Finding Quality Horses For Your New Ranch Property
©Gary Hubbell 2007 All rights reserved. May not be used or reproduced in ANY form without the express written consent of the author.All photos copyright Gary Hubbell and may not be used without permission in any way, shape, or form.
Once you find that dream ranch in the mountains, it’s time to find some horses for your ranch! This can be an interesting process—both lots of fun and challenging. Many times, when we locate a great ranch property for our real estate clients, they don’t know where to begin when they want to stock their ranch with horses. I get asked the same questions over and over, so I thought I’d write it all down for you to read and ponder. My wife, Doris, trains horses and sells horses to the public. You can check out our current inventory of trail horses, performance horses, paints, Morgans, quarter horses, Arabians, and foxtrotters at www.mountaintrailhorses.com.
Anyone with horses can sell you horses, but that doesn’t mean that they’re good horses, and that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy keeping them and riding them. In fact, your dream of owning a good horse might get trashed by buying a horse that just isn’t a fit for you. Spoiled, lazy, untrained, undisciplined, dangerous horses are no fun at all.
Your first task is to define what you want. I’m going to assume that you have the facilities and ability to keep horses—pasture, tack shed, corrals, etc. I’m also going to assume that you either have some horse skills or you’re going to hire a ranch manager or caretaker who does.
If you’re buying a full-fledged cattle ranch with several hundred head of cattle (LINK to my article on Colorado cattle ranches), you’re going to need some real working ranch horses, especially if you’re going to be riding the range to herd your cattle, doctor the sick ones, and ride some rough country. You’d also better be a pretty good rider yourself to do this job.
Working ranch horses are a little different than most horses that people have in their backyards. These are the type of horses that have cool, reserved demeanors. By and large, they’re not real sociable to people. They show up to work on time with all their tools, and their goal is to get the job done.
This is a typical ranch gelding, in this case being shown by horseman Jeff Burtard prior to a horse sale
A good ranch horse is “cowy”, which means he understands the job of working cattle and likes to chase them. He likes to make quick cuts to move the cow and likes to succeed in doing the job, whether it’s chasing a steer down a draw to join the herd; rope a calf for branding; or cut a heifer from the herd.
These are good broke quarter horse geldings, usually between 6 and 12 years old, that can spend a long day covering the high country and working hard. For them to do the job, they’ve been ridden by a real horseman, and ridden a lot. Expect to pay for a good ranch gelding, but don’t play kissy-face and talk baby talk to a horse like this. They don’t like it.
I did location scouting and location management for a Marlboro photo shoot in December 2006, and yes, the Marlboro cowboys are real cowboys. Their horses are real ranch horses. One of the cowboys asked me to hold a couple of horses while they were doing a campfire scene, and they were typical ranch geldings—there to do a job, but not interested in having their noses rubbed.
How are these horses trained? Well, as I explain in my article on Colorado cattle ranches, there are still cowboys out there who have to ride the range every day. Many ranchers combine their herds on grazing leases on the national forest and hire one cowboy, called a “pool rider”, to look after the herds. If you’re riding 20-30 miles a day, day in and day out, you need four or five horses. Part of a pool rider’s compensation package is to start young colts and put a lot of miles on them. After a summer or two of this kind of tough duty, the colts are ready to go to work as a ranch horse. These tough, well broke ranch horses will do every type of job, from roping a sick heifer and keeping the rope taut while the cowboy jumps off to doctor the cow; dragging logs to help build a cabin; driving cattle through rough, rocky terrain; and generally being a dependable, solid horse.
Most ranchers are looking for geldings for this type of work because there’s none of the drama associated with mares coming into heat. That doesn’t mean, however, that a mare isn’t just as capable of doing an excellent job as a ranch horse. Quite often ranch geldings are solid colored sorrels, bays, duns, and blacks, with little “chrome” or color on them. Sometimes they have AQHA registration papers, but often they do not. They’ll work as arena horses or performance horses, but they won’t be the flashiest or the fastest performers.
Budget $3,000 to $10,000 for a good ranch gelding, and don’t be afraid to pay the money for an excellent horse.
As far as caring for a ranch horse, make sure he’s got a good, well-fenced pasture, a clean source of water (he’ll sure drink from a ditch), and maybe a lean-to shelter. Don’t put him in a stall or blanket him. He’ll go crazy in a stall and he’ll overheat in a blanket. Let him socialize in the pasture with the other horses, and feed him enough good hay in the winter to keep his furnace going. A full belly is how he stays warm, not by blanketing or heated stalls.
A good ranch gelding will also have a very light touch. A little neck rein and a nudge with your calf will get an instant response. If you dig your heels in, he’ll go zero to sixty in 3.6 seconds. If you don’t REALLY KNOW how to ride, this might be too much horse for you.
Pleasure and Trail Horses
Depending on your riding experience and the job description for your horse, this might be more what you’re looking for. A good trail horse is used to a variety of different riders and situations, and he or she is more of a “babysitter” than a “race car”. Most trail horses do just fine on your basic cattle drive, pushing cows along as they go up the trail to the mountains. They may not have the fine touch or “cowy” instincts to cut a steer from the herd and rope him, but generally speaking, they’ll do just fine on cattle.
Trail horses don’t get as much acclaim as they should. They’re the blue-collar workers of the horse world, going to work with no complaints and doing a job that is actually pretty difficult, with no fanfare.
Horses have survived over the millennia by spooking when they perceive danger, and a good trail horse has to counteract that very strong instinct. He or she needs to stay calm and collected while a thunderstorm approaches and you unfurl a yellow slicker over his back. He needs to be cool when a hiker’s dog decides to snarl and attack. He needs to chill out while you drop off his back, pull a rifle out of the scabbard, and shoot a bull elk during hunting season.
If you decide you want to ride double with a child, pack elk quarters, drag a log over to the campfire, or stand there while you photograph wildflowers, then that’s what he should do.
