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Five Questions for Marshall & Sterling Insurance’s Don Graves

by US Equestrian Communications | Sep 7, 2021, 1:00 PM EST

Marshall & Sterling has been in the insurance business since 1864 and has been protecting horses, ponies, and their owners for more than 30 years through its Equisport division, led by Don Graves, a lifelong equestrian himself. Graves has shown extensively in Florida, Michigan, and Kentucky during his riding career. Graves joined Marshall & Sterling after selling his own Equisport agency to the firm in 2013 and is now Marshall & Sterling’s Senior Vice-President in addition to directing the Equisport division. 

Marshall & Sterling is a longtime sponsor of the USEF Pony Medal National Championship.
Photo: Leslie Potter/US Equestrian

We caught up with Graves to talk about his equestrian background, Marshall & Sterling’s sponsorship of the USEF Pony Medal National Championship, and his tips for equestrians seeking equine or equine-related property insurance.

Outside your work with insurance, you’re also a competitive equestrian in your own right. How long have you been competing at horse shows?

I’ve always loved horses and showing horses and have been riding since I was probably about 10 years old. I started showing competitively when I was 11 or 12. I love competing and loved the shows, and I wanted to figure out a way to make a living while being at horse shows. Back in 1984, I figured out that the insurance business might be a way I could make my living while dealing with the horse community, which I loved. Obviously, it worked!

I’m a hunter jumper rider, and the majority of my success has been as a hunter rider. I’ve had good junior horses and good amateur horses and have shown at all the big horse shows. What brought me to Wellington, Fla., was the circuit down here. I’ve had good horses that have been circuit champion down here in Florida in the amateur division and that qualified for all the indoor shows, Devon, and that sort of thing.

I am full-time in Wellington now, but I also have offices in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Birmingham, Mich., as well as in Virginia and California.

How did you get started with horses?

I started as a kid at a day camp: Echo Park Day Camp in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. They had horses, and that’s where it started. Then it was a series of progressions from there. My family wasn’t involved in horses at all; it was just something I picked up at camp, and I loved it.

Marshall & Sterling has been a stalwart supporter of the USEF Pony Medal National Championship. What particularly appeals to you about this event?

I first got involved in it to promote my agency, Equisport, and its brand. Then when I sold my agency to Marshall & Sterling in 2013, we continued sponsoring it with the Marshall & Sterling brand. 

What’s really cool about the Marshall & Sterling Finals is, for me, the whole goal was to go to indoors. But when I was getting started riding, there really wasn’t anything with a pony division up in Michigan. We got started on horses and went that route. But Pony Finals caters to everybody. It’s the culmination of the whole summer, and it’s such a big deal to the participants that are at the Pony Finals. And a large majority of them aren’t going to indoors; this is their year-end national competition.

The vision of the Pony Finals is just great. For these kids, this is what they shoot for: Pony Finals in Kentucky. It’s a great thing, especially for the kids who aren’t the top 20 or so that are going to indoors at Harrisburg, the Washington International Horse Show, or Capital Challenge. They just love being at Pony Finals, and it’s such a special thing for all the kids who go there. 

If I had been a pony rider back when I got my start at the beginning of time, Pony Finals would have been a goal of mine.

As both an experienced equestrian and an insurance expert, you’re perfectly placed to demystify the equine insurance business for us. Are there current insurance trends that people should be aware of?

Insuring a horse is still insuring a horse. There is life insurance on the horse, which is consistent with what it’s always been. Major medical—in layman’s terms, medical reimbursement for medically necessary treatment—has evolved some with the technology that veterinarians are using in their treatments. It’s still a reimbursement, and that is still consistent, but 10 or 15 years ago there weren’t stem cell treatments or shock wave treatments and that kind of thing. The insurance industry evolves with the approved veterinary methods for treating horse.

When I was a junior, if your horse was lame, you rested him. Today, because of the treatments available, there are other ways that you can also treat that horse that can get him back to soundness faster. But from an insurance standpoint, insuring a horse and the major medical that goes with it is largely as it has always been.

Liability insurance has evolved, because accidents and lawsuits do happen in the horse world. There’s always somewhat of a new exposure that relates to horses that might not have been covered 20 years ago that is covered now. But the premise behind insurance is still the same. There are Pony Clubs, there are clinics, there are horse shows, there are therapeutic riding organizations—there appear to be more and more horse-related activities than there were 20 or 30 years ago. From where I sit, when a potential client calls, it’s important to understand all these aspects and to understand what their particular needs and exposures are. 

That’s key to getting them the coverage they need. If someone says, “I run a boarding operation,” that’s fine, but there are more questions: are they taking care of the horses or are they just leasing stalls out and getting fees from it? If you’re teaching lessons, how many lessons are you giving and to what age group? Do you require approved helmets? Do you do trail rides? There are all different kinds of operations. As an insurance agent, you have to ask the right questions to be sure you understand what their exposures are, and you have to be sure you represent it correctly to the insurance company, so the insurance company does pick up the exposures that they’re looking for.

In terms of larger trends for the insurance industry, it’s becoming tough with the hurricanes, the fires, and the hailstorms. In certain states, it can get pretty hard, say, if you’re close to the water. Who would have thought that a hurricane or a tropical storm would hit Connecticut? But one did recently. In California, you have all the fires going on right now. From a liability standpoint, that’s not a problem, but if you’re insuring a farm, it can be. Location can be very much of a challenge.

Given some of the extreme weather events we’re seeing in the United States these days, what are some of the factors a farm or ranch owner needs to think about when considering insurance for their equestrian property?

Don’t think, “Oh, I can call them today and have the insurance tomorrow, because I’m closing tomorrow,” especially if you’re buying in a coastal area or somewhere like that, for example. It doesn’t work that way. 

Certain places in California, there are higher-risk areas. Certain places in Texas and Florida, there are higher-risk areas. If you’re within 25 miles of the coast, the standard farm products may not take you and you may have to go to more of a specialty market, the E & S [excess and surplus] market, which is basically Lloyd’s of London, to get insured. That takes time.

From a farm standpoint, the major factors are construction of the barns and houses. Are they wood or concrete? How old are the structures? That all comes into play.

For insuring horses, it’s relatively simple. You’re buying horse, so you’re insuring for financial loss if something happens. But generally, when someone buys a horse, they have a pre-purchase exam done, and that’s how they make their decision on the horse. If there’s a question about the horse—say, the horse had colic surgery two years ago but didn’t have a resection, just an impaction—if you’re not sure whether there would be an exclusion for that issue, talk to your insurance agent and find out whether an exclusion would apply for that issue. Get a ruling on it before you write the check to buy the horse.

With major medical, a lot of insurance companies now are going towards not offering major medical coverage on horses valued below $10,000. There are other ways to get some coverage, like emergency colic surgery and things like that. You can insure for any value for mortality, though the company may have a minimum premium they require—you may want to insure a $1,000 and you’ll have to pay a $250 premium. But you might not be able to get major medical.

I always recommend that you don’t go to your homeowners insurance agent to insure your horses unless they know what horses are about. Talk with people like me. When the vet or the owner or the trainer tells us something about the horse, we know what they’re talking about. If you’re trying to insure a horse with a non-horse person, it can be a little bit challenging. The value of dealing with someone who understands horses and insuring horses is, in my opinion, important.