13 Rules for Ranch Horse Buyers
An auction buyer has plenty to contend with, including rival bidders with deep pockets; a heavy load of boasting by the auctioneer; loud, in-your-face bid spotters; a fast-paced and adrenaline-charged sale ring; a steady stream of well-groomed horses that look so much better under the bright lights; and, yes, even shady sales practices at some auctions.
Savvy buyers understand the risks, yet many continue making bids at their favorite sales year after year. Obviously, their experience and knowledge of the market gives them an advantage in the sale ring gauntlet.
Lately, horse sale prices in general have declined due to a receding U.S. economy and an oversupply of horses. And as prospective buyers prepare for this fallâ€™s ranch production sales, many anticipate finding plenty of quality horses at cheap prices.
However, bargains wonâ€™t be quite so easy to find. First of all, ranch horses have remained in high demand. Secondly, most horse people agree that the top-end horses, particularly seasoned, dependable ranch geldings, still draw big-money bids.
â€śThe buzz everywhere has been on the good geldings, and thatâ€™s the way it should be,â€ť says Bill Smith, who operates WYO Quarter Horse Sales in Thermopolis, Wyoming. â€śI still think thereâ€™s a lot of money out there. Itâ€™s just that now buyers are getting more discriminating with their money.â€ť
At a horse sale, discrimination is a good thing. The buyers who get the right horse at a good price are those who know how to objectively evaluate stock, and the ability to do so comes from thorough preparation.
â€śDo your homework,â€ť says Jann Parker, who, with her husband, Bill, manages Billings Livestock Sales in Montana. â€śKnow what you want. Make phone calls. You need to take the time to do it right. You cannot expect somebody else to do it for you.â€ť
Parker and Smith have both been directly involved in horse sales for more than 20 years. Craig Haythorn, who has organized his Nebraska ranchâ€™s popular production sales, and Bob Moorhouse, the former manager of the Pitchfork Ranch who has been instrumental in numerous ranch horse sales in Texas, agree that the most prepared buyers typically find the best deals. These four industry professionals listed the following 13 principles buyers should consider before nodding to the auctioneer at this fallâ€™s ranch production sales.
1. WHO ARE YOU BUYING FROM?
â€śThis is just like any business; thereâ€™s shysters and thereâ€™s regular people,â€ť Smith says. â€śKnow who youâ€™re buying from, and know their reputation. Do your research on the people holding the sale. Thereâ€™s lots of people that keep their word. But you got to sort them out because thereâ€™s the other kind, too.â€ť
â€śAvoid somebody thatâ€™s been in it for only four or five years,â€ť adds Haythorn. â€śBuy from somebody thatâ€™s been in it for a long time. You want somebody who, when you ask, will tell you the truth [about the horse], good or bad.â€ť
2. A SHORT LIST GOES A LONG WAY.
Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s best to arrive at the sale earlyâ€”the day before if possibleâ€”and select only a handful of horses to bid on. The ranch owner may even help you narrow down your list. Watching the warm-up pen, taking notes at the sale preview, and making multiple visits to the stall area will help you identify the horses that best fit you.
â€śSort it down to two or three or four or six,â€ť Parker says. â€śIf you go to the sales previews or the demonstrations, that helps you sort out what you want and what you donâ€™t want.â€ť
3. WHAT DO THE SELLERS SAY?
Visit with the horse owner and anyone else associated with the animalâ€™s care. Track down the person who trained or regularly rides the horse.
â€śTalk to the people that are riding the horses,â€ť Haythorn says. â€śAsk the boys that work there. Theyâ€™ll tell you.â€ť
4. WHAT DO PAST BUYERS THINK?
Those who have purchased horses from a certain ranch may not be familiar with the horse youâ€™re targeting, but they have experience dealing with the sellers and the type of horses they raise.
5. WHAT DO THEY MEAN BY THE TERM â€śRANCH GELDINGâ€ť?
Get more specific details, because some talented, experienced, cow-smart ranch geldings act like PRCA broncs on cool mornings. Be realistic. Are you looking for an athlete or a babysitter?
â€śPeople say they want a horse with ranch horse skills, but they couldnâ€™t even get their saddle on some of the best ranch horses that Iâ€™ve known,â€ť Smith says. â€śReally, most people are wanting a good, safe, gentle horse that has some experience going over rough country, crossing creeks, standing quiet to be saddled, and doing things that a good olâ€™ ranch horse will do.â€ť
6. COLOR IS COSTLY.
Grays, duns and roans draw a lot of attention, so youâ€™re more likely to get a good deal on a less-colorful horse.
â€śYou may want the buckskin, but the buckskin is going to cost you more,â€ť Parker says. â€śThe sorrel might be the same kind of good horse. Maybe you canâ€™t afford the buckskin, so buy the sorrel.â€ť
7. YOUâ€™RE GOING TO PAY FOR PRETTY.
Understand that great conformation doesnâ€™t always mean heâ€™s a great gelding.
â€śHe may not be quite as good-looking as some of the other horses, but he might still be just as good a horse to ride, or might have a better mind than some,â€ť Haythorn says. â€śIf youâ€™re just looking for one to ride, donâ€™t get hung up on conformation and let it overshadow the ability of the horse or a great mind.â€ť
8. GEEZERS CAN BE PLEASERS.
Although a horse may be past his prime, he might have enough left in the tank to work for you.
â€śYou may live in Detroit and just want to ride on weekends at a local indoor barn,â€ť Parker says. â€śPeople overlook some horses that might not be able to make big circles anymore, that might be 10 or 12 years old. But they might work if they live where they donâ€™t have so much asked of them.â€ť
9. THEREâ€™S NO SUCH THING AS
â€śPeople say they want that fool-proof horse, and theyâ€™re dreaming,â€ť Smith says. â€śThereâ€™s no such thing as a fool-proof horse.â€ť
10. ARE THE PRICES RIGHT?
During your research, find out what your type of horse usually sells for. Study sale results and attend comparable auctions. When the sale price begins to skyrocket, educated bidders know when to bow out.
11. ITâ€™S A QUIRKY MARKET.
Even after youâ€™ve researched price ranges, understand that a horseâ€™s value is largely subjective.
â€śThe horse market is so different than any other,â€ť Moorhouse says. â€śIn the cattle market, today I can go on the Internet and find out what fat steers are bringing to the penny. But with the horse market, thatâ€™s not it. For no apparent reason, one sale might be up and one might be down.â€ť
12. HOW HIGH WILL YOU JUMP?
Before the bidding begins, know how much you want to pay. Set that price limit for yourself, visualize that number and stick to it.
13. ARE YOU THE SUCKER?
Unfortunately, not everyone in the horse business is honest. Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s important to do your research and buy only from reputable ranches.
â€śSome horse sales, Iâ€™m scared of,â€ť Moorhouse says. â€śA lot of things go on that most people in the stands donâ€™t know about. I really donâ€™t like that. So you really need to be pretty cautious.â€ť
Ross Hecox is a senior editor for Western Horseman. Send comments on this story to