I’ve had trail horses of all breeds, sizes, and colors, and they’ve been outstanding across the board. Arabians, Morgans, Appaloosas, quarter horses, thoroughbreds, paints, draft crosses, as well as quite a few “grade”, or unregistered horses—we’ve had ‘em all. It doesn’t seem to matter which breed they are. But there are some definite characteristics that help to make a good trail horse.
Disposition — What to Look for in a Trail Horse
The first thing I look for in a trail horse is a friendly disposition. The horse that wants to come visit with you in the pasture is going to be a better mountain trail horse than a stand-offish horse that won’t let you catch him in the pasture. That doesn’t mean I want a horse that is spoiled and disrespectful, always in your face. I just want a horse that likes people. Lots of horse people will tell you that they’re looking for a “kind eye”. I agree with that, but I’ve also owned horses that looked like they’d just as soon stomp you into a mud puddle as look at you, and they turned out to be good horses.
A “kind eye”. This is my favorite horse, Slick, a registered Arabian. He’s as nice a pleasure, trail, and mountain horse as you’ll ever want to ride, and by the way, he won Reserve Champion as a halter horse in several major Arabian shows.
Soundness — Above All, a Trail Horse Must Be Sound!
If you’re going to ride in rough country in the Rocky Mountains, you absolutely must have a sound horse. Every time I’ve tried to use a horse that had a supposedly minor soundness issue, it turned into a big issue after a couple of weeks in our dude string. Old wire cuts on the heels and pasterns, stifle problems, windpuffs on the cannon bones, arthritis—these conditions all break a horse down in the high country.
Withers — Where to Put Your Saddle
Most people don’t think of this as an issue, but it is. If you’re really in the dark about horses, the withers are the horse’s backbone at the top of his shoulders, right where the mane ends. A horse with round withers is not a good trail horse, especially for inexperienced riders. It has nothing to do with a horse’s disposition, soundness, or how well broke he is. Why? Because the withers hold the saddle on the horse, especially when you’re riding in difficult terrain. Horses with low, round withers have a much higher occurrence of saddle and rider sliding off to one side or another, which is a definite problem! If the withers are too high and narrow, many saddles will ride directly on the withers, badly soring the horse.
Feet — a Trail Horse Has to Have Solid Feet
You’ll hear time and again how black feet are harder and more durable than white feet, and I believe there is some element of truth to this. However, I’ve owned many horses with white feet who did just fine in the mountains. More importantly, the feet need to be solid—free of large splits, cracks, and other deformities. A word to the wise—horses with white stockings are prone to a fungal infection called “scratches” when they’re pastured in a wet environment. It’s a painful condition for the horse, fairly chronic, and difficult to treat. Horses with white stockings are pretty, but can be troublesome to own.
Color — What Color Should I Get?
My good friend Jack Toney always says, “My favorite color is ‘broke’”. I agree with him. At this point, I’ve owned horses of practically every color, and it doesn’t really matter to me if a horse is a buckskin, bay, sorrel, palomino, tobiano, overo, black, or gray. HOWEVER, I will not buy a horse with a pink face, particularly a pink nose. This lack of pigment can be of no consequence at low elevations, but in the high mountains, a horse with a pink nose will suffer painful sunburn, and this will be a chronic condition that will not resolve itself. Grey horses are susceptible to cancer, and I have owned one that got cancer.
Size — the Ideal Trail Horse Is Not Necessarily a Large Horse
Many people, and especially women, for some reason think they need a LARGE horse. Horses are measured in “hands”—four inches equals one hand. A 15-hand horse is 60 inches high at the withers. (FYI, 14.1 hands means 14 hands and 1 inch. It goes to 14.2, 14.3, and then to 15 hands. If you see an ad for a 15.5 hand horse, you can automatically assume that the owner of that horse is an ignoramus and doesn’t know anything about horses).
Very often some woman will call me up, looking to buy a horse, and insist that she needs a 16-hand horse. “I’m 5’2” and weigh 120 pounds,” she’ll say, as if she’s some kind of obese giant, “and I ride two or three hours in a row! So I need a BIG horse!”
I’m 5’10”, 170 pounds, and athletic. One of my favorite trail horses is 14-0-1/2”, or 14 hands and a half inch. He’s short. Nico weighs about 850 pounds, and he’ll carry me, my slicker, saddle bags, hunting rifle, and a 42-pound Western saddle ALL DAY LONG, ALL WEEK LONG.
For those of you who grew up riding warmbloods and thoroughbreds at English riding stables, remember that you always mounted with a mounting block. In the mountains, you rarely have such a luxury. Climbing on a 16-hand horse is a task, even if you’re tall and athletic, which, I can say from experience, is not often the case.
If you’re 5’9” and 230 pounds, which quite a few people are, you should look for a stout, stocky, 14.2 horse with great withers. It’ll be easy to get on and off him, and once you’re on, the saddle will stay put.
Another thing about great big horses is that they’re often clumsy on the trails. Of course, there are exceptions, but who is going to be a better mountain climber—a 5’8”, 145-pound athlete, or a 330-pound NFL defensive lineman? Height itself is sometimes a detriment in a trail horse. If you’re riding a 16.2 hh trail horse, you’d better learn to duck, because low-hanging branches will be pulling your hat off again and again.
For smaller people, I recommend smaller horses. The typical 5’2”, 120-pound woman should be looking for a horse like Nico at 14 hands. A nicely built 15-hand horse will carry most people up to, say, 220 or even 250 pounds, if they can ride. When you start talking about very large people—250-350 pounds—I recommend draft horse/pleasure horse crosses. These gentle giants are really the best of both worlds.
Draft horse breeds often run to very large sizes—17 hands and 1,800 pounds is very common. Their gaits are often very slow and plodding, and though they’re big and very gentle, they’re not a lot of fun to ride. It’s like riding a great big beer keg. Your legs get spraddled out beyond a comfortable position.
Belgians, Percherons, and Clydesdales (the Budweiser horses are Clydesdales) are common breeds of big draft horses.
