Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tough times and desperate measures

I've been wanting to write about this for a while.

In the U.S. (and probably in some other places but I freely admit I know more about the state of Jon and Kate Gosselin's marriage than international economics due to my lazy personal reading habits), the economy is just a complete mess. Unemployment is shockingly high, lots of people can't pay their mortgages, and for the horsepeople - hay, farrier and vet services are still expensive!

And it's not like the usual people who can't find work...the people who don't pass drug tests, the people with felonies, the people with bad references...no, now perfectly good clean-living, hard-working people with good references are losing jobs and finding they cannot obtain a new one, or at least not one at anywhere near what they used to be making. If you still have a job, you may have suffered a pay cut or the loss of an expected bonus. Or you may be in that painful cycle where you have survived the previous rounds of layoffs but don't know if your luck is about to run out. Or you may be on unemployment right now, starting to freak out because you thought you'd have another job in two weeks or a month, and you don't.

So let's talk about a very serious subject. What IF you truly cannot afford your horse(s) anymore? What do you do? What are the most responsible actions to take when unexpected job loss hits?

First priority is keeping your horses in good condition. Fortunately it is summer, so you may have the option of moving your horse(s) from full care boarding to a pasture situation and saving hundreds each month while keeping the horses fat and shiny. Renting a private pasture is best to avoid the risk of injuries and an expensive vet bill that you also can't afford, and of course stay away from barbed wire or other shoddy fence for the same reasons. You can often find pasture in the farm & garden section of Craigslist. Or find out what your local agricultural newspaper is. You can try putting up a sign at the co-op - everybody has to buy feed.

If you have a horse for whom this is not an option, try finding a self-care barn, one where you provide the feed and do the work or you do everything but morning feeding. This is typically 50% or less the cost of full care.

Sometimes hay pellets are cheaper than hay! Two normal sized scoops (2 lb. scoops) of hay pellets are like 2 flakes of hay. You can feed them dry or you can soak them to make a mush that is ideal for older horses or any horse that has choked in the past or has a colic history. Beet pulp is also reasonably priced in most places. I have seen many horses do just fine and in fact stay fat on hay pellets. This winter, hay pellets for my old mare were $2 a feeding whereas the equivalent amount of hay was $3 a feeding. That can add up in a hurry particularly if you have a lot of horses. And if you just can't come up with money for a tooth float right now - please switch to soaked pellets immediately. You'll pack the weight back on most senior horses doing that and it will tide them over until you can afford the dental work.

Speaking of that, where can you cut corners without doing permanent damage? Absolutely do not skip basic farrier care (trims every 2 months) and deworming (also every 2 months). Allowing the feet to grow any way they want can just cause a host of problems that may never be able to be fixed and may permanently impair the horse's ability to be ridden. And failure to deworm can cause a colic, not to mention that your expensive feed will be feeding the worms. But there are ways you can save on the vet. For one thing, learn to give your own vaccinations! It is not tough and will save you at least 75% of the cost. Just remember, always pull back before you inject in and make sure you are not in a vein. If your horses never leave your property and never come into contact with other horses, you may not need to give all the same vaccines as a horse living at a boarding stable. Ask your vet. Never, never skip tetanus. I've seen a horse with lockjaw and it was not pretty. Tetanus is like a BUCK, seriously.

Now, when do you give up and sell? That's a hard, hard question. Everybody is going to have a different comfort level about how low they can go before they have to sell, or give away their horses. There is nothing wrong with living on mac & cheese to keep your horses - but you have to honestly look at your prospects of things getting better. How deep of a hole are you in? Can you change your life to make it less expensive? Can you get any kind of work? Can you temp? Do you have stuff you can sell to buy time, like jewelry, antiques, recreational vehicles or designer clothes and shoes? Sell your show tack - you can always buy more. I once saw the site of a humane case with dead horses and a living quarters trailer in the driveway. WTF. How much hay could have been purchased with that trailer? Just use your common sense - it's not that hard to figure out what you can live without and what you can't. You can sell damn near anything that doesn't have a pulse on ebay if you are not fussy about how much exactly it sells for. Take good pictures and write a good description. Do research if you don't know much about what you're selling.

I don't see a thing wrong with telling a teenager it's time to get a job if she wants the horses to stay. I worked starting at 15 and so can most kids and, ironically, in this economy they may get a job before you do! McJobs are still plentiful - it's those with adult salaries who are finding slim pickings out there.

You have to sell before condition suffers. Your best chance of a great home for your horse comes from selling a shiny, fat horse with good feet. You may be able to lease. Try to lease out early in the game and see if it works. If you trust your trainer and your horse is a sensible one, see if s/he can be used for some lessons for a reduction in board.

For god's sake, if you're unemployed and have untrained horses, TRAIN THEM! You are unemployed. What else do you have to do, other than sending out your resume and interviews? At least get all the ground training on them. This will help them so much if you end up having to sell.

If you aren't desperate to hang on to your amateur status, and you are a good rider, seriously consider offering training or lessons. Not only will this help you hang on to your own horses, but heaven knows we need more competent trainers. You can get your amateur status back in the future when times aren't so tough. Do what you need to, using the skills that you have. Still have a truck and trailer? Good driver? Look into doing local horse transportation. I used to do emergency hauling for my vets and boy, you make out like a bandit when someone has to call you at 3 AM. Again, you are unemployed, who cares if you have to get up at 3 AM? Drink a diet rockstar, you'll be fine. :)

Facing foreclosure? GET ROOMMATES! Do you know how many people will be delighted to rent a room where they can bring their horse? This can mean the difference between paying your mortgage or not. Use a little common sense. You can background check someone online for $10. Call their references, call their former landlords, verify their income source. Even if it's a friend or a family member, do the checking up - you won't regret it. If you can't stand the thought of renters in your house, what about boarders in your barn?

The problem with life is that Murphy's Law is very much applicable. Typically, you lose your job and then your car dies and then you find out you or your spouse is sick or someone has an accident and it all just snowballs. Even if things are great in your life, it surely is not a bad idea to look around and say, okay, I could sell this, I could cash that in, and here's how I could economize if things went bad for us. Remember all the people who thought they were all set for retirement and wound up with nothing thanks to someone's Ponzi scheme. You may not be as secure as you think, and none of the old rules apply these days. Lots of people think they can always get a home equity loan, but have you checked to see if you still have any equity? Sit down while you do that. Refinancing? Nearly impossible in many cases. And for god's sake don't be an idiot and pay some loan modification company...if you are going to get a modification, you can do it yourself directly with your lender. They do not want your house back, trust me. Not if they think they can get you back on a payment plan!

I really wish that we, as horsepeople, had a real system in place to help each other out. Some rescues have been providing hay to horse owners, concluding very intelligently that it makes more sense to keep the horse IN a home than have yet another to place. While no one wants to subsidize people who shouldn't have horses in the first place, I think proof of unplanned job loss is good enough reason for me to support the idea of sending someone a ton of hay.

In the meantime, let's do this. Lots of people read this blog. If you are looking for a job, please post to the comments with a BRIEF paragraph about your skills, location (or willingness to travel anywhere for work), and your e-mail. A HTML email link will work. Likewise, if you are hiring, please post what you are hiring for with a location and e-mail link. If we get a few horsepeople employed again out of this post, that will be the most useful thing many of us do for horses all day!

Now that we've tackled this depressing subject, be prepared for a good laugh - if you haven't already, you must read the Texts From Last Night blog. Some content is adult in nature. I got to the part about Mr. Moo and nearly fell off my chair laughing!