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Stables struggle with rising costs for hay and grain

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

ADDISON COUNTY — Skyrocketing grain and hay prices are making the cost of keeping horses harder to saddle for some Addison County stables.

“It’s quite a serious issue,” said Kate Selby, the owner and trainer at the Equestry in New Haven. “In a relatively break-even business for all of us, the rising cost of hay in particular, being so sudden, is hard to handle.”

Higher fuel prices appear to have driven up the price of hay.

Selby said she’s seen hay triple in price from last summer, from roughly $1.50 per bale out of the field to $4.50 today. The Equestry does not put up any of its own hay, unlike some other local stables. With fuel costs so high this summer, though, Selby said she’s heard from other stable owners that their hay cost twice as much to produce this year.

Also increasing, stable owners reported, is the price of grain, with 50-pound bags selling for around $15, said Linda Schmidt, who sits on the board of directors at the Eddy Farm School in Middlebury.

“When you’re feeding 28 horses, that adds up,” said Jill Phillips, the owner of the Wishful Thinking stable in New Haven.

These feed costs — along with rising farrier and veterinary fees, which Selby attributed to high gasoline prices — are “taking a toll,” Selby said.

Despite rising costs and tough economic times, Selby said, most horse owners are doing their best to make ends meet rather than sell their animals.

“If you’ve made the commitment to owning a horse … it’s not the first thing that goes,” she said. “You don’t sell your dog. That’s not the first thing (horse owners) are going to do. They may cut back on lessons but they’re not going to cut back on care.”

Phillips agreed.

“The way the economy is right now, I think everyone’s just kind of expecting (rising prices),” Phillips said. “I tend to hear from people that this is something where they have to work harder to make it work.”

In some cases, of course, owners arechoosing to sell their animals — and many stable owners said they’re seeing more horses up for sale than usual, though the market is relatively weak.

“If you’re going to sell, you’re going to have to sell at a loss,” Phillips said. She’s also seeing more and more people give their horses away. These trends — the increased number of horses for sale, and more ads for horses being given away — are something Kelli Cole at the Kingsland Bay Stable in Ferrisburgh said she’s noticed, too.

One such ad recently cropped up on Internet marketplace Craigslist, which stable owners in Vermont said is listing an increased number of horses for sale. “This mare loves to work and gives you everything she’s got,” the owners posted, explaining that they “can’t afford to feed through the winter” and that “a good home is the most important” thing.

Rising costs have forced some stable owners to ratchet up boarding fees. The Eddy Farm raised its rough board price from $150 a month to $200 last spring, and is discussing bumping the price to $250, said Schmidt. At the Equestry, Selby estimated that she had to raise her more expensive “training board” 15 percent this summer.

But at both the Equestry and Kingsland Bay stables, the owners said they’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that lessons haven’t dropped off substantially.

That might taper off next year, Cole said, as families continue to tighten their belts. She’s lost some families, she said — but picked up others, particularly riders who live closer to her stable, and are looking for a place to ride close to home.

In Addison County — home to Vermont’s second largest horse population — Selby is confident that stables will stay afloat.

“I’m an optimist. I’m not a gloom-and-doom person,” she said. “As long as the economy recovers, the horse business will be fine.”

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