When bred to a smaller saddle horse, such as an Arabian, quarter horse, paint, or thoroughbred, these can make a terrific cross. I’ve owned several, including two Arabian/Belgians, a Percheron/Thoroughbred, a Morgan/Belgian, and several quarter horse/Belgian crosses. The only problem I had with them was fighting off all the people who wanted to buy them off me at top dollar while I was trying to run a busy outfitting business. An ideal size for one of these bigger horses is 15.2-15.3 hh and about 1,350-1,400 pounds. This size horse can carry practically anybody up to 300 pounds while still being small enough to mount fairly easily and get around in the mountains handily.
These three horses are, from left to right, a Belgian/Morgan cross, a Percheron/Thoroughbred cross, and a Belgian/Arabian cross. All three horses proved to be outstanding mountain horses with great dispositions.
Age — Horses Older Than 7 Are Much More Dependable
One of the most common mistakes that people make is to buy a horse that is too young. “But he was so PRETTY!!!” they’ll say from their hospital beds. A horse really doesn’t have his act together until he or she is five or six years old. I’ve had horses that we rode a lot that were pretty darned good horses as four-year-olds. However, horses are like people in many respects. Their brains don’t mature until they’ve got some age on them. Think of the 16-year-olds driving around and it makes you shudder, doesn’t it? Of course, there are responsible, mature 16-year-olds, but they are the exception, not the rule. If you’re not a good horseman, don’t buy a horse under seven years old. Let the horse teach you, not hurt you. A nice five- or six-year-old horse is still a little young for most intermediate to advanced riders. Unless you’re a heck of a horseman, don’t even think about three-year-old horses.
If your goal is to just go out and ride every week or two, look for an older horse, say 12 to 18 years old. This is the kind of horse that has settled into the program well enough to take care of you. People always ask me if a horse is too old at 16 or 18 years old. I once packed out an entire bull elk on a 32-year-old horse. The answer is, they can live to be well into their 30’s, and productive for pleasure and trail riding late into their late 20’s. If you find a great horse for sale who is in his late teens or early 20’s and still sound, buy him. You won’t regret having given a senior citizen a chance at being productive and happy.
Mare or Gelding?
Many horse people tend to dislike riding mares. It’s true, female horses often exhibit “bitchy” tendencies, pinning back their ears and biting and kicking at other horses when they come too close. I’ve owned quite a few mares, and some of them acted “marish” and others didn’t. Most of the time, they put their heads down and went to work, making me money day after day. What’s wrong with that?
If you’ll sit down and visit with old cowboys, often they’ll say, “I once had this mare named _______, and boy, was that a heck of a horse. She had a lot of heart,” and go on for another ten minutes about how good a horse she was. Then they’ll turn right around and say how they don’t like mares, they like geldings.
Geldings, for those of you who are still learning about horses, are male horses that have been neutered. That’s right, they’ve had their testicles cut off. It cuts off the flow of testosterone, and the horses get gentler and easier to handle.
That doesn’t mean they won’t act like stallions from time to time. Sometimes a dominant gelding will gather a little harem of mares and chase off any other gelding that comes near. Horse people will often say a gelding is “proud cut” if he exhibits any stallion-like tendencies. There’s a little gland attached to the testicles that is sometimes overlooked when castrating a stud colt. If this gland stays intact, testosterone keeps flowing, and you’ve got a stallion except for the ability to impregnate mares. The only way to truly verify a “proud cut” condition is to have the horse’s blood tested for testosterone levels. I’ve had quite a few dominant, aggressive geldings, and of all those horses, I thought only one was proud cut. By the time I ran him through the sale ring, he had bitten chunks out of all 35 horses in my herd, some in several places, and had gotten the tar kicked out of him by one of my big tough geldings. A new zip code fixed that problem.
By and large, geldings are your best bet, but don’t overlook a good mare. I have owned several outstanding mares who never gave me a blink of trouble and did a superb job, super steady, dependable, sure-footed, and friendly. I’ve also sold mares for top dollar, too, so don’t think they’re not as valuable as geldings. I’ve also had geldings that were dominant, pushy, and aggressive, and just as much a problem as any mare.
By the way, you don’t need a stallion unless you’re going into a full-fledged breeding program, and you can buy nice colts much cheaper than you can raise them. Stallions have a lonely existence. If you put them together with the herd, there’s too much fighting, biting, and kicking to justify with good horses. They end up standing around alone, getting frustrated and mean, and for good reason. Of course, you’ll hear about people who had sweet, gentle stallions, but that’s an exception to the rule.
HORSE BREEDS FOR RANCH WORK AND MOUNTAIN RIDING
QUARTER HORSES AND PAINTS
So what breed of horse should you buy? Heck, I don’t know. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. For trail and mountain riding with a little cowboying thrown in, a nice quarter horse or paint is hard to beat. The conformation of a quarter horse, with the strong, athletic build, big hip and rump, neat head, strong neck, and big heartgirth, is a very nice, sturdy mountain horse. I prefer the more athletic quarter horses that are a little on the leaner side than the big, stout, stocky quarter horses. Today’s American Paint Horse Association horses are so intermixed with quarter horses in their bloodlines that the conformation and attributes are basically the same. The greatest difference between the two breeds is color.
This is a 5-year-old AQHA-registered quarter horse mare. She’s built a little on the stocky side. A lineback red dun in color, Sky is 14.2 hh and about 1,050 pounds.
Paints and quarter horses are fairly cold-blooded horses. By “cold-blooded”, in the horse world we mean that they aren’t racy, hot-blooded horses that are difficult to handle. You can spank a quarter horse with a rein and he won’t take it personally. He’ll just quit what he was doing and go on.
There can be a lot of size differential in quarter horses and paints. Cutting horses are bred for smaller sizes, while barrel horses are bred to be taller. (By the way, “appendix quarter horse” means a horse that has thoroughbred ancestors in his bloodlines.) Quarter horses and paints can range from 14 hands up to 16 hands and even taller. The average quarter horse stands about 14.3-15 hh and weighs about 1,100-1,200 pounds.
