Saturday, December 29, 2012

An Open Letter to Craigslist Horse Sellers

It's a tough time to sell a horse.  I know that.  The market is appalling, and good horses are being sold at killer prices -- sadly, oftentimes to killers.  My heart bleeds each time I read the Craigslist ads and see some darned nice horses being marketed for months at ridiculously low prices.  My wallet bleeds, too, when I look out at a couple of my own nice horses that aren't selling.  It's just a rough time for the economy, and as goes the economy, so goes the horse world.

But much of the time when I read the local Craigslist ads, I get frustrated.  Frustrated because a lot of horse people are their own worst enemy when it comes to selling their horse.  For that reason, I'd like to offer a little bit of advice from a chronic reader of horse ads.  Please take it in the spirit intended:  I'd like to see good horses get a fair shot at a good home.  A few simple tips may help you write a better ad that will give your horse that chance.  This post is limited just to tips on writing your ad.  It doesn't even begin to go into detail about preparing your horse for potential buyers, and the conditioning, training, and other aspects of marketing.

First, provide adequate information.  Writing "female horse must sale" isn't going to have people knocking down your barn door.  At minimum, in the title of the ad, provide the basics:  age, breed, and gender.  The body of your ad should repeat the age, breed, and gender, and should also give a good overview of the horse's training level, soundness and condition, disposition, aptitudes, and good habits.  Indicate whether the horse is gentle or high-strung, and whether he's beginner safe, child-safe, or for an experienced rider.  Be honest.  If you're respectful of people's time and safety, you'll also advise of any bad habits or things that need some work.

Proofread your ad.  (By the way, it isn't "must sale," it's "must sell.")  If you have to, cut and paste from  your word processing program so you can run spell-check on everything.  It's not that you need to be a Pulitzer prize winning novelist to sell your horse; it's just that, as in everything, that first impression can make the difference in whether or not the buyer picks up the phone and calls you.  Marketing DOES make a difference -- why else do major corporations spend millions of dollars each year in advertising?

Be knowledgeable.  Don't advertise that your horse is "15.5 hands."  One hand equals four inches.  There IS no 15.5 hands; a horse that is 15 and a half hands tall is 15.2 hands, not 15.5.  If you don't sound as if you know what you're talking about, you're not going to have experienced horsemen come look at your horse.  Know the difference between a mare, a gelding, and a stallion.  One good friend and I like to swap bad Craigslist ads back and forth.  Some of them are priceless.  No matter how we laugh at the ones we've placed in our own Craigslist Horse Ad Hall of Shame, you know what? We won't go look at the horses in the really bad ads.  When it comes to selling a horse, not all publicity is good publicity.

Now here's what I'd really like to tackle:  the photographs you use.  A photo taken in a stall, looking down upon the horse who is eating hay off the ground while standing in the shadow, is worse than no photo at all.  Here are some ground rules for decent non-professional photographs:

