American Made: Is Importing Sport Horses the Answer?

Photo © Lauren Mauldin


For decades, horse shoppers in most disciplines traveled to Europe in the hopes of finding a hidden gem, that diamond in the rough standing in a remote barn in the Netherlands- undervalued and underpriced. “They don’t know what they have,” we would think. “They don’t know what a good (insert division) is. I can buy this one, import him, and make a hit. Let’s go to the vet.”

While this scenario still occurs in abundance, it has become and more anomalous. European horse breeders, owners, riders, and brokers have become very savvy about the American market. In most cases, they do know what they have and price their exports accordingly. In addition, American dealers who buy multiple horses per year have cultivated lucrative relationships with their counterparts across the pond. It makes economic sense: bring me the horses first and I will keep buying from you. Often, by the time someone with a lesser presence in the European market sees a video or has an in-person trial, the horse has been shopped around to multiple potential buyers. Exclusivity in the broker to buyer situation is good business, but it is hard for the single buyers to compete. 

So, we launch a pilgrimage to Europe in search of the best horse within our price range. Planes, trains, and automobiles. Hotel bills, language challenges, inclement weather. Finally, we hit our mark, find “the one,” and send it for a veterinary pre-purchase exam. We go home and await x-rays and clinical reports to reach our vets in the U.S. The worse case scenario is that the horse has a physical flaw and our vets tell us to pass on him. Our trip was for naught. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

In the best case scenario, our horse passes the exam and we contact the transportation company. We then pay for the horse, the transport to the plane, the plane, the transport to quarantine, quarantine (God forbid you have a mare or stallion), and then transportation from quarantine to wherever the final destination is. The process costs in the environs of $10,000 depending on where the horse originates, unforeseen health issues, and other details.

The next few weeks or months are a process of acclimating the European horse to its new American home. Weather, footing, turn out, stable management, tack, jumps, discipline- all may be new and take time to assimilate. Some horses meld easily to their new lives; some need more time. And, as we know, time is money in the horse business. 

What of the alternative to buying American bred performance horses? Why is this the less traveled path in the 21st century? According to professional trainers and significant horse importers, the answer is simple: money. The cost of raising a young horse in America- from conception to age of competition/sale- is exorbitant. Many factors combine to raise the mercury on cost: land value, more expensive horse husbandry practices, cost of employees, feed and hay, and horse shows. Horse show managers are in the spotlight as many in the industry implore them to reduce costs for competing young hunters and jumpers. Is this the panacea to all of our issues? Certainly not. But, it could help the American bred performance horse become less of the exception in the horse industry. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Emil Spadone, owner of Redfield Farms, Inc. in Califon, NJ and Ocala, FL is one of the largest horse dealers in America. Emil’s business includes training and coaching, but is most recognized for the impressive roster of sales graduates. Hunters, jumpers, equitation horses of all levels are on the menu at Redfield. Emil has a long relationship with prominent Dutch horse breeder, Paul Hendricks, with whom he owns and imports many horses. Within the last decade, Emil began his own breeding operation in Ocala, Fl. He currently stands the popular stallion, Carrico, for owner Callie Seaman. 

Emil has extensive understanding of pedigrees and their value, much like a Thoroughbred bloodstock agent. He has favorite “nicks,” or stallion and mare matches over generations that he looks for. Armed with education, experience, and a large array of bloodstock to choose from, Emil is an expert. “I have been in the breeding world for myself for about ten years, “ he explained. “Have I made a profit? Well… I’m not sure. As my numbers get bigger, it might get better.” Herein lies the problem for the American breeder.

In Holland, Paul Hendricks will have a crop of more than 100 foals per year. Carefully culling out the less desirable ones, he will end up with some premium animals to train and sell. And, the process of raising them will cost cents on our dollar. In the U.S., crops are much smaller and the ability to sell the weaker specimens at a discount and still remain profitable as a whole is unlikely. Calculate the cost of raising a horse to the age of competition, and your profit margin dissipates.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Now, let’s take them to a horse show. The cost of shipping, stalls, entry fees, nomination fees, stall fees, and federation fees are offset by the virtual impossibility of winning your fees back. You have a young horse in need of show experience in order to make him marketable and that show experience is tallied in the expense column, thereby raising the horse’s price. Why is our American breeding industry suffering? The answer is obvious- cost. What is the answer? Ideas vary, but most center around enjoining show management to the cause by reducing horse show fees for young hunters and jumpers.

About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist and an autism advocate. Her illustrious resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She lives with her family in Unionville, PA and Wellington, FL.

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