Cashing in on Colts
By Fran Devereux Smith
They might have only seven rides before being sold, but 2-year-old geldings raised on Bartlett Ranch Wyoming have found a niche in the sale ring. Their marketability stems from their bloodlines and ability, and from the renown of the horsemen who started them under saddle.
When Dr. H. B. “Woody” Bartlett’s 2-year-old colt crop goes through the ring each year during the Fall WYO Quarter Horse Sale in Thermopolis, Wyoming, the ranch-raised Quarter Horses have been ridden only about seven times. This sales approach works well for the veterinarian and longtime cattleman and horseman, who ranches in Alabama and Texas, as well as on Bartlett Ranch Wyoming, which stretches from near Chugwater toward LaGrange.
Selling green 2-year-olds seems a natural fit for Woody’s ranch-horse program. Obviously, the colts’ limited riding experience somewhat tempers their sale price, with them selling for less than other well-bred horses that are older and thoroughly broke. However, the ranch’s sales strategy doesn’t require major financial investments in training or in years spent feeding, riding and showing so many colts to maturity.
Such considerations make the WYO fall sale a practical option for the ranch’s horse program, and the sale has grown to fill a market niche, as well. Prospective buyers, particularly those in the ranching community, appreciate an opportunity to make affordable bids on eye-catching young athletes.
The Cash Crop
Marketing an entire colt crop each fall isn’t for every outfit in the horse business. Many breeders market their produce as weanlings; others prefer to hire trainers and sell finished products at a premium years later.
“That’s excellent, and I wish we could do things that way,” Woody says. “Even though we have sold a few weanlings, we’re really not set up here in Wyoming to do that. The colts are born later in the year, and a lot of them would be just 4 months old for a September sale. And if we keep horses until they’re 5-, 6- or 7-year-olds, that takes so much time, and the chances are greater for one to get hurt. Colts run and play, or storms come and the lightning scares them.”
In past years, Woody has kept a few ranch-raised colts to add to his remuda, but the increased numbers ultimately have meant that fewer of the ranch horses got the riding they needed. That’s recently been reason enough to sell the entire crop, and potential buyers are confident they can select from the best of the lot. But even the best come with a few disclaimers.
“Obviously, we don’t guarantee these horses as well-broke geldings,” Woody says. “But we do guarantee our colts to be sound for 30 days.”
However, he explained, selling such colts with minimal riding typically isn’t a problem.
“Most of the buyers are ranchers who can’t really afford one of those geldings that brings $12,000 at a sale,” Woody says. “But that same rancher can buy one for about $3,000 that could become a $12,000 gelding. It’s a good deal for people; they can buy the best of what we raise and not spend an arm and a leg.”
At the 2006 sale, the lightly ridden 2-year-olds averaged $3,150 apiece. Last fall, the average sale price was $2,707—not surprising, given the national economic downturn. Nonetheless, the Bartlett Ranch Wyoming horse program continues to thrive, and for more reasons than one.
One reason buyers welcome the opportunity to purchase Bartlett colts is the caliber of horsemen who guide the youngsters’ initial handling. Each summer, top hand Bill Smith, of Thermopolis, helps start Woody’s 2-year-old geldings. About 10 young cowboys and trainers regularly join Bill at Woody’s ranch, staying for a week to give the colts their first seven rides. The young men view it as an opportunity to learn from a respected horseman.
Bill also relies on a few key, experienced horsemen to ensure that things run as smoothly as possible while 35 pasture-run, ranch-raised colts are introduced to a new way of life. In 2007, for example, Bill got help from his brother Rick Smith, his nephew Reid O’Rourke, and longtime friend Billy Joe “B’Joe” Coy. Rick is the rodeo team coach at Central Wyoming College. O’Rourke grew up riding with Bill and prepares horses for the annual May WYO Quarter Horse Sale, now in its 25th year. And Coy, as capable a horseman as he is an outfitter, rode with Bill years ago and continues to do so whenever possible.
The younger colt-starters are eager to hone their horsemanship skills under the tutelage of such knowledgeable horsemen. Matthew Nichols of Deer Trail, Colorado, who began riding bulls at age 8, starts colts at home and competes on Rick’s Central Wyoming College rodeo team.
“Bill’s probably the best I’ve ever seen with horses,” Nichols says. “Some guys can tell you how to do it, but can’t do it. Bill can get off his horse and on another one and do it. That’s pretty neat.”
Nebraska cowboy Jeremy Knowles, who worked for Carol Rose in Gainesville, Texas, at the time, liked the simplicity with which the Bartlett colts were trained.
“There are no contraptions [used on the horses],” Knowles says. “It’s really natural, just letting the horse be a horse.”
That’s easy to do when dealing with Bartlett colts, according to Devin McNown of Sedan, Kansas, who worked for Bill after graduating from high school in 2006.
“These horses are a lot nicer than some I’ve been around,” Devin says. “They can get Western, but they’re nice.”
Nonetheless, these are ranch-raised colts, not hothouse flowers, and Paul Preston, a California ranch cowboy working in Wyoming at the time, appreciates the differences.
“My world’s a little bit different, not a real padded one,” Preston says. “Bill respects those differences. And he still looks for the simple thing, like a colt turning to face you.”