  • Spend the time brushing or (gasp!) washing your horse beforehand.  Clip the horse if you have clippers -- at minimum,  clip the muzzle, bridle path, and back of the legs. If you don't know how to handle the clippers properly, have a friend do this for you.  You don't want Champion to have bad razor burns when you take his photo.
  • Brush his mane and tail.  If you've washed him, let him dry.  Photos of wet horses are a no-no.
  • If you have Show Sheen or other coat conditioners, use them.  You want your horse to shine and look healthy.
  • Use a leather show halter if you have one.  If you don't, or can't borrow one, use your best-looking barn halter.
  • Have an assistant hold the horse, or saddle him and tie him to a hitching post.  It's difficult and frustrating taking good photos of a horse unless you have someone to help -- unless you dedicate enough time that you can wait until Trigger strikes a good pose.  
  • If your horse is a purebred, have him posed appropriately for the breed.  For example, Saddlebreds should camp out in back, with their weight distributed primarily on the forehand; Arabians should stand with their necks stretched and arched, and one rear leg extended farther behind than the other; Quarter horses and paints should be squared up and photographed to emphasis their hips and hindquarters.  Please note that this is a very, very brief description.  Just know that you should know the breed of your horse and how that breed should be posed.
  • If you can't find someone to spend ten minutes holding your horse for the photo, and you decide to take photos of him loose in the corral, pick up the manure piles first.  Pick a good backdrop -- not the pile of junk in the corner of the yard, but a clean, uncluttered place.  Scenic views are better yet, but if you don't have that luxury, chose a location that is as simple and uncluttered as possible.  Posing him against some thick shrubs is ideal; the side of a tackroom is appropriate.  
  • Try to avoid having other horses in the photo.  No one appreciates those ads where there are four horses and you have to guess which one is for sale.  It's like seeing an online dating photo of four  men and wondering if the one you're corresponding to is the short fat guy holding the six-pack, or the hot dude standing beside him displaying his six-pack.  Disappointment is inevitable.
  • The photo should be taken at horse-level.  Don't sit on the rail and take the photo from above, even at an angle.  The best horse photos are at the level of the horse's body, not his head and not his feet.  Center yourself and crouch low enough to get the photo.  It's uncomfortable but it's good for your quads.
  • Horses grazing in a field are beautiful.  That's a great pose for a calendar.  It is a lousy pose for a sales photo.  When a horse extends his neck downward, you can't see anything about the way his front end is put together.  If your horse is eating, remove the food so you can get a better photograph.
  • Ears (the horse's, not yours) should be forward.  An otherwise great photograph can be ruined by a lackluster expression.  If you have an assistant, have them hold something interesting in front of the horse to get his attention.  Take LOTS of photos so you can select the right one.
  • If your horse is trained, get an action shot under saddle.  Show how he's stepping nicely over a log, or performing a sliding stop.  If he works on cattle or has been in a parade, those are great photos to show what he can do.
  • If the only tack you have is a rat-chewed bridle with a grazing bit and a faded fluffy orange bareback pad, take your picture without the tack.  Don't advertise your own amateurishness.  Let the buyer figure that out for himself.
  • I don't know how the trend started, but it seems that the thing every neighborhood "professional trainer" does to sell a horse these days is to stand up on his back.  For me, that doesn't do much.  I don't care if I can stand on a horse's back -- I care how he performs.  But if you want to be trendy, and your horse is broke enough to do it safely, go for it.  It must work, or so many people wouldn't be climbing up on their horse's back to demonstrate the latest party trick, right?  Don't get hurt for the sake of your photo!
  • If possible, include one full-body photo taken perpendicular to the horse to best show his conformation and condition.  Get the whole horse in it!  Don't lop off his feet, and don't pose him in weeds to hide what might be overgrown hooves or under-run heels.  Get another photo that plays up his best feature.  If he has a beautiful head, get a side shot of his head.  Please don't include photos of his head from the front.  That's not an attractive pose and does nothing for the potential buyer.
  • Get another shot from the front showing the legs (again, from the horse's level, not from above) and one from behind, also showing the legs.
  • Do remember the rule of outdoor photography:  have the sun to your back.  All of the above is meaningless if your horse is in the shadows and there's nothing but a silhouette.
  • Don't break any of the rules of horsemanship or horse care in your photo.  Don't show a horse with a gaping wound, or tied unsafely to a wheelbarrow, or trotting on the asphalt.  Don't show him being ridden badly.  If I see a photo of someone ripping a horse's head off with heavy hands, I'm not going to look at him unless I'm determined to rescue him from his private hell. 
Please do include a photo with your ad.  Few people are going to inquire about a horse without it, and those who do are going to ask for photos before they make the drive out there anyway.  If you can't figure out how to upload a photo, your credibility will take a serious hit long before your buyer talks to you -- if they ever do.  Some of us -- and I'm included in this -- won't EVER look at a horse when there's no photo in the ad.  Saying "ask for photos" is tantamount to saying, "Don't bother asking for photos.  Either I can't be bothered or I really don't want to show you what Old Blue really looks like because he's 200 pounds underweight and hasn't been trimmed in six months."  

Below is an example of an adequate non-professional photo of a horse.  I deliberately chose an average photograph, taken without the assistance of a helper, to show what can easily be gotten by the amateur. It is not a "great" photo.  It is a useful photograph, though, taken from an appropriate angle and showing the horse's build, expression, condition, and overall health.

Next is a bad example.  This photo does nothing for the buyer except show that the filly is flashy.  It doesn't show her lovely conformation, the pleasant way she moves, or the pretty head she has.  The tools in the background are distracting.

Here is another appropriate photo.  Again, this is not a great photo.  It's a backyard photo that shows the horse under saddle and stepping politely over a small obstacle.  Despite the branch protruding from my head, it has visual appeal.   The background is pleasant and the horse appears willing and happy.  You can tell a few things about the horse from this photograph.  This is a good angle for the picture.

Here, because bad examples are simply more fun, is another bad example.  This is an example of an interesting photograph that does nothing to help the viewer decide if the horse is worth seeing.  The viewer is left to decide which horse is the one that is for sale; the horses are wet and muddy; and out of three horses, not one is shown to any sort of advantage.  The only useful information to be gleaned from this one is that the horses apparently can be turned out together.  At least they've all been clipped.

Good luck marketing Buttermilk.  I sympathize with everyone who is trying to sell a horse in today's market -- and hope this helps in some small way with your own sales effort.