The Truth About Importing Horses

Justine Dutton and MGH Heartbeat, an imported Irish Sport Horse mare, in the Ocala Jockey Club CCI2*. Photo by Jenni Autry.

I am often met with surprise when people inquire about my imported sale horses and find out the price.

As a seller/producer it can become frustrating when potential buyers are shocked and sometimes even offended at the price tag on these horses, often even informing me they can go to England/Ireland/Europe themselves and find the same quality of horse but for much less money.

I thought it might be enlightening to outline the process of sourcing, importing and producing sport horses to sell.

Firstly, sourcing horses abroad isn’t something that just anyone can do. There is a lot more to it than meets the eye — both skill and expense wise. I am fortunate enough to have a very trusted source, partner and friend in the UK who is always looking for the types of horses she knows I like. She spends hours on the road, trying horses up and down the country in all weather making sure the absolute right one is chosen.

It is very hard to shop for horses without a trusted source — there is often an “American” price put on horses for sale abroad, as those slightly unscrupulous sellers see big dollar signs and naivety when potential buyers show up alone or aren’t with someone experienced. For me, this is avoided with my English partner/Unicorn Hunter.

Sometimes I will go over to see horses with my partner (expensive round trip flight) but mostly she will look without me. And guess what … I have to pay her for that service she is doing for me! We handpick our horses for their brains as well as ability, talent and records and are very picky about what makes the cut.

My English Unicorn Hunter is also responsible for arranging vettings and knows which vets will do a good job and understand how to put potential horses through an “American Vetting.” I vet all my potential horses as they would be vetted by a buyer in the USA; this means a full set of X-rays including back and in some cases scopes and ultrasounds. Many horses with minor issues which I am confident won’t be a problem, I have to pass on, as I know they will not be acceptable in an American vetting even for a low level job. We have gone through periods where I’ve vetted six horses in a row that have not had good enough vettings or X-rays. That gets very expensive very fast!

When the chosen unicorn has finally passed the stringent vetting, we arrange for transportation. Depending on where the horse is located will depend on shipping fees to get to Liege/Amsterdam. Also depending on if there are other horses that are shipping will affect the cost greatly because if you’re riding solo … again, big expense! Sometimes you will have to wait for a flight as they are all booked/no share available/no quarantine room and then you will at times need to pay board on your new horse until it can ship.

Side note — as soon as the horse is paid for, we purchase insurance on him to cover against loss or major medical from the time we own him as well as additional flight insurance.

Bloods have to be run and this is also where there is some risk. Many common acceptable diseases in Europe are not allowed into the USA so imagine buying your dream horse, paying for him, vetting him, arranging shipping to then find out he has tested positive for piroplasmosis and your horse is stuck in Europe for an unknown period of time. And yes this has happened to me and also to others. Some people might risk it and say it’s a false positive or it’s low enough it will retest negative … but then when this horse arrives in U.S. quarantine and tests positive he is not leaving!

So if your unicorn has now jumped through all these hoops and made it onto his flight and landed in the USA you have quarantine. This is a minimum of 72 hours for geldings and can be at least three weeks for mares. Note, it is about $2-3k more to import a mare depending on the quarantine facility. And even though your horse is healthy and ready to rock, if there is a horse displaying anything dodgy in its blood/clinically/has a fever, then the entire flight of horses is held in quarantine until it’s resolved and you have to pay for the extra time there even though your horse is fine! Yep, that’s happened to me too.

If you’re lucky and have avoided all these hurdles, the horse will be released from quarantine and will arrive at his new home hopefully in good health. As you can imagine, the long trip can be a lot on the horses and often they can become sick. We always treat ours with GastroGard when they arrive and monitor their temperatures and have only had a couple arrive not feeling well.

I don’t think I need to put a dollar amount on all of the above as I think it’s explanatory that importing a horse does not just involve a lot of expense but also risk. We as sellers take on all the risk of the bloods being positive, the vettings failing and also the horse arriving and not being what he was supposed to be! I don’t scrape the bottom of the bargain barrel for any of my horses; the saying you get what you pay for rings very true in this industry so I pay the price for good quality horses.

Oh and this is all before I have even spent a dime on shoes, vet, tack, feed, bedding, memberships, shows, etc. or any time on training and care. But that’s another story ….

I hope his article has been informative and thrown some light on what it takes to source and import horses and why most good ones are not cheap. I love producing and selling these horses and I can stand behind each and every one of mine knowing I have jumped through all the hoops and not cut corners and costs and can honestly say that they all “do what it says on the tin.”