13 Rules for Ranch Horse Buyers
Fall ranch production sales are right around the corner, and these guidelines will help you find the right horse at a reasonable price.
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 fall’s ranch production sales, many anticipate finding plenty of quality horses at cheap prices.
However, bargains won’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.
“The buzz everywhere has been on the good geldings, and that’s the way it should be,” says Bill Smith, who operates WYO Quarter Horse Sales in Thermopolis, Wyoming. “I still think there’s a lot of money out there. It’s just that now buyers are getting more discriminating with their money.”
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.
“Do your homework,” says Jann Parker, who, with her husband, Bill, manages Billings Livestock Sales in Montana. “Know 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.”
Parker and Smith have both been directly involved in horse sales for more than 20 years. Craig Haythorn, who has organized his Nebraska ranch’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 fall’s ranch production sales.
1. WHO ARE YOU BUYING FROM?
“This is just like any business; there’s shysters and there’s regular people,” Smith says. “Know who you’re buying from, and know their reputation. Do your research on the people holding the sale. There’s lots of people that keep their word. But you got to sort them out because there’s the other kind, too.”
“Avoid somebody that’s been in it for only four or five years,” adds Haythorn. “Buy from somebody that’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.”
2. A SHORT LIST GOES A LONG WAY.
That’s why it’s best to arrive at the sale early—the day before if possible—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.
“Sort it down to two or three or four or six,” Parker says. “If you go to the sales previews or the demonstrations, that helps you sort out what you want and what you don’t want.”
3. WHAT DO THE SELLERS SAY?
Visit with the horse owner and anyone else associated with the animal’s care. Track down the person who trained or regularly rides the horse.
“Talk to the people that are riding the horses,” Haythorn says. “Ask the boys that work there. They’ll tell you.”
4. WHAT DO PAST BUYERS THINK?
Those who have purchased horses from a certain ranch may not be familiar with the horse you’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 “RANCH GELDING”?
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?
“People say they want a horse with ranch horse skills, but they couldn’t even get their saddle on some of the best ranch horses that I’ve known,” Smith says. “Really, 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 ol’ ranch horse will do.”
6. COLOR IS COSTLY.
Grays, duns and roans draw a lot of attention, so you’re more likely to get a good deal on a less-colorful horse.
“You may want the buckskin, but the buckskin is going to cost you more,” Parker says. “The sorrel might be the same kind of good horse. Maybe you can’t afford the buckskin, so buy the sorrel.”
7. YOU’RE GOING TO PAY FOR PRETTY.
Understand that great conformation doesn’t always mean he’s a great gelding.
“He 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,” Haythorn says. “If you’re just looking for one to ride, don’t get hung up on conformation and let it overshadow the ability of the horse or a great mind.”
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.
“You may live in Detroit and just want to ride on weekends at a local indoor barn,” Parker says. “People 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 don’t have so much asked of them.”
9. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS
“People say they want that fool-proof horse, and they’re dreaming,” Smith says. “There’s no such thing as a fool-proof horse.”
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. IT’S A QUIRKY MARKET.
Even after you’ve researched price ranges, understand that a horse’s value is largely subjective.
“The horse market is so different than any other,” Moorhouse says. “In 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, that’s not it. For no apparent reason, one sale might be up and one might be down.”
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. That’s why it’s important to do your research and buy only from reputable ranches.
“Some horse sales, I’m scared of,” Moorhouse says. “A lot of things go on that most people in the stands don’t know about. I really don’t like that. So you really need to be pretty cautious.”
Ross Hecox is a senior editor for Western Horseman. Send comments on this story to