Horse hobbyists are cutting back, and that’s no good for business

SAMANTHA BRIX PHOTO | Kelly Beglane, 20, of East Quogue and her horse Abby, a Thoroughbred race horse, clear a gate in the riding rink at Hedgewood Farm in Laurel.

Nancy Mullady knows how expensive riding horses can be.

The Southold equestrian, a local veterinarian who has been riding her whole life, said buying a horse, boarding it at a barn and maintaining a supply of quality equipment — helmets, saddles, boots and winter blankets — are quite costly.

But she refuses to skimp when it comes to her horses.

“In my house, I don’t buy jewelry or go on vacation,” said Ms. Mullady, sitting atop Charleston, a white Dutch Warmblood. “We make our choices about what comes first, and the horse comes first.”

Ms. Mullady and other North Fork riders have been forced by a down economy to either cut back on their beloved but costly hobby or save money elsewhere.

And for those in the business, that affects the bottom line.

Dawn Hommel, barn manager of Hedgewood Farms in Laurel, where Ms. Mullady boards Charleston, said she’s seeing fewer students sign up for riding lessons and is increasingly losing students, who may decide to play more sports in school in hopes of securing college scholarships.

“I hate to say it, but sports are interfering,” she said.

Private lessons cost $75 per hour at Hedgewood Farms and up to $85 elsewhere on the North Fork. Even Ms. Mullady, passionate as she is about riding, has been buying fewer lessons to teach her 8-year-old daughter to ride their pony, Stuart Little.

Riders agree the cost of maintaining and caring for a horse far outweighs the initial expense of purchasing one. There’s boarding, grooming, veterinarian bills, dental cleanings and — in some cases — massages, acupuncture appointments and chiropractor visits.

And barn managers agree horses are seeing fewer luxuries in life.

Ms. Hommel said more owners are deciding to “rough board” their horses, meaning the animals are brought into stalls only in bad weather. Rough boarding costs $550 at Hedgewood, while a full board option, meaning horses are brought inside every single night, costs $700.

“Some people wait as long as they can,” Ms. Hommel said. “They wait until it gets really bad out and then they take [their horses] in.”

Rough boarding isn’t offered at Blue Ribbon Farm in Calverton, so riders trying to save money instead look for people to own their horses half the time, said riding academy co-owner Alice Petersen.

A half-time horse owner, or half-boarder, pays the horse’s original owner half its boarding fees and can ride the horse and take it to shows half the time — usually three or four days a week, said Ms. Petersen, who added that half-boarding is a growing, economy-driven trend.

“It’s a way to own your own horse without the commitment and expense,” she said.

Blue Ribbon Farm is focused on dressage — a competitive sport in which the horses look like they’re performing dance moves — instead of on jumping. The extended trot is one step a dressage horse might perform in competition.

She said training expenses coupled with regular grooming and boarding fees make dressage difficult for riders, especially younger ones, to continue.

“The economy is affecting this sport,” she said. “There’s no two ways about it.”

She said school-age dressage students can apply for free dressage lessons through the United States Dressage Federation, a nonprofit organization that aims to educate and promote the sport. One of Ms. Petersen’s students was recently selected to join the Emerging Dressage Athlete Program, a six-day clinic providing free lessons from dressage athletes who have competed in the Olympics.

Blue Ribbon also runs a Working Student Program in which students can work at the barn in exchange for lessons instead of paychecks.

Riding  are also increasingly buying used equipment and shopping for bargains, Ms. Petersen said. She, for one, buys hay and wood shavings for her barn in bulk instead of purchasing small quantities at higher prices from local farmers. She also picks up winter blankets in the summer, when they’re on sale, and stocks up on flea spray during the winter.

Buying used equipment is another way her students save pennies, she said. The saddle is seen as the item to splurge on, and a high-quality one can run around $6,000.

Riders can opt for a used brand name saddle, but that’ll still set them back about $3,500.

“It’s still really difficult,” she said.

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