The most common color for a quarter horse is sorrel, a copper red color, followed by bay, which is a brown horse with black mane, tail, and legs. Some of the most sought-after colors include buckskin, which means a tan horse with a black mane and tail; palomino, which is a yellow horse with a flaxen mane and tail; and roans, which can be red, strawberry, or blue. A roan is a horse whose primary hair color is mixed with white hairs.
Paints are basically divided into overos and tobianos. Overos have a distinctive pattern of splashes like the “Hidalgo” horse; tobianos have a primary bay or sorrel color with white splashes.
This is a palomino overo paint filly with outstanding color.
The black overo mare also has striking color. She’s a tall paint at 15.2 hh.
When a foal is born to a paint mare and paint stallion but doesn’t show any color, that’s what is called a “breeding stock” paint. In the old days, these solid-color paint horses were called “crop-out” paints. Basically you’ve got a quarter horse on your hands, with no AQHA registration papers. These breeding stock paints can be a great value if you don’t care about color or registration papers. They make great ranch and trail horses.
This breeding stock paint mare made an outstanding trail horse. Note the outstanding conformation, which is close to perfect for either quarter horse or paint standards. Plenty of hip, a nice angle on the shoulder, excellent withers, and the tail is set on the croup at the right angle for power and speed.
If you want a really nice trail horse that can still work cattle, you might consider a gaited horse, such as a Missouri Foxtrotter. I’ve owned several foxtrotters, and wow, are they nice. What does “gaited” mean? Well, a typical non-gaited horse trots in a two-beat rhythm, with two feet off the ground at all times. A gaited horse “shuffles” in a four-beat rhythm, with one foot on the ground at all times. It’s VERY SMOOTH. You can ride a good gaited horse at a fast “trot” and stir sugar in your iced tea without spilling a drop.
This Missouri Foxtrotter gelding is a very smooth-riding, outstanding trail horse. He’s 15.1 hh and weighs about 1,150 pounds.
For mountain trail riding, I really like Missouri foxtrotters. The original bloodlines came from a mixture of Morgans, Arabians, quarter horses, and Tennessee walking horses. They’ve got the stamina of the Arabians, the cowy nature of the quarter horse, the strength of the Morgan, and the gait of the Tennessee walkers. I’ve owned several Missouri foxtrotters, and I’ve never been disappointed. They have good bone structure, good size, good minds, nice colors, great dispositions, excellent stamina and strength, and they’re really smooth and really fun to ride. They’re built fairly stout, rather like a quarter horse, and able to do a lot of jobs, including working cows. Typical size for a foxtrotter is 14.2 hh and 950 pounds, on the small side, to 16 hands and over 1,300 pounds on the large side. Average size is probably 15 hands and 1,100-1,200 pounds. I have a 15.2 hh, 1,250-pound foxtrotter gelding, “Foxy”, who is one of my personal horses. He’s outstanding. (I just negotiated a sale contract on Foxy for $9,000. Good foxtrotters can bring a lot of money.)
Tennessee walking horses also can be great trail horses. I’ve owned two Tennessee walkers, and they were both nice smooth competent trail horses. Generally speaking, they’re built a little longer and leaner than the Missouri foxtrotters, and are not quite as stout. I wouldn’t say they would make great cowhorses, but for pushing cows up a trail on a cattle drive, they’ll do fine. If anything, they walk so fast that “regular” horses have to trot to keep up, so make sure your horse matches the speed of the folks you’ll be riding with.
Many Tennessee walkers are quite tall. It’s common to see 16-hand Tennessee walkers, but they’ll usually weigh only 1,100 pounds at that size.
Other gaited breeds include Paso Finos, a smaller Spanish breed; Rocky Mountain Horses (that ironically originated in Tennessee and Kentucky); and Standardbreds. Both the Paso Finos and the Rocky Mountain Horses are somewhat smaller than most horses, at 14.2-14.3 and about 900-1,000 pounds. Standardbreds can be very tall, gangly, and lean, and not necessarily the best trail horses.
Ah, yes, Arabians. You know what the cowboys say about Arabians: “nervous, flighty, spooky, unpredictable, dangerous” and yadiyadiyada. Not true. My wife and I each have an Arabian as our personal saddle horses, and they’re not for sale. That cute couple riding through the golden aspen trees in the TV commercial for the Colorado Tourism Board are riding Slick and Stoney, our two Arabians. The production company called me and asked me for two horses, a bay and a black. They had to be dead broke so that anyone could ride them, drop-dead good-looking, smoothly gaited, and able to handle a production crew with camera booms, tripods, lights, and little train tracks for the cameras. No problem. Out of 40 horses, I chose the two Arabians. Slick and Stoney were in our dude string for eight years, and carried well over 1,000 guests each, all of whom were delighted to ride such beautiful, steady, calm, gentle, but spirited horses. Is that an anomaly? Did we just luck into two good Arabians? No, we have four more that are just as good.
Each of these horses is a registered Arabian. They’re all nice trail horses and they have taken literally thousands of guests on trail rides. Not bad-looking, either, right?
Arabians make excellent trail horses and they excel in endurance racing. They commonly win 100-mile races. At an endurance race, probably 80% of the horses are Arabians. If you look closely at an Arab, their tails are set higher on the croup for a flatter croup—the region just in front of the tail. That brings less speed “out of the box”, but more endurance. A quarter horse is built with a steep croup, which gives him a lot of speed at short distances, but much less endurance.
It is true, however, that Arabians have a greater propensity for spookiness. You’ve got to spend more time with them to make them comfortable with new situations. Once you’ve got an Arabian well trained, however, you’ve got an outstanding mountain horse. I’ve used Slick as my favorite roundup horse to bring the horses in across the meadow in the morning, to pack elk, to carry little kids, to go on five-day pack trips.
If you’re looking to buy an Arabian, make sure the seller is a competent trainer and has spent time with the horse. If the horse is poorly trained, you could get hurt.
