Shelby County farms have fewer horses in the fields

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Economic cutbacks mean that Shelby County’s farms are producing fewer horses for sale. But not all the news is bad.

By Ryan Conley

As is the case with most horse breeds, fewer and fewer Saddlebreds are being produced on a national scale than even a few years ago. But many farm owners in Shelby County have kept the breeding wheels turning so they can be ready when the market eventually rebounds.


Annual registrations of Saddlebreds, which reached an estimated low of 1,930 in 2010, have declined 33.6 percent since 2000, according to data supplied by the American Saddlebred Registry.

Historically, Saddlebred registrations have fallen off more than 55 percent since a bumper crop of 4,351 was realized in 1985.

The American Saddlebred Horse Association does not track foal crops, which for other breeds represents how many horses are born each year. Instead, Saddlebred registrations are recorded in the year when an owner files the proper paperwork, regardless of the age of the horse.

Much of the recent drop-off can be explained away by the economic downturn experienced since the financial crisis of 2008.

Many potential buyers of horses have had to revamp their financial priorities.

“Show animals are not something everyone can afford,” said Karen Frickey, owner of Frickey Farms in Shelbyville. “But it’s still quite possible to sell some right now. We sold three [Hackney] ponies this spring, including one to a new person in the industry.”

Reported annual breedings, which are a record of how many mares were bred each year, reached a decade-low of 3,531 in 2009 – a 38.4 percent decline from the 5,733 recorded in 2000, according to report published in early 2010 by the ASHA.

Not every breeding produces a foal, but the numbers indicate that fewer mares were being bred, at least through 2009. Going forward, foal crops could remain small for the next few years.

But enterprising farm owners are hoping to capitalize on the situation by continuing to breed their mares. Included in that mix is Dr. Scott Bennett, who along with his wife, Linda, owns Alliance Stud in Simpsonville.

“My business model has always been that times of depression are the time to invest,” said Bennett, who also operates the Equine Services hospital in Simpsonville. “When you come out of it, you are ready to roll.

“The last two years, I have been breeding like crazy,” continued Bennett, who said his farm averages 50 foals per year. “Our sales have been up, and as a veterinarian, I have been doing more pre-purchase exams than last year.”

Bennett believes that the industry needs to unify and promote itself in diverse and unique ways.

“The horse business has always been a traditional business, but it’s time to do things in a non-traditional way,” he said.


Some breeding less

Still, others have backed off the breeding train a bit. Copper Coin Farm in Simpsonville, is among those thinning out the ranks.

“We normally breed four or five mares a year, but we cut back to three,” said Bob Johnson, who, along with his wife, Wendy, operates the family farm established in 1971. “We noticed throughout the industry, people have cut back.”

Some non-Saddlebred operations have also cut back, such as Reiny Day Farm in Shelbyville.

Becky Adler, who, along with her husband, Manuel, operates the 22-acre Quarter Horse farm, said she bred no mares last year, and may not this year.

"I think it was the responsible thing to do," she said. "The horse market is so cluttered. These horses are like my children. I couldn't guarantee I could find them a good home."


Sales prices down

Horse sales are the lifeblood of most local farms. Ownership transfers recorded by the ASHA, which are indicators of how well horses are selling, fell to 3,784 in 2009 from a decade-high 5,582 in 2000, a one-third decline.

Though most Saddlebred transactions are private, public auctions provide a glimpse at the health of the industry.

Johnson said prices at the 2009 Tattersalls fall sale in Lexington declined up to 60 percent over the 2008 sale but picked back up last year.

For example, Copper Coin sold one broodmare for more than twice what it expected, and other positive sales were realized, he said.

"That's when we knew that people were coming back to the breeding end of it," Johnson said.

Preliminary data for 2011 shows an uptick in both registrations and transfers. Through February, registration applications were up 7 percent to 136 while transfer applications were up 21.6 percent to 511.

“We’re holding our own … it’s a good sign,” said Linda Duncan, president of the American Saddlebred Registry.


Limited foreclosures

Despite economic travails, local farms are apparently holding onto their assets. Todd Davis, a local private-practice attorney who as Master Commissioner manages foreclosure sales for Shelby County, said he hasn’t seen many distressed properties coming out of the industry.

“The foreclosure business is still, unfortunately, very brisk,” he said. “But working, functioning, horse farms are not going through the processes. I have not seen that.”