotting or cantering. What she really enjoys is walking along out in
nature enjoying time away from the rest of her life with her horse.
She's highly unlikely to ever do anything high impact, so the
hypothetical horse's lack of shoulder angulation and whisper high rear
are not likely to impede his soundness.
Are people looking for the wrong qualities in their horses?