With hundreds of miles of riding trails crisscrossing the grounds of elegant private estates, Westchester County has long served as a haven for New York City’s affluent equestrians. But in recent years, the stakes of horse ownership in the county appear to have gone from a trot to a gallop.
Last spring, at a cocktail party in the Manhattan apartment of a real estate industry VIP, The Real Deal overheard two men gossiping about the so-called “equestrian arms race” occurring in Westchester.
“First, it was crazy expensive stables, now it’s massive indoor riding rings,” said one of the men, a well-known industry figure himself. “The wives of these finance guys are all trying to outdo each other.”
Calls to sources revealed that same story being repeated again and again. “I heard the exact same thing being said a few tables over at the Regency,” said Amy Gotzler, the senior vice president of corporate communications and brand strategy at Brown Harris Stevens.
A Westchester-based broker specializing in equestrian properties said the so-called “equestrian arms race” was definitely more than just hearsay. “It totally rings true. There are people with a lot of money here who want to have horses….The husband makes a lot of dough and the wife wants an indoor ring, a better barn and better property.”
The broker asked to be quoted anonymously, saying: “I wouldn’t want to be the broker that…talks about conspicuous consumption and has all the wives in Westchester pissed off.”
Other brokers on the ground were willing to go on record to confirm that in recent years, the stakes for what passes for an “acceptable” equestrian estate have greatly increased — even as the market for such estates has contracted and become more niche.
“There has actually been somewhat less demand [for equestrian properties],” said Sally Slater, an equestrian estates expert at Douglas Elliman. She has seen competition from properties in other horse hot spots such as Ocala, Florida, and Wellington and Aiken, both in South Carolina, eat away at the Westchester market.
“The show people go down south for the winter. But when people do build them [equestrian estates] here, they tend to be very elaborate,” Slater said. “They will import the stalls from Europe. They will make them out of exotic woods. Sometimes these barns have chandeliers in them. It can be really amazing.”
A third-quarter 2017 report on the Westchester market by Douglas Elliman showed that the number of sales for all properties fell year-over-year as inventory plummeted to its lowest level in 13 years. Median sales prices overall did increase 2.9 percent, to $535,000, but on the high end of the market — the top 10 percent of sales, where most horse enthusiasts canter — the median price slipped 1.7 percent, to $2,112,500.
“The market continues to remain soft at the top on a price basis as the luxury market saw prices slip after edging higher over the past year,” Jonathan Miller, author of the Elliman report, said at the time of its release.
Still, there are some big stallions playing the equestrian market.
David Rockefeller’s 75-acre estate in Sleepy Hollow, asking $22 million with David Turner of Houlihan Lawrence, boasts a large carriage house, a three-bedroom gatehouse and six-stall barn with tack room and office.
Then there is 27-59 Old Oscaleta Road in South Salem — a 110-acre estate with four miles of private trails, old stone walls for jumping, plenty of room to play polo and a stable complex with seven stalls, plus another three-stall barn and a riding ring. It is asking $17 million with Muffin Dowdle of Ginnel Real Estate.
Another all-out equestrian estate testing the softer market is at 1125 and 1145 Route 35 in South Salem. The properties are available separately, but together they form a 52-acre compound consisting of horse amenities that include 40 stalls, four large pastures with run-in sheds, a Grand Prix field, all weather paddocks, an indoor and outdoor riding ring and apartments for grooms. The combined property is $10.8 million with Ghylaine Manning of Vincent & Whittemore Real Estate.
One of the reasons the ante — and the level of competition — has been raised for equestrian estates like these is because there are so few of them in the first place, Houlihan Lawrence’s Turner said. For one, strict zoning makes it extremely difficult to build supersize barns and indoor riding arenas in most of Westchester. The number of horses allowed on farms is also limited by zoning. For instance, in Bedford you get one horse for the first two acres, and, for every acre thereafter, an additional horse.
Then there is the matter of land.
“Westchester seems like it has a lot of land, [but] we don’t really. So most of these estates are existing horse farms in Salem and Bedford,” Turner said. “There are only so many properties that are even appropriate for these types of facilities. I mean you can’t buy 100 acres of woods and rip all the trees down. You just can’t do it.”
But like all things, the race for shiniest stables really comes down to money. The cost of an indoor riding ring alone — a necessity for riders who must train in inclement weather — starts in the six figures and escalates quickly from there. Barns and stables of the highest caliber can cost millions. And although those top-tier facilities may be a bonus for buyers, they are often a poor investment for those looking to sell.
“If I have a 60-acre farm in North Salem and I build a barn, indoor ring and all that, is that adding value? Certainly. Will you get 100 percent back on your investment? Very few investments in real estate do,” Turner said.
It’s an interesting irony. While the top of the market in Westchester is famously dominated by city financiers and businessmen who have made good, the horse fanciers among them (spouses included) do not have a reputation for keeping a tight grip on their purse strings where their venerable hobby is concerned.
“It is a personal investment, not exactly a marketing investment,” Elliman’s Slater said. “People with horses tend to treat them even nicer than they treat their children or themselves. You can have a very serviceable barn that is not fancy but is safe, and people won’t even look at it. But if you have something really, really fancy, people will want to keep their horses there. You really have to take it to the next level to attract serious equestrians.”