It’s pretty well undisputed that Arabians are the most beautiful breed of horse. Arabians have a slighter and more elegant build than most other breeds of horses, but that doesn’t mean they can’t carry a good-sized rider. A good-sized Arab will top out at 15 hands or so, though we have one that is 15.3. The average Arabian is probably 14.2-14.3 hh and weighs 900-1,000 pounds.
I’ve owned only one Morgan, and he’s one of my favorite horses. The Morgan is a breed developed in the 1800’s to make an all-purpose horse for settlers to ride, drive, and work cattle. They’re characterized by a trim head with a neat muzzle, an arched neck with a tidy throatlatch, and a thick, strong neck. They’re sturdy horses with a lot of strength, but generally small in stature. The average Morgan is 14-14.3 hh and weighs 850-1,100 pounds. You’ll see the occasional Morgan that’s well over 15 hands and 1,200 pounds.
My wrangler Dwight is 5’8” and 145 pounds. This Morgan, at 14 0 ½”, is the perfect horse for a guy his size. Nico is double tough, with great strength and endurance, and very responsive. This is an all-around outstanding trail horse, and did a pretty good job on a cattle drive recently. He’s not for beginners; you’d better know how to ride if you’re going to saddle up Nico.
The Morgan I own is a cool little horse with a lot of character. He’s also the big boss out of 40 horses in the herd. No one pushes Nico around. He’s very responsive to the rein, hard-working, and loves to go. He’ll walk the legs off any other horse in the herd. I think he would be an outstanding endurance horse, but he’d also look extremely elegant pulling a hackney. I’ve used him on cattle drives, where he got very excited about moving cattle, and then settled into doing an outstanding job. If you get a Morgan, be ready for a lot of horse in a small package.
The joke about Appaloosas goes like this: “Why did the Indians ride Appaloosas? So they would be good and angry by the time they got to the battle.” Appaloosas have a reputation for being stupid. But then again, Arabians have a reputation for being spooky and nervous, and I love Arabians. Generalizations don’t do much good. Let’s see…I’ve owned only three Appaloosas, and one, indeed, was stupid. But I’m willing to put that down to the law of averages. I won’t condemn a breed because of one horse. My neighbor has a nice little Appy gelding and won’t trade him for love nor money.
We have a nice little POA (Ponies of America) Appaloosa gelding who is just a kick to ride and fun to be around. “Schofield” is a fun little horse with a great attitude and a lot of character.
Generally speaking, Appaloosas are known for the “blanket” of spots on their rumps, though there are also “leopard Appaloosas” with a pattern of dark spots over their entire bodies, generally with a white background. As far as conformation goes, a good Appaloosa conformation is the same as a good quarter horse or paint horse conformation, with a strong hip, good barrel on his heartgirth, a neat head, a strong neck, and good feet.
Sizes are about the same as quarter horses and paints—about 15 hands and 1,150 pounds for the average horse. However, for a time, English hunter/jumper riders got into Appaloosas as a cross for bigger horses, and bred them to be very tall, well over 16 hands, so every now and then you’ll see a very tall Appaloosa that was probably the result of a thoroughbred cross.
Appaloosas are a very versatile trail, mountain, and ranch horse. You’ll see a lot of them in dude strings, packing guests through the high country, but they’re also good for cowboying and rodeoing.
I like pretty much all horses, and I’ve owned thoroughbreds as well as several other breeds. If there’s one breed of horse I wouldn’t recommend for ranch work, mountain riding, or trail riding, it’s the thoroughbred. Generally, I like thoroughbreds. They’re willing to work and have a lot of heart, having been bred from Arabian bloodlines.
Although thoroughbreds have conformation aspects that are an attribute to the sports for which they were bred—racing and hunter/jumper eventing–they’re a detriment to ranch work and mountain trail riding. Thoroughbreds are long, lean, tall horses that are bred to win horse races. They’re fast! Have you ever ridden a thoroughbred racehorse at a full gallop? Hold on to your reins!
That doesn’t necessarily translate to a good mountain horse or ranch horse. Thoroughbreds typically are built with extremely narrow, high withers, which makes it difficult to find a Western saddle to fit a thoroughbred. Also, many thoroughbreds are “platter footed”—their hooves have a flat sole with very little depth, as most other horses have. Again, this is good for racing on a racetrack, but a flat-soled horse often suffers stone bruises and hoof abcesses from mountain riding. Thoroughbreds are also very tall horses, generally at least 15.2 hh and it’s very common to see thoroughbreds that are 16-17 hands high. It’s very difficult to mount and dismount such tall horses, and you will find yourself scraping through branches where other horses won’t. Lastly, thoroughbreds can be pretty hot-blooded, so you’d better have a gentle one if you’re going to use him for ranch work.
That being said, there’s a lot I like about thoroughbreds. They’re athletic and lean, they like to go, they’re strong and fast. Some ranchers do use them as cowhorses, especially when they’ve got a lot of range to cover. Cowgirls like to use them for speed events in rodeos, particularly barrel racing.
The idea of owning a “wild horse” is very appealing to some people. Mustangs are feral horses descended from the original Spanish Barb horses that were imported to the New World in the 1500’s and 1600’s by the Spanish conquistadors. As they escaped or were set free, they established wild herds that still roam free today.
However, most of these original bloodlines have been diluted by ranchers who turned out various horses to join them on the free range. You can see evidence of draft horses, quarter horses, and paints in their conformation and appearance.
There are adoption programs sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management where you can adopt a horse for a $125 adoption fee, which may seem like a pretty good deal. I was recently offered 11 mustangs for free, and I asked the owner what I had done to make them angry at me.
Some people swear by mustangs, saying that they’re super tough, agile, strong horses that don’t need shoeing and are at home in tough conditions. True.
I’ve also rarely seen a mustang that I thought was good-looking enough to join my herd. Generally, they’re pretty ugly, with short, skinny necks, long, heavy heads, short legs, and skinny rumps. Of course, there are good-looking mustangs here and there, but by and large, they’ve been severely inbred and they won’t win any halter competitions.
