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GALLOPING PAST HARD TIMES EQUESTRIANS SIDESTEP ECONOMY.

Byline: Brent Hopkins Staff Writer

U.S. consumers have reined in most of their spending but it's different in the horse industry - where economic concerns are brushed off like so many pesky flies.

Although it's still a small niche - one expert places overall annual spending at $2.1 billion - the equine business combines three recession-resistant segments for a surprisingly durable trifecta.

At the same time it appeals to pet lovers, it draws in passionate hobbyists, and, most important, luxury consumers. The combination insulates nearly all aspects of the industry from the trends of the overall economy.

``Right now, the horse business is booming,'' said Jennifer Hughes, owner of Pepper Tree Ranch and Riding Club in Chatsworth. ``Every ranch I talk to is full and we're turning people away. It's the love for the animals - I just talked to one lady who's losing her house but keeping her three horses.''

To the uninitiated, the costs seem staggering, but these don't deter equestrian enthusiasts. Hughes laughingly calls the horse ``the bargain,'' costing $1,500 on the extreme low-end, all the way up to $75,000 for a first-rate show horse. She estimated the average rider spends roughly $5,000 to $10,000, and that's before they start buying equipment.

``Horses have always had a special appeal, which is different for everyone,'' said Nicole Webster, equine facilities manager for the horse barn of the department of animal sciences at University of California, Davis. ``If you own them, it's a passion and a hobby, so you'll dump more money into it.''

The several billion dollars consumers spend on their horses come in small figures, from a few dollars for a bag of horse cookies to many thousands for medical costs.

``It's an investment,'' said Tyson Furubotten, a salesman for Kahoots, a Chatsworth-based feed and saddlery store. ``If you keep it in your back yard, you're looking at $2,000 a year. With board, that can be another $600 a month, not counting shoes, shots and everything else.''

Furubotten knows the high costs quite well, as his 15-year-old quarter horse mare, Sugar, went in for $8,100 colic surgery in December. Although his insurance covered most of the cost, the price was a reminder of how expensive being a horse enthusiast can be. Even a horse with a clean bill of health goes through a bale of hay a week, at $10 a bale, living in spaces where rent starts at $245 per month for an outdoor corral at Pepper Tree Ranch.

And unlike a dog that needs only food and a walk, horses require constant upkeep. They need grooming, exercise, training - and the bill for shoes leaves Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik in the dust. A good farrier earns more than $150 for each shoe set - and shoes are applied to the horses' hooves every four-to-six weeks.

``I've been flown to France and Mexico, all because people know I'll do a good job,'' said Bob Phalen, a Canoga Park farrier with 35 years in the business. ``People will do that because they have a lot of money invested in these (horses). You don't change the mechanic who does your race car, so they don't change the guy shoeing the horse.''

The lifestyle has related expenses that drive costs further - if you want to keep a horse on your property, you're not going to be living in a one-bedroom apartment in Northridge. And you can't haul it around behind an economy car, so you'll probably invest in a powerful truck or sport utility vehicle to tow the trailer.

Not that there aren't practical uses for horses beyond recreation and emotional satisfaction. Ride On Therapeutic Horsemanship, a nonprofit corporation based in Chatsworth, uses 26 horses to work with the mentally and physically disabled, charging $35 per weekly lesson. In addition, the ranch also offers hippotherapy - physical therapy on horseback - for 18 patients.

``For some of the clients, it's the one positive in their life,'' said Pat Updegraff, Ride On's office manager. ``I think that horses bring out the best in people. They just have a special way about them, where they'll react differently to a small child and with a trained adult.''

What starts off as a child's dream of a pony quickly becomes a central fixture in a family's life. And for many, it leads to an entire business.''

``My parents got me a horse as a kid,'' Hughes remembered. ``But then when you're 16, you get a license and think boys are cool and forget about your horses. But then once you're 19, you realize boys aren't that cool and you want to get them back.''

It's a familiar story among horse enthusiasts and business people alike. In Hughes' case, this led to her family's purchase of a run-down biker hangout on a Chatsworth street and its transformation into a 36-stall boarding facility and riding club. She took over the business at the age of 21 and has converted a dilapidated site where abandoned goats once roamed free into a thriving ranch.

Even with the costs involved, many horse owners seem to find one is not enough. To add to their personal herds., enthusiasts from as far away as the United Kingdom call up Dorann LaPerch, owner of Bonn-Fyre Farms/Training Center in Moorpark, to inquire about the social calendars of her nine stallions. She says stud fees range from $250 to $10,000 though hers are relatively modest. If a client wants access to the bloodline of Azh Naboor, her premier stallion who has sired 350 offspring, they pay $2,500 for a guaranteed live foal birth.

The stallion is slowing down at the age of 29, but he's still so popular that LaPerch finds herself in the busiest year in a long time, with an extra-long breeding season to maximize returns. Although horses like hers command handsome fees and her boarding stalls are full, she says the business isn't necessarily lucrative.

``It's not a great business, but it's done out of love,'' she said. ``I'm sure there's people who run this to make money, but for the majority of people, you do it to just break even. Even the Kentucky bluegrass farms, they get $150,000 fees but look at the upkeep. They're not getting rich. If you get a lot of money, you spend a lot of money, too.''

Brent Hopkins, (818) 713-3738

brent.hopkins(at)dailynews.com

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3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) Assistant trainer Sara Perlove, left, plays with 6-year-old thoroughbred Archie after his grooming Wednesday at Peppertree Ranch and Riding Club in Chatsworth. Below, Pepper Tree owner Jennifer Hughes rides Archie bareback as she leads a horse named Rebel.

(3) Horses are groomed at Peppertree Ranch, a 36-stall boarding facility and riding club.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jul 19, 2003
Words:1131
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