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Horsing around: The equestrian joys come with horse-sized responsibilites

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Many people are attracted to the allure of owning a horse, but the responsibility is a major, expensive commitment. 

Emily Hertz Chadwell can still remember her first jump while riding a horse.

“It felt like the coolest thing ever,” said the head trainer and farm manager at Kiawah River Stables on Johns Island. “I was only like 5 or 6 years old, but I still remember it. That feeling of flying, of being airborne, especially with such a massive animal — it was awesome.”

Almost everyone in the equestrian industry has a similar story, of that one moment when a general interest in horses is transformed into something very different. Initial curiosity can lead to riding lessons, which can lead to competing, which can lead to a lifestyle defined by weekend events and almost daily trips to the barn.

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Mare Katherine O'Lark nibbles at Eden Wind Farm. The Johns Island stable offers boarding, as well as riding lessons.

“They’re big, beautiful creatures,” said Murray Neale, executive director of Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding, based at the Brickhouse Equestrian Center on Johns Island. “Sometimes kids are just fascinated by them, and want to learn to ride, and learn all about them. Horses have a wonderful place in a lot of Disney movies and cartoons and things kids see, books that they read. And they’re big, beautiful animals, and to be able to ride them is kind of a big deal.”

The connection can be a natural one, and it can strike at an early age — Denise Mosimann, co-owner of Eden Wind Farm on Johns Island, has a photograph of herself on the back of a pony at just 2 years old. But it’s also an avocation that demands prudent management, due to the unique care required of the animal involved, as well as costs that if unchecked can rapidly spiral out of control.

“You’ve got to be in a financial position, No. 1, because … horses in general are expensive,” said Jane Dunn, who for more than 20 years operated Holly Hill Training Center, a thoroughbred training facility located an hour north of Charleston. “They’re not like a rabbit or a bunny or a dog or a cat. It’s expensive to keep horses. You’ve got to have an area to board them, and all the rest that goes with it. So you need to have the financial resources if you want to get involved.”

A costly commitment

The numbers can add up, and they can get sobering in a hurry. While buyers might be able to find one for less, area experts say a safe, entry-level horse typically runs between $5,000 and $10,000. For children who want to go beyond riding, and become interested in more specialized disciplines like jumping and dressage, that price tag can push north of $40,000. In some cases, the horse may need to be trained along with the rider. And the better the child becomes, the better the horse needs to be, sometimes requiring an upgrade to an even more expensive animal.

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While owning a horse is too costly for many, leasing one is a cheaper option that frees up equine lovers from many of the responsibilities of ownership.

“If parents are asking, ‘Is this something I can afford?’ I’ll be honest — if they’re asking that question, they probably can’t,” said Tanya Domin, co-owner of Eden Wind Farm, which introduces children with a “Horse Buddy” program that involves feeding, grooming and safety. “You’ve got to be a parent really willing to put in the time, money and energy. It’s like a family affair. It’s not just taking a kid to a soccer game and bringing them home.”

And then there’s everything beyond the horse. For riders who compete, event entry fees can cost hundreds of dollars, and total weekend expenses can run into the thousands once stalls and grooms and trainers are included. There’s shoeing every six weeks, veterinarian visits every six months at a minimum. Hundreds of dollars for a saddle, boots and equipment, around $1,000 a month for boarding, $20,000 for a horse trailer to get it to events. It adds up quickly, and it doesn’t stop.

“However much you pay for a horse for your child, anywhere from $5,000 to $80,000, that initial outlay will be the least of your expenses,” said Neale, whose therapeutic riding stable is in its 26th year. “Because there are monthly board bills that have to be paid. The horse has to have shoes, and that’s fairly expensive, every six weeks. It has to be visited by a vet twice a year, just for routine vaccines. On top of all that, you can invest in a horse and it can hurt itself and go lame. It’s a big deal. It’s a lot of fun, but a family has to look at it realistically.”