Then there’s the issue of training them. It’s so much easier to start a gentle colt that has been handled since birth, and for most of these mustangs, they’ve only seen people when they were sitting in helicopters rounding them up. They’re wild and spooky, and they will kick your head off if they get the chance.
I once spent two hours helping a friend try to put a halter on a mustang that was just off the range. It ended up breaking through two corral rails and almost knocked me over, and I said, “To hell with this. This is your problem, not mine.” I just have better things to do with my time. I can take a nice paint, quarter horse, or Arabian, and when I’m done training him, I have a $5,000 horse. I can work a lot harder to get to the same point with a mustang and have an $800 horse when I’m done.
All you mustang fans, I wish you well, and I admire you for taking on the challenges you’ve chosen. Good luck to you. You’re going to need it.
Draft Horse Crosses
I covered this topic in “size” above, and draft crosses are a great alternative for larger people. I like riding them myself, and I’m average size. I guess the best attribute to draft crosses is their gentle nature and good size. They’re super for mountain trail riding and especially for larger people. However, it would be an exceptional draft horse cross that would be good at working cattle. They’re just not nimble enough.
I’ve covered the main breeds that you’ll hear encounter in Colorado and Rocky Mountain horse circles. Of course, there are hundreds of breeds of horses, and I can’t cover them all. However, there’s one category I can’t ignore, and that is a very special category: kids’ horses. It’s interesting—a good kids’ horse is the hardest horse to find, yet it seems that people don’t want to pay very much for one. I get calls from people all the time asking if I can find them a great kids’ horse for $1,000.
Well, let’s just look at supply and demand. If I’ve had ten calls for that exact same horse and have only one, isn’t he suddenly quite a bit more valuable? A good kids’ horse is quite possibly the most important horse of all, because a good horse can turn an indifferent child into a rider for life. Not only that, he could save you thousands of dollars in medical expenses if you buy the wrong horse for a kid. Spare no expense on finding a good horse for your child.
My son Jake and his horse, Flash, a 14.1 hh paint/appaloosa cross. This is as good a kid’s horse as you’ll ever find. We think he’s about 12 years old. He’s very responsive, takes a very light rein, very well broke, but very, very gentle. A great babysitter and very reliable, Flash is worth his weight in gold. Horses like this don’t come along often. He has a knot on one tendon on his left hind leg, but it doesn’t bother him. Note that Jake took the cinch off, but not the breastcollar. The saddle is just sitting on his back, but Flash doesn’t care.
I would rarely consider a horse under eight years old for a kids’ horse, but we had a welsh pony/quarter horse gelding that I used to pack kids on dude rides when he was a two-year-old. He just followed along in the string like he had been doing it all his life. He had a really special, sweet, smooth temperament.
Most good kids’ horses are advanced in age. I think they start getting ready for the job when they’re 10 or 12 years old, and it’s not uncommon for a good kids’ horse to be 20-25 years old.
Breed doesn’t seem to matter; temperament does. You need a solid citizen who just won’t spook, and will tolerate a kid crawling around anywhere and everywhere on him. Mind you, many 15-year-old horses are still suitable only for expert riders. I like a kids’ horse who still has some spunk and will respond to cues. Kids get frustrated when a horse pokes along at a snail’s pace or stops to eat every five steps. I will tolerate a little arthritis or a mild case of navicular disease in a kids’ horse, but in the best of all worlds, a kids’ horse will be sound.
The next question, however, is how to find a horse. I’ll outline several alternatives.
Newspaper Ads — Horses for Sale
Most people look in the newspapers for horses for sale. This can be your first and worst mistake. You can get lucky and find a nice horse, or you can set off on a wild goose chase that will not only waste your time and money, you can also get hurt if you buy the wrong horse. If you’re buying your first horse, they’re all beautiful! You’ll want to buy every horse you see. Horse sellers range from fat housewives who have a couple of spoiled pets in the backyard and desperate shysters looking to make a quick buck to honest, capable horse people who really care about your welfare. If you get the feeling that the owner of the horse really has to sell a horse today because the rent is due or the child support is overdue or the truck is about to be repossessed, you’ll be sorry if you buy that horse. They’ll tell you anything to see you write the check and put that horse in the trailer.
It can even be dangerous to ride these backyard pets. This fall we sold a horse to a woman who had gone to look at a horse advertised in the paper. Her son had climbed onto the horse, which promptly bucked, and the rotten cinch on their cheap saddle broke. He got dumped right on top of the saddle. Not a great way to keep your kid interested in riding. Video games suddenly become much more appealing.
If you buy three horses at $2,500 apiece and none of them works out, does that $5,000 horse look better to you? Try dealing with a competent professional who has good facilities, a well-trained staff, and several horses for you to see. I once had a woman call me looking for well-broke foxtrotter geldings for mountain riding. When she got there, I had six of them tied up and waiting. She bought two, but her biggest problem was deciding which ones to buy. That’s unusual.
If you really go on a horse search, you might look at 30, 40, or even a hundred horses before you find the right one. The problem is doing all the groundwork. What is your time worth, anyway? If you pick up a copy of the local penny shopper and find eight horses that sound interesting, you’ve just signed up for a week’s work. By the time you call the owners, make arrangements to see the horses, and figure out where they all are, you’ll have a good three or four days tied up. One horse will be 60 miles away and you can see it on Tuesday after 4:00. Another will be 30 miles in the other direction and you can see it on Thursday no later than 10 a.m. The third will be somewhere in the middle of town in someone’s backyard and you’ll just have to go see it by yourself. And so on.
Then if you want to buy the horse, most of the time they won’t have a current brand inspection or paperwork, so you have to schedule the brand inspector to come and inspect the horse, which means another trip halfway across the state to come get the horse. It really is a big waste of time.
