GUEST EDITORIAL: Horse Habit on a Budget


Howdy! My name is Carla Cowley, otherwise known as “Renae’s mom”. We have been a mom-daughter duo in cowgirling for over 20 years and are still going strong. I’ve competed in speech and drama competitions, musical competitions, and even in a beauty pageant. I’ve always had an eye to winning. I would study the underpinnings of victory, and strategy was everything. Renae and I made a perfect team in her 4-H horse project, junior posse, reining association, high school rodeo, open shows, liberty work, rodeo queening both high school and pro, and now professional barrel racing. Both of us are strong, passionate, independent, goal-driven cowgirls. We have experienced much and learned more about ourselves and one another than we ever thought possible. It is our ambition to always be “Can Do” girls, a sorority we created for ourselves that idealizes always being able to handle any situation and beat any odds.  For the most part, we have been successful and indulged in our happiness, but not always. But we never give up, we keep going, and we are living the dream !! I hope some of my experiences and suggestions will be of some value as you pursue YOUR dream.

By Carla Cowley -

The equine lifestyle is NOT cheap. Either you know this already, or you are about to find out. Hay, tack, farrier, supplements, vet care, truck, trailer, entry fees, clothing, pasture development and maintenance, trainer, stall, boarding - get the picture? Some folks say the cheapest thing about having horses is buying the horse. But if you are totally smitten with the smell, the sound, the movement, intelligence, strength, spirit, partnership, majesty, and beauty of these incredible animals the way my girls and I are, you are determined to find a way to finance your passion.

Through the many, MANY years I have indulged my love for all things equine, and herded my kids and a grandchild through the wonderland of the horse, I worked a pretty good paying full-time job and at least two part-time jobs, but it still wasn’t enough. I had to develop some creative ways for me (and the kids!) to generate more revenue in order to progress and compete in this lifestyle we loved. I had to prioritize and justify what percentage of the family budget was spent on what for maximum return on the investment. I also had to be creative, develop support networks, crowd source, barter my talents, and basically enlist my kids as indentured servants. Want details? Read on.

One of the first things to consider is the horse - how much should you spend? There is not an arbitrary answer since there are all levels of tax bracket horse aficionados, and what is a fortune to some is a mere drop in the feed bucket to others. So here are a few basic guidelines I have learned and implemented. I am going to speak to those who are basically on rungs 1 through 8 of the competitive ladder, with 1 being a back yard or grade horse starter to 10 being a world class champion. If you get to rung # 10, you are on your own - I can’t help you there!

You should set a budget for what you can afford and stick to it, keeping in mind you will have a plethora of other expenses, so don’t shoot your whole wad. Finding a horse is like looking for a job – it is very time consuming. Classifieds, internet and Facebook groups are very helpful in sizing up the market and seeing what different classes of horses are going for, but the best resource of all is referrals from trusted and knowledgeable horse friends. And I will tell you right now - a network of these invaluable friends will be your life blood. The horse culture family is tight knit, friendly, caring, helpful, and loyal. Of course, there are always a few incredibly rotten and wormy apples in the basket, and when you come across them, get rid of them fast!! Anyway, back to the good guys!! These people are an invaluable resource in every aspect of having horses and will take an interest in and do MUCH to help and support you. Keep in mind, however, as you learn and grow and develop in this great family, you must do YOUR part to lift others up as well. It’s the “cowboy code”. 

Shameless mommy plug - Renae put together a very helpful e-course-thingy that goes into more detail on finding the right horse for you within a budget you can afford.

Anyway, back to business. You don’t have to have a finished, polished, push button horse in order to win. Look for one that is smart, willing, likes people, has some try, is healthy, has a good temperament and is safe. You will save a lot of money and you will have a horse that can learn and grow and develop with its rider. Remember - it’s a journey. You don’t buy a ticket then go straight to the winner’s circle, you grow together with your horse. 

Don’t insist on perfection (something I have to remind Renae of often). We won A LOT with a stubby-legged, thick-necked, fat-bellied wonder horse that had no pedigree whatsoever. She is now a legend throughout our area. I have been offered obscene amounts of money for her, even a blank check! However, she is still out in my pasture, and no one else will ever own her. We also had a mare that had great conformation - until you got to her head. She was kinda’ bottle nosed and funky looking, but she had golden skills in western pleasure. I paid $1,500 for each of them 20 years ago, and you may still find diamonds in the rough nowadays for not much more than that. Remember, Seabiscuit was small, had crooked legs, wheezed, and slept lying down for most of the day, but he iced legendary War Admiral in a much heralded match race. Barrel racer Tracy Nowlin qualified for the 2018 NFR on an $1,800 horse she purchased sight unseen on Craig’s list. Megastar Charmayne James acquired her legendary barrel horse Scamper from a feed lot, a horse no one wanted. Great story - look it up. 

