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The Cost Of Being A Cowgirl

February 01, 2015

WHAT DOES IT REALLY COST TO LIVE THE DREAM IN 2015? WE ASKED ONE OF OUR MOST EXPERIENCED EQUESTRIAN WRITERS TO BREAK DOWN THE BUDGET—FOR BOTH RECREATIONAL RIDERS AND HIGH LEVEL COMPETITORS—SO YOU CAN SEE WHAT KIND OF HORSE OWNERSHIP MAKES DOLLARS AND SENSE FOR YOU.

THE COST OF BEING A COWGIRL

There’s good reason why humans associate horses with wealth, status and power.  Beyond its physical presence and majesty, a horse is an expensive luxury.  That’s doubly true if it’s a horse capable of winning in competitions such as reining, cutting, barrel racing or western pleasure riding.

If you entertain the thought of being a cowgirl who likes to ride, it’s good to go into the whole thing with eyes wide open and pencil sharpened.  Whether your dream is to trail ride or to compete for a world championship, the myriad costs of horse ownership must be taken into account.   Let’s walk through the basics, then look at the added expenses you can anticipate in a variety of western show disciplines.

The Horse  The old adage that “you get what you pay for” certainly applies when shopping for horses.  A horse can be had for free —and is likely worth every penny.  Or, it can sell for a small fortune—or a very large one.  One renowned performance Quarter Horse stallion with almost unlimited breeding potential recently sold for more than $5 million! However, in general, the going prices for horses vary from about $2,500 for a broke trail horse to as much as $25,000 for a competitive arena horse.

Many factors go into determining a horse’s value.  The animal’s parentage, for one.  Backyard–bred “mutts” known as grade horses tend to bring the lowest prices.  Well–bred, pedigreed horses from arena–proven bloodlines fetch the highest sums.

But it’s not just what’s on the pedigree paper that counts.  On–the–ground ability is equally important.  A young horse without a solid foundation of training is generally less valued than a well–trained horse that’s been seasoned on the trail or in the arena.  (The exceptions are futurity horses: young horses of exceptional breeding whose value is set well before they ever compete or are even trained.  Those that perform poorly when in competition can actually lose value!)

Conversely, a horse that’s in the waning days of his competitive career may be a real bargain compared to a horse at the peak of his athletic abilities.   Like cars, horses typically depreciate as the miles add up.

Of the three types of horses—the young, barely broke colt, the seasoned mid–career horse, or the aging but still able veteran—the best choice of the three (at least for a “newbie”) is typically the elderly one.  Such a horse can have thousands of hours of arena or trail experience and many thousands of dollars of training time, and yet still sell for a bargain price.

Exceptions to the “you get what you pay for” rule certainly exist.  Barrel racer Kristie Peterson famously won four Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Championships on Bozo, a Quarter horse she bought for $400.  At age 14, endurance rider Bryna Stevenson won the prestigious Old Dominion 100 miler on a $550 half-Arabian mare named Maddy.  And Russell Giles, a Texas car dealer, paid a mere $7,000 for Lil Joe Cash, winner of the 2011 National Reining Horse Futurity.  The stallion, who competed against horses worth more than $100,000, is now worth millions as a breeder.

But those “Cinderella stories” are legend because they happen so infrequently.  Bottom line is, you can expect to pay $2,500 for a bare–bones but well–broke trail horse and more than $10,000 for an arena horse capable of bringing home blue ribbons in local shows or amateur barrel races.  Once you move up to regional and national competition, the numbers climb precipitously, especially if your goal is to win.  You may pay as much for this caliber of horse as you would a new car, starting with a compact Ford and going up to a Ferrari.

Care and Feeding
It’s often said that the purchase price of a horse is merely a downpayment.   A horse you got for free from Craigslist eats the same amount as a World Champion.  Its vet bills are also equivalent, as are its stabling expenses.  Take into account the lifetime costs associated with any horse and you might reconsider whether you want that poorly–balanced, bone–jarring gift horse versus a moderately priced, smooth-traveling, registered show horse.  In the end, the better horse may be the better bargain, especially in terms of the enjoyment you derive from the money spent.

What do those expenses add up to, exactly? A survey by Equine Guelph, a program of the Canadian-based University of Guelph, detailed the overall costs of horse ownership in North America.  Though prices may vary by location, the figures provide a good base from which to start.

Boarding a horse outdoors runs about $3,600 per year, including pasture and feed.  Indoor boarding costs about $550 a month, or a total of $6,600 a year.

Of course, you might think keeping a horse at home won’t cost a penny.  But you’ll still have to pay for things like pasture fence upkeep, perhaps a mortgage on your barn, and hay—at a cost of about $1,000 annually.  Add another $970 each year for high–calorie balanced feed rations, plus supplements and electrolytes at $250.

If kept indoors, you can also add bedding at an expense of $1,150 per year.  Barn equipment, hoses, shovels, wheelbarrows, and the like, will cost about $250.  Depending on your property, you may need to pay for manure removal, which costs about $50 to $75 per load.  And, you may find you need to finance a tractor to clean out runs and spread manure—add several hundred dollars per month in payments, or a flat sum of $16,000 to $25,000.

As you can see, you may be spending more for the enjoyment of looking out the kitchen window at your horse than boarding it at a stable.  But if you plan to keep more than one horse in the family, buying a horse property and keeping them home may be the least expensive option.