Typically, these crew members take time away from jobs, the rodeo circuit or family ranch work to help start the colts.
“These kids are on college rodeo teams and are from ranches,” Woody says. “We don’t try to have a bronc event here, but if a colt blows up, any of these guys can ride him.”
The colts get a good start, but a primary consideration makes it difficult for Bartlett Ranch Wyoming to finish the colts as riding horses: It’s tough to find enough cowboys qualified to handle and ride the colts over the long-term and in the way Woody prefers.
“You can’t put sorry hands on really good horses,” Woody explains. “That just doesn’t work. Most of these horses are the kind you really can do something with, and that usually means if you pick a fight with one, he’s going to fight back. Then you lose your temper and it’s a wreck.”
A Horseman’s Horses
Woody has sought quality from the start, working to raise well-bred, eye-appealing horses. He likes cowy horses with top bloodlines, substantial builds, inherent athleticism, sound minds and willing attitudes. And it doesn’t hurt for the horses to have a little color—especially gray.
As a rancher, Woody has used horses his entire life to sort, gather and work cattle. As a veterinarian, he understands the relationship of a horse’s form to function, as well as genetic concepts about equine breeding and bloodlines. As competitors, he and his late wife, Kelley, raised and successfully showed cutting horses at the highest level. That’s a wealth of experience and knowledge to bring to a ranch horse breeding program.
Woody likes gray horses, as well as buckskins, and many Bartlett broodmares reflect the gray coloring of such herd sires as Sugar Trix Leo, Son Of A Rap and Handle Bar Doc. The rancher typically maintains about 90 broodmares at Bartlett Ranch Wyoming, another 80 at his home ranch near Pike Road, Alabama, and six or so cutting-bred mares at his facility in Millsap, Texas. Although the southern mares might foal a bit earlier in the year, the pasture-bred Wyoming mares begin foaling about mid-March, with most foals arriving from early April into May.
With almost half the broodmares in Alabama, there’s always a good bit of horse traffic between the Bartlett ranches. Some young horses summer in Texas, and yearlings typically are brought to Wyoming in the fall, where they range open country until they are started under saddle the following year.
Bartlett Ranch Wyoming
No doubt, there’s plenty of Wyoming range for Woody’s horses, as well as his cattle, to roam.
“If you look at a map, it’s 45 miles from one end of the ranch to the other, but it’s not more than about 15 miles wide in any one place. It follows the water,” Woody explains. “I wanted a large ranch, primarily deeded and productive, with really good grass. That’s what we found here.”
Making the transition from the South to Wyoming hasn’t always been easy, but Woody credits area ranchers for sharing their insights.
“Experience will teach you a lot, and we’ve made a lot of mistakes, but that’s the only way I know to learn,” he says. “However, good neighbors have really helped us.”
The ranch, once home to now-defunct nuclear missile sites, had been heavily overgrazed, so Woody has carefully tended the range that supports his stock. A fire started by lightning burned 20,000 acres in three hours, but the subsequent rains and regrowth confirmed that “nature’s way of cleansing the prairies” can be a boon, leaving fine range in its wake.
With his horse program in mind, Woody began two major projects: cleaning up the place, which “hardly had a horse on it” when purchased, and improving the fencing to better accommodate horses. He also built a barn for Kelley’s cutting horses. An enthusiastic competitor, she sometimes hosted cutting clinics on the ranch.
Unfortunately, Kelley passed away before she was able to see anything but photographs of her new barn. However, her legacy to the ranch is evident in Bartlett horse pedigrees and in ranch houses she renovated. Woody considers one, now known as “The Patriot House” for its red, white and blue décor, a tribute to her skills.
Given the Bartletts’ penchant for athletic cow horses, it’s no surprise Bartlett Ranch Wyoming developed a solid horse program to fit the climate and terrain, as well as an innovative way to market their equine produce. Nor is it a surprise the ranch’s cattle program is equally sound. But Woody initially didn’t want to pursue the cow-calf operation that’s proven a good fit for his Wyoming ranch.
“I didn’t know how to do things in Wyoming,” he says. “I’d been in the Southeast all my life, and it’s totally different down there. When you have a cow-calf operation, you must be a good manager—know how to winter them, calve them, breed them back, the whole deal—and I didn’t have that experienced help here at first.”
As a result, Bartlett Ranch Wyoming initially ran a grazing operation, which keeps the ranch horses gainfully employed and continues to do so. Woody runs about 3,000 head, mostly steers, purchasing 2,000 to 2,500 each fall that winter with the additional home-raised cattle. He grazes them through the summer before sending them to feedlots. With six irrigation pivots, raising hay to feed them is no problem.
“I’ve gradually worked into a cow herd, and run 850 to 1,000 cows now, all blacks and all Angus bulls,” he says. “We’ll gradually increase that number. And we’re raising some roping steers on a few Longhorn cows.”
The Longhorn cattle add another facet that complements the ranch’s horse program, providing an avenue for horses to develop into solid rope horses. And that, in turn, serves the cattle program. It’s an ongoing cycle, and after almost 10 years, Woody now seems at ease with his Wyoming ranch, satisfied with his cattle operation and pleased that he’s found just the niche to market his 2-year-old cash crop of colts.
Fran Devereux Smith is publishing director for Western Horseman books. Send comments on this story to email@example.com.