Like houses, horses are becoming harder to sell.
"I've seen it rough before, but I don't ever think I've ever seen it this bad," said Mark Riley, who has worked as an auctioneer for three decades. "To most people, horses are a hobby or a plaything or a toy. When the economy gets tough, the plaything is the first thing to go."
Hay that three years ago sold for $3 a square bale can now cost up to $7, according to state agriculture officials, and Riley said horses that once sold for $3,000 are now going for $1,000 at auctions.
Horse trading is getting so tough that some auction barns in the state have shuttered and others have reduced the number of sale days.
"Some people bought those horses when times were so great. Feed was cheaper," said Raymond Havard, owner of Havard Sales Management Co. in Lufkin, which reduced its horse sales to two days from three days every two months.
He said he doesn't see any change until fuel prices go down.
Despite the rough patch, horses remain big business in Texas, contributing $5.2 billion to the state's economy and providing jobs for 32,200 people, according to the American Horse Council.
"The one thing that one realizes here is that horses are deeply woven into the social fabric of the Lone Star State," said Pete Gibbs, Texas AgriLife Extension Service horse specialist.
No matter how important they are to Texans, horses with the exception of those used in competitions and some used for trail rides are fetching less money.
"I'll never get what I paid for them," said Mary Aguilar, who recently advertised three horses for sale.
Aguilar and her husband forked over about $5,500 for three horses four years ago. After polling ranchers on how much she should ask for her horses, she posted an online advertisement for Charlie, Princess and Skippy for just $3,700.
"I was very upset to let my horse go today," said Aguilar, who did manage to sell 12-year-old Charlie, a brown quarter horse, for close to her $700 asking price within a day after posting the ad.
A busy travel schedule visiting their grandchildren now keeps the Katy residents from spending as much time riding, bathing and brushing their horses.
Although she's not selling for financial reasons, Aguilar and her horse-owning neighbors have noticed escalating hay and alfalfa prices.
Finding hay last fall also posed a challenge, she said. During the summer, horses can graze on green grass.
"It all relates to food. It all relates to the high price of hay," said Steven Long, editor of the trade publication Texas Horse Talk, who said Houston has the largest concentration of horses of any urban area in the nation.
Too much rain last year kept hay from being cut and baled, while this summer, a drought has caused a shortage of hay.
That, coupled with increasing diesel and fertilizer costs, also caused a surge in prices.
With fertilizer and fuel prices so high, some farmers aren't raising hay, said John Elick, who owns Texas Ranch Life, a dude ranch and bed and breakfast operation in Chappell Hill. That shortage will further worsen the horse market, he said.
"It won't be a question of having less production off of them, it will be a question of having no production," said Elick. "I think we're fixing to have a huge wreck. You've got horses that there's no way to get rid of them."
Soaring gasoline prices also make it more expensive for horse buyers and sellers to haul horse trailers to auctions.
"With having to spend so much in gas, they don't come as regular as they used to," said Don Edwards, owner of Great Western Auctions in Magnolia. Some auction houses have decided to shun horses.
"The market just got so bad," said Billy Schwertner, who owns the Wharton Livestock Auction. His barn stopped selling horses more than a year ago.
Auction barns that still sell horses every weekend are earning less. At the Huffman Auction Barn's cafe, sales of snacks have declined on auction days.
"This is the very first time I have seen the drop in everything," said Irma Alsaro, who manages the Huffman Auction Barn.
Crosby resident Donnie Short has noticed the slowdown in business, too.
"I think people are just scared to spend any money," said Short.
Short said the situation has forced him to cut back on his side business of raising mares.
"I enjoy the aspect of raising the babies and watching them grow up," he said. "But there's just no money in it anymore."
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