Here is a moment of bare naked honesty for you - I could not afford top dollar for a horse, even at the high levels of competition we soon found ourselves in. We had two reining horses that I paid a little less than $5,000 each for. Quality reining horses in the winner’s circle usually start at $20,000 and go up exponentially from there. These two horses had a little age on them but knew their jobs well. One had mad reining skills but also lameness issues that had to be constantly addressed. The other had less refined skills and a secret desire to be a cow horse, not a reiner. Regardless, these are the two horses we brought home and through hard work and a lot of miles in the saddle, we did some serious winning on them.

The point is, know your horse flesh or take someone with you who does. This is when your posse is invaluable with opinions or referrals. And one more thing - after kicking the tires and slamming the doors on a prospective horse, don’t discount that x-factor, gut feeling, emotional attachment, angels singing and the light shining on that average looking horse. If you are a girl, you know what I’m talking about. It’s unexplainable, but it’s real. If you can justify spending six figures on a horse then good for you, really but for the rest of us, there is no shame in finding something that doesn’t break the bank. I’ll bet 97% percent of horse lovers have to give a lot of long hard thought and collect the change from the couch cushions and 7-11 parking lot to write a check for that dream horse (Do people still write checks these days?!?!). Anyway, you are in good company with many happy, budget-conscience horse people!

We made it work. I learned that you can have a Cadillac of a horse that you spent bazillions on, and put a young or inexperienced rider on it and most often, it will show like a Nash Rambler. Money is wasted on a horse that is too much for the rider and only highlights the gap in ability. On the other hand, you can spend a moderate amount on a decent horse with solid, basic skills, and spend the balance of the money on a good trainer. An earnest, hard working rider with acquired skill can make that horse look like a million bucks, or at least look better than it actually is because the rider knows how to ride it to its full potential. My girls had natural ability, a strong desire to win, relentless work ethic, and a passion for their individual mounts. And they came together and progressed along the road together. It was magical….. and it came happen to you.

And that is how we did it. Our budget horses won state championships, local horse shows, queen competitions, Miss Rodeo Utah horsemanship titles, and everything else wherever we went, not because our horses were sure-fire winners, but because I spent the money on trainers (knowledge and skill) which transfers to any horse you ride, now or in the future. Do you get what I’m throwin’ down here?

Now, working with trainers dovetails into being creative and finding a “mutually beneficial” way to save money. This concept probably won’t work with all trainers, but when a couple of very well-established, reputable trainers saw that my girls had a strong desire, good work ethic, were dependable, and had some natural ability, we negotiated a deal where my girls would come all summer (and other times when needed), to saddle and unsaddle horses for the trainer, feed, water, muck stalls, ride circles and sweat up client horses for exercise, and even bathe, clip, and prep horses for shows in exchange for lessons. This saved a LOT of money, the girls learned so much, and they became walking billboards for the trainer and his business. A win-win for everyone.

I could go on and on about other aspects of picking the right horse and trainer, but I think you get the idea. Now here are a few other ways to creatively generate ways to finance horse necessities.

As my girls advanced in their knowledge, skill, and winning reputation, they were simultaneously developing a marketable skill - coaching. Whatever their level, there was always an upcoming class of horse lovers that would pay to get what they had, thus; they began to give lessons. When it came to queen clothes and other outfits, I worked out an arrangement with reputable seamstresses to do the appliqué and fringe cutting myself, as well as applying the rhinestones. Even though all that glue has made me irreversibly loopy, I saved a lot of money so I guess it was worth it. And as you can tell from this eloquent and fascinating article, I have a reputation as a word-smith, and I developed a reputation for writing rodeo queen speeches. I wrote all of Renae’s queen speeches (except for her Miss Rodeo America speech. I actually paid someone else to write that one!! I wrote three for her, but she just wasn’t in love with them). But many other queen hopefuls recognized my talent. I have written and sold countless speeches that won state and national contests.

Do you do leatherwork, sew, do woodworking to make saddle stands (not that hard), make jewelry, etc.? If you do, especially with a western theme applied, you can usually develop a loyal local clientele, and through the magic of the internet, go worldwide!!! Imagine the possibilities!!! This is another area where networking and developing good friendships can be so helpful, because somebody always knows someone who does this “thing” in the horse family, and can hook you up. You might not recognize it now, but think hard – you probably possess a skill that someone else doesn’t have and is willing to pay you for.

Financing a horse passion is possible but it is important to stay within your means. Find your bracket and be the best you can be in that bracket. If you want to win state champion at the 4-H horse show, or all-around at the local jackpot, or even ride out of the Thomas & Mack with a gold buckle, it is all within your grasp. Work to be the best you can be with what you have and you will be totally satisfied and blessed in your horse life. My family is a testament to the fact that you can live your horse dreams and have success without going bust.