Horse Health
Keeping your horse healthy involves routine and emergency costs.  You can control the former through careful management, for example, removing shoes in cold-climate states during winter, when your riding is curtailed by weather.  Some people choose not to use shoes at all, but this may not be an option if you plan to compete.

Regardless, you’ll need to vaccinate your horses, deworm them, and have sporadic vet work done, such as filing the teeth (“floating”).  Figure on about $1,500 for routine healthcare if you keep a horse in shoes year–round, and about $600 if you forego shoes and just leave him barefoot and trimmed.

Veterinary emergencies can really blow your budget.   A single case of colic that calls for emergency surgery may run $8,000 to $12,000.  Therefore, you might want to invest in veterinary emergency insurance.  If your horse is highly valued, you may want to add an equine mortality policy.  Other insurance policies to consider include a blanket liability policy and riders on your homeowner’s insurance that cover barns and outbuildings, farm vehicles, and off–property damages resulting from, say, a horse who gets loose at a fairgrounds.  Expect to tack on $500 extra dollars annually to your insurance bills

Tack & Saddlery
Many is the farm kid who started riding bareback on a draft horse with nothing but a halter and a lead rope for steering.  Today, chances are your seat is less sure, your bones more brittle, and your horse more spirited than that.  You’re going to need an array of horse equipment: a saddle and pad, bridle, bit, halters, lead ropes, and grooming tools.  Additionally, you’ll want riding apparel that includes cowboy boots, boot–cut denim jeans, shirts, a hat, and perhaps chaps.

If you’re just going trail riding with the gals, you can start with the basics.  A western saddle can sell for as little as $800.  You should be able to pick up bridles, bits, halters, a grooming kit, and a new wool saddle blanket for another $500.  Good boots invariably cost $150 or more, and a quality cowboy hat sells for more than $100.  Add to that a few pairs of jeans, at $50 each, plus some riding shirts and a low-cost set of spurs and your total budget comes to roughly $2,250.

But, you say, you want to show.  Get ready to spend some serious cash.  You’ll need to upgrade that saddle at a cost of roughly $1,500 to $2,500.  If it’s a specialty saddle for reining, cutting or barrel racing, the price can climb up to as much as $5,000.  You’d like pretty silver with that? Custom tooling? A hand-built “tree” or saddle frame cut to your personal contours and fitted to your horse and nobody else’s?  Well, that can run up to $15,000.

In any event besides barrel racing, show chaps are another required item.  Buy ‘em off the shelf for $250, or order custom made for $1,000.  Your run–of–the–mill 5X cowboy hat won’t turn a judge’s eye, so serious competitors often invest in a 10x to 100x beaver fur hat at $500.  Sequined show shirts and riding jackets along with color–coordinated jeans will add hundreds more to your budget.  Custom spurs, like the ones made by legendary spur and bit maker Tom Balding, start around $300.  Custom bits will set you back $150 to $450.

Transportation
Most people don’t have the luxury of riding trails in close proximity to their homes.  However, your stable may have its own riding arena, and, if you’re exceptionally lucky, trails that you can access.  Regardless, you’re likely to grow bored riding the same ol’ loops and endlessly circling the arena.  In order to expand your horse riding world, you’re going to need a truck and trailer.

What can you expect to pay? It all depends on your standard of living and your need for luxury.  A bare–bones, basic, used, two–horse trailer can be had for a very small sum, perhaps as little as a couple thousand dollars.  Your SUV or minivan might pull just such a load, but at the expense of the drivetrain.  The better option is to get a used truck.  All told, for a reliable used pickup truck and trailer, you should budget about $20,000.

From there, the sky is the limit! Want to travel to shows in a shiny new truck? Perhaps add a trailer with living quarters so you can camp with your horses on the show grounds? A new Chevy Silverado 2500 sells for about $40,000.  Couple that to a Sundowner 2–horse slant trailer with a 10–foot long living space, and you’re up around $65,000.

Many cowgirls need space for a couple of friends’ horses, and even want room to entertain on the circuit.   Step up to a Platinum Coach three–horse trailer with solid wood interior and leather furniture for $100,000.  Now you’re traveling in style and luxury!

Lessons, club costs and entry fees
If you decide to take your riding seriously, you’ll need riding lessons.  Even the best competitive horsewomen have coaches and trainers.  Honestly, there’s no way to improve without them.  Education and lessons are money well spent, as they’ll help you build a better, stronger, and often safer bond with your horse.

Typically, private equitation lessons go for roughly $50 for a weekly lesson.  If your goal is competition–and winning–in a specialty area such as reining or barrel racing, expect the price to be higher, as much as $175 per lesson.

Competition brings in a whole extra level of expenses.  You’ll have annual membership dues in a national association such as the AQHA or National Reining Horse Association, plus perhaps local club membership fees and event entry fees.  Calculating these expenses is difficult because the costs really come down to how often you wish to compete, how far from home you’re willing to travel, the size of the events you attend and the standard of living you desire.

Larger events paying bigger prizes invariably cost more than smaller, local competitions with modest purses.

A ballpark budget for competition entries, hotel rooms, gas, meals and associated expenses would be roughly $200 for a local event and close to $750 for an out–of–state weekend competition.

The Bottom Line
The cost of being a cowgirl, especially a cowgirl with a tack room full of trophy ribbons, can be quite high.  But ask anyone who lives the lifestyle—all those women who can’t wait for the weekend to ride the open range, chase cans in the rodeo arena, or vie for a blue ribbon or world championship in the show ring—and they’ll all tell you the same thing:  Yes, horses are expensive, but living your dream is priceless!

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