Then you factor in that most of the owners are plain flat liars. The ad will say (and this happened to me), “5 yr. old bay Arabian gelding, sweepstakes nominated, 15.1 hh, gorgeous, 90 days prof. training”. So I drove 150 miles and this woman came out of a barn leading a fat little horse that, as she explained, was actually half Welsh pony and half Arabian, and actually only 13.3 hands tall. “Sweepstakes nominated” means that a horse has won several halter shows in its breed and is nominated for a national competition. A half Welsh pony would, of course, never be nominated, so that was an outright lie, as well as the horse was six inches shorter than she represented.
I figured I was there, so I might as well ride the horse. She saddled him with a cheap little pleasure saddle, and I rode him out into the pasture and walked him around. I thought I’d see what he could do, so I clucked him up into a trot, and then into a canter. The woman began screaming at me. “No, no, no, don’t do that!” she screamed. I stopped the horse. “Do what?” I asked. “Don’t canter him! He’s never been in a canter!” That was her third lie out of three statements of fact in one newspaper ad.
Lord have mercy. When I break a colt, I usually have him in a canter in the first six or eight rides. If he’s had 90 days of professional training, he should have been cantered 80 times. So that’s what you get when you answer ads in the paper. I didn’t charge her a training fee for teaching her horse to canter, by the way.
Then there are the “horse traders”. You’ve heard that as a derogatory term in your daily life, and there’s a reason for that. Consider the woman who came to me looking for a horse. “We bought a gelding from this cowboy in town and my husband rode him from our house out to the desert. He spooked when a dove flew up from the ground, spun sideways, and threw my husband off. My husband broke two ribs and won’t get back on a horse. He’s 69 years old.”
I asked her if the cowboy took the horse back. “Yes, he did,” she answered, “but we’re still waiting for him to replace the horse with a good one. We haven’t heard from him.” Of course, their check had cleared, but the cowboy couldn’t make a refund. All that money was gone. And they had bought two horses from him, neither of which had worked out. $5,000 down the tubes.
You see, this cowboy was a “horse trader” in the classic sense of the word, the type of guy who will go to an auction, buy horses for a few hundred dollars each, and sell them a week or two later at three times the money to an unsuspecting novice. He’s after the “quick flip”. He really has no idea what kind of horse he has on his hands. It takes months and maybe even years to learn what a horse is all about, and that means lots of training and riding.
There are lots of liars out there and few professionals. It really is worth your time to deal with professionals. Yes, you’ll pay more money for a horse, but in the long run, you’ll pay less.
When you show up to a bedraggled little place with fences patched together out of old pallets and baling twine, rotten hay lying there uncovered, nasty dogs growling at you, and sad-eyed, surly horses standing in a bare patch of dirt, you’re at the wrong place.
When you show up to a classy facility with tight fences, friendly dogs, a nice barn full of bright hay, knowledgeable people, and happy, friendly horses, you may have found yourself a horse. But you’ll pay more.
Good horse trainers and brokers are the professionals of the industry, able to find you a nice horse that will fit your needs. Expect to pay for the service. However, there are few, if any, professional qualifications for a horse trainer to claim the title, so do your groundwork carefully before you even make a phone call to look at a horse.
Actually, trainers are pretty busy people who should be working horses all day because that’s what their clients are paying for. They may have 15 horses in training, but only two or three for sale. However, they usually know of several more horses that are good candidates.
A horse broker may be the guy you’re looking for, but good ones are hard to find. What is a horse broker and how is he different from a horse trader? Well, he’s kind of like a good car dealer who stocks low-mileage, classy vehicles on his lot. He’s not after the quick flip and he has plenty of inventory in his pastures. He doesn’t need to sell a horse today, and in most cases, he’d just as soon keep the horse if he doesn’t get his price—and the price might be high, because he knows the value of what he’s got. Most of the good ones are men. They often supply guest ranches and dude strings with horses for the summer and fall, and they have a good reputation for riding and training horses. I can think of three or four brokers like this, good horsemen who will represent a horse honestly. Often they’ve owned a horse two or three years, or maybe even ten years, before offering him for sale. They know they can find another one to replace him, as long as they take the time to gentle the new horse and put miles on him.
Call me prejudiced, but I respect horse people who are athletic. If a horse seller is significantly overweight and out of shape, they obviously spend more time eating than riding. I look for competent, capable horse people, and I shy away from dealing with know-nothings. Watch how they handle their horses. Are the horses friendly and easygoing? Are they pushy and rude? Do they turn away and try to avoid you? Are they spooky and nervous, or do they seem respectful and accepting of your presence?
I remember helping a friend look for a horse several years ago. I got word about a young trainer who had several good horses for sale. He had a little ranch with pretty good facilities, and quite a few good-looking quarter horses. This guy was a cowboy, and he was riding the horses a lot, but boy, were they spooky on the ground. Once he got on, he was okay, but on the ground these horses were trouble. We saw a horse we liked and came back a week later to see the horse again. This time, as we rang the doorbell, the dogs barked inside and we could hear the TV on. We knew he was home, but it took the cowboy forever to get to the door. Once he got there, we could see why. He looked like he had been dragged behind the pickup on a mile or two of bad road, with abrasions and bruises everywhere. He explained that one of the geldings had just spontaneously “blown up” as he was saddling the horse, and he got bashed and banged between the horse and the corral rails for several minutes. Obviously his program was lacking an essential piece of the puzzle.
For the buyer, it’s nice to show up and walk through a pasture and be able to look at 30 or 40 nice horses. The broker can tell you about each horse, and he’ll be able to steer you towards the right fit. You can saddle up three or four that interest you, and make your choices from there.
I’ve shown horses to many people who didn’t end up buying a horse. It didn’t hurt my feelings a bit, because it wasn’t the right fit. When someone comes to me looking for a horse, I don’t want to sell that horse unless I feel like it’s going to be a good situation for the horse. If I feel like they’re too inexperienced, or won’t ride the horse enough, or don’t have a good pasture or boarding situation, then I’m out. If a meek woman shows up wanting to see a strong, dominant gelding, or if a family is looking at a hard-charging gelding for a kid’s horse, I won’t sell the horse. Sometimes it’s just not the right fit, even though we all might wish it to be. I don’t take it personally. I’m more interested in the horse having a good situation than making a sale. Any good horseman will see it that way. It might interest you to know, however, that at least half of the people who come to see our horses buy one or even two.