Affordable options

No wonder, then, some in the industry advise against parents buying horses for their children. Some farms allow their horses to be borrowed for events. Leasing programs, like one at Brickhouse that costs $200 a month and comes with two riding sessions a week, is another more affordable option.

“It’s a big investment. If you’re not making over $100,000 a year … (you) probably shouldn’t own a horse. Because it’s just that emergency situation, if a horse has stomach problems or colic, that’s going to cost you $4,000 to $10,000,” Domin said.

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Emily Rapach, of Awendaw competes with her horse, It's All A Game, on the opening day of the Charleston Summer Classic at Mullet Hall Equestrian Center last summer.

“We don’t really push owning a horse,” she added, referring to Eden Wind. “We have a horse on our property that’s 36 years old. It’s for a lifetime. This is not owning a dog that passes away after 10 years.”

And yet, for students like Chadwell’s who get involved primarily to compete, there often comes a tipping point when the rider progresses beyond what a leased or school horse is capable of. Even if they ease into it gradually, with lessons and then borrowed or leased horses, there can come a time when a more advanced student — along with his or her parents — faces a choice.

“They can want to start doing jumps bigger than the school horses can do, or going to a level of dressage that’s more advanced than what lesson horses can do,” Chadwell said. “Lesson horses are typically at a beginner to intermediate level. You get beyond that, if you’re motivated to continue, it gets to the point where it makes sense to kind of have your own horse.”

Plus, the lure of owning a horse can be “captivating,” she added, particularly when riders begin entering shows and see others who own their own horses. But even then, Chadwell said, trainers have to meet with families and discuss goals and financial commitments. “You have to sit down and lay out the options, talk about what is feasible for different people with different budgets, and go from there,” she said.

Off to the races

In thoroughbred racing, ownership is the whole ballgame, and it’s typically played at an elite financial level. Dunn said group ownership — pioneered by Cot Campbell, owner of Aiken’s famed Dogwood Stables — has become more popular, allowing more people to get involved in race horse ownership at a percentage of the total price. One company that manages such partnerships, West Point Thoroughbreds of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said a $10,000 investment equates to a 5 percent stake in a horse.

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Jessica Clinton, of Mount Pleasant, grooms her horse Parker as she is watched closely by her dogs Hunley, left and Frosty, at Mullet Hall Equestrian Center in July on Johns Island. 

“It’s a very good education,” said Dunn, who recently put her Holly Hill facility up for sale. “You’re around other people with similar interests. You don’t have quite the financial commitment that you would on your own. There’s usually a management group that handles everything, even down to your seats at the race. And it gives you a good way to get a feel for the business.”

No horsing around

In all equine disciplines, education and research are key, according to those in the field. From thoroughbred ownership to event riding, a lack of information is the surest route to disappointment.

“Do your homework, and get the best you can afford to get — whether it’s the best riding instructor, or group ownership, or whatever you're going into,” Dunn said. “Do the homework, study it, go to some events and see what it’s like. And then get the best you can afford to get. The problem always becomes, like anything, people jumping in thinking they know it, or ‘Let’s just do it on whim.’ Horses are major commitments. You can’t just buy one and cast it aside like a stuffed animal. I think most people get hurt in it by not practicing due diligence.”

Neale agreed. “The best way to start is to find a reputable instructor that has some sort of certification, or a very good reputation among people that you trust,” she said. “When you go to visit, make sure they're using good safety practices, and children are always wearing approved riding helmets, and they have a group of fairly quiet school horses they start children on. So starting by taking lessons.”

Which, at $85 per hour of private instruction at Eden Wind, can be among the most cost-effective ways of satisfying a child’s horse fever. Domin said she’s seen some children get involved in lessons, accumulate all the necessary equipment, and then discover another sport and never show up at the barn again. But then there are others, like a 20-year-old competitor out of Eden Wind who’s paid for her horse by working at the farm since she was 8.

They can be enchanting animals, after all, hooking riders from that first trot, canter or jump.

“I think for most people it's a lifelong passion," Chadwell said.