Once upon a time, mom and pop could operate a small commercial breeding operation. They owned a few inexpensive mares and bred them to stallions with inexpensive fees. They sold the resulting offspring as yearlings, sometimes making a little money and sometimes losing a little, but not a lot.
They got to enjoy the outdoor life, watch some beautiful animals roam their pastures, and a have some fun.
But those days are over, according to David Hager of Idle Hour Farm.
"You have to pay for your fun now," he said recently.
What Hager meant was that the high costs of raising horses, outside of stud fees, have made them too expensive to raise and even too expensive to race for many of the moms and pops of the Thoroughbred world. There's also less expendable income, so people don't have as much money to spend on something that's not a necessity.
"The cost of everything -- your vet bills, your insurance, your feed, the fuel for your trucks - has gone up," said Hager, who was the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers' Club's Farm Manager of the Year for 2009. "You used to be able to take a cheaper mare, bring her babies to the sale ring, and get some money for them. Nowadays, you don't get that much for the babies. You can bring them up there, get no bids, and then you're stuck with them. There are not enough end users at the bottom level, and you can't blame them because the costs of training, veterinary bills, and all that other stuff are just too much. People can't afford to train cheap horses anymore so nobody wants to buy them."
"Instead of talking about buying a mare and having a little fun with her, people are talking about the costs of it and not being able to afford it," Hager continued. "And it's not the just the cost of the mare because you can get one pretty cheap. It's the costs of foaling, breeding, and just having a horse. People used to have enough expendable income that they could have little hobby, have a little pet, and play around with it. Now it comes down to the cost, and nobody wants to spend the money now unless they can recover it. Funds are tighter."
Even if you breed a mare using a less expensive stud fee, you need to sell her yearling for at least $30,000 "to break even or get pretty close to it," Hager said.
That's a big challenge for mom and pop, who just want to enjoy living on a farm, own a handful of pretty Thoroughbreds, and have a comfortable life without the threat of going bankrupt.
It's too bad because some the best stories in the Thoroughbred industries are ones where the little guys breed and raise a top horse. It may be the Sport of Kings, but sometimes regular people hit it big, too. That they're getting squeezed out financially isn't good news.