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Since horses can make a difference in our lives, and even change us, it is worth considering the real value of horses. Some are valued at thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars - some are not. While most highly trained and well bred horses are sold by private treaty or at special production sales, a large number are still sold at auction sales.

The widespread recent droughts in many areas and the tightness of the economy, have caused many horses to be sent to auctions for a quick sale. The anti-slaughter law passed a few years ago in the U.S. had a devastating effect on the horse market. A significant number of horses have even been turned loose in national forests and state parks because they had little monetary value. The Bureau of Land Management has as an excess of mustangs that they have had trouble selling or even giving away to the public in spite of extensive advertising campaigns.

Last year I observed a large rural horse auction where I reflected on the "real value" of horses.

"Loose horses" had very little monetary value, many selling for double digits, some for as little as ten dollars. Fat horses brought several hundred dollars. Severe neglect was obvious in a only a few. The majority of loose horses were probably destined for slaughter in Canada or Mexico where much of the processed horse meat is then shipped overseas where people have no qualms about eating it. (In fact, in many areas people consider it a delicacy as horse meat is leaner, less marbled and lower in cholesterol than beef.)

"Ridden horses," especially those ridden by an experienced rider, brought a higher price than loose horses. However, the price was variable depending on "the story" that went with the horse. Factors that seemed most important were age, level of training, breeding, color, conformation and soundness. Surprisingly, many well-trained "ridden horses" brought only a few hundred dollars more than loose horses. Very few sold for more than a thousand dollars.

This experience caused me to reflect on what determines a horse's real value. I came up with the following standards to be considered by the buyer:

1) Preference. The pre-conceived expectation the buyer has for the horse is known only to each buyer but may include: age, appearance, soundness, training level, athletic ability, sex, color or condition. The old saying still holds true: "You will never find a bad color on a good horse."

2) Disposition. Everyone wants a sound, gentle, well-mannered horse without annoying and sometimes dangerous defects or vices such as limping, pawing, cribbing, lovsickness, herdbound, kicking, striking, bucking or rearing. Mares are less desirable as working horses to most horsemen due to their physiology. It is much easier to work with a horse that has a good disposition than a highly trained dangerous horse.

3) Pedigree. This is more important in breeding and show stock than in working geldings. Yet, many will pay a premium for horses with popular bloodlines since certain lines are more tractable (trainable) and suited for intended uses. Pedigree is never a guarantee of anything however. Ask any racehorse owner.

4) Condition. Ideal condition is when you can't see a horse's ribs but you can feel them. A very thin horse could have bad teeth or it could be diseased. A very fat horse could be an easy keeper or it could be foundered. A horse that is sweating when it is ridden through the sale ring may be one that has been warmed up to mask arthritic or navicular unsoundness, or it may be poorly trained and ridden hard earlier to remove excess energy. Even getting a horse in good condition is no guarantee to the future. Any horse can cholic or founder in the wrong circumstances, but it would be preferable to have a good horse to start with

5) Easy to catch. This is difficult to determine unless you approach the horse when it's loose in a corral. It's always best to examine a horse closely, especially its legs and feet, before the sale, especially before you become attached to it. A really narrow horse might not be the best for jumping as it can trip over itself while landing but everyone has a preference.

6) Easy to handle, shoe, and doctor. This is very important as it will largely determine the pleasure you get from owning a horse and the ease with which you can get help when you need to have it cared for. Watch the horse for resistance to cues and how calm it stands when not asked to move. A horse that is safe around everyone will be the most popular horse in the barn.

7) Connection. This should come later after you have ruled out the other factors. Chances are once a connection is made, you will end up owning the horse for the rest of its life. How you feel around the animal determines the pleasure you will get from owning it. It is difficult to put a value on the special experience you or your child has with a horse.

Horses have value that is not determined by the sale price. Rather, it is established by what we can do with them and what they do to us. They change us. People who grow up with and are connected to horses generally have more compassion, a greater sense of responsibility, are less concerned about appearances, have more money sense, have better judgment about the motives and intentions of people, and they care more about the upkeep of their property than those who do not have that opportunity.

When buying a horse, choose carefully. The price you pay for a horse is only a down payment. The cost of maintaining it will be much more than its initial cost. Of course, those of us who love horses think it's worth it. Ask a farrier for an opinion. A horse that is easy to shoe usually gets a favorable recommendation but they can tell a great deal about a horse’s health and conforma- tion from the wear patterns on the feet or shoes. Ask a veterinarian for an opinion. But, recognize that the final decision and value you place on your horse is yours and yours alone. Whether you buy a $500 horse or a $100,000 it doesn’t matter if you find the value in it. They might not all have the same abilities but they can all have the same problems and it’s worth remembering that a $100,000 horse can become a $500 horse overnight.

Find the horse you like and try not get too obsessed with it’s monetary value. The horse’s real value is in what you get from it, not what you pay for it

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