Check your trainer’s credentials. Ask for a couple of references, especially people who bought the same type of horses you’re looking for.
One thing I would caution you, however—buy a broke horse. Don’t buy a youngster, thinking you’ll send it to a trainer and it’ll be a great horse when he comes back from the trainer. All too often, I’ve seen this plan blow up in someone’s face, and it really is a factor of development, maturity, and age more than a month or two with a horse trainer.
HORSE AUCTIONS AND SALES
There are several levels of horse sales, and they all carry some element of risk. However, you avoid the scenario of looking through the want ads and running around all over the country looking for horses. You don’t have to schedule an appointment, and you can darn sure buy a horse if that’s what you want to do. In fact, you can buy 30 or 40 if you have the money.
A good sale will have anywhere from 30 to 700 horses, and you will have a lot of selection at a good sale. In one day you can see more good horses than you could see in a month of looking through newspaper ads, and all the horses should have their brand inspections and registration papers in order.
The best horse auctions are very classy affairs. For example, you can go to the American Paint Horse Association World Horse Show where they’re crowning world champions and buy horses at the sale that they conduct. You’re going to see some very nice horses at sales like that. Other sales are breed-specific, whereby they only consign APHA and AQHA registered paints and quarter horses, for example, or working ranch horses that are all broke geldings between 6 and 12 years old.
“Production sales” are another type of sale whereby large horse breeding operations offer their foal crops for sale. You can buy horses from established bloodlines with the conformation, look, and colors that you like. Though production sales are held to sell young horses, usually weanlings to three-year-olds, often these production sales will have several well-broke saddle horses as part of the auction.
If you really want a certain type or color of horse, such as a Hancock-bred blue roan quarter horse or a Color Me Smart overo paint mare, this might be your best bet. Some breeders specialize in producing certain colors of horses, such as buckskins, palominos, grullas, blue roans, or warbonnet paints.
These sales are usually on a regular schedule, such as annually or three times a year. The odds of finding a nice horse at sales like this are pretty good. You’ll see horse professionals who have spent a lot of time training and preparing their horses for the sale, and it’s an important part of their annual income to get a good price for their horses. Usually there’s an arena at the sale where you can “test drive” the horses, and you can put together a list of horses that interest you. You can take the time to visit with the owners and learn about their horses, and it’s a great way of bringing buyers and sellers together. Make sure to ask the seller the important questions:
Is the horse sound?
What kind of training has the horse had?
Do you have registration papers?
Is the horse experienced with the kind of job I want him to do?
How is he to handle on the ground?
Has he ever bucked with a rider on his back? When and why?
Will he load in a trailer?
Will he stand calmly for the horseshoer?
Will he stand tied?
Is he aggressive with other horses?
How many owners has he had?
How long have you had the horse?
If the horse has had six owners and the seller has owned the horse three weeks, I’d be very wary. If the seller has owned the horse two years after buying him as a three-year-old colt and has ridden the horse on the range for 180 days, you’re probably going to have a nice horse.
Be realistic and set a budget for a horse that you want to buy at an auction, and don’t get impulsive and buy a horse that you haven’t previewed before the sale. You might find yourself unpleasantly surprised. In the heat of the moment, you might find yourself bidding on a pretty horse that you hadn’t noticed before the sale, and spend far too much money on the wrong horse.
All horse auctions will state that all warranties are between the buyer and the seller. You should always clearly ask the seller, “IS THIS HORSE SOUND?”
If you get a waffling answer such as, “As far as I know, he is,” then be careful. He may have ringbone, laminitis, navicular disease, or some other condition that will show up later as the horse becomes crippled. You want to hear “Yes, the horse is sound.” Realize, however, that if you’re at a horse sale in Colorado and the seller is from Iowa, you’re going to have a hard time getting any satisfaction if the horse turns up lame.
Good sales with a good reputation are an excellent resource to buy horses. However, if you’re a newbie, you are at a distinct disadvantage. The seller may tell you the horse is 11 years old, and you don’t know how to look at his mouth and tell that he’s more like 17. The seller may tell you that the horse is a fabulous gentle horse, ready for kids to ride in a parade, and that won’t be the case when you get him home. You may not recognize that the horse has a stifle problem and is going lame. You may not see the bumps on his knees that show he has bone chips floating around. It really pays to have a very experienced horseman holding your hand to advise you as you look through the offerings.
Sometimes you can find really good deals at high-end sales like this, especially if the horse you want is out of the norm, like an Arabian at a quarter horse sale or a draft cross at a ranch gelding sale. Prices? Well, they can range widely, depending on breeding, conformation, color, training, and a wide range of other factors. You can pay well over $10,000 for a hot commodity, but then again, I’ve bought great horses for under $1,000.
BUYER BEWARE AUCTIONS
These auctions are the dregs of the horse world. This is where you’d better be very, very careful about what horse you buy. The horses are kept in small pens where it’s very difficult to ride a horse if you find him interesting, and many of the sellers can be viewed with suspicion. It’s not uncommon at all for a horse to be “buted”, or given a tablet of phenylbutizone, to take away his lameness for a day. It’s not uncommon for horses to be slightly sedated with “Be Calm”, a kind of horse Valium, so that they’ll show themselves as nice gentle horses. It’s up to you to notice lumps and bumps, lameness, laminitis, navicular disease, hernias, blindness, and other ailments and conditions.
Of course, behavioral issues are an entirely different concern, and whether a horse is nice, gentle, and broke is really for you to find out when you get him home. You may have a real bronc on your hands, and unless you’re a heck of a horseman and willing to risk getting hurt, you shouldn’t buy horses at sales like this.
If you’re careful and you know what to look for, you can find some real bargains. I attended just such a sale yesterday, and there were three or four young geldings, “diamonds in the rough”, that looked promising. I chose not to buy, but with winter coming on and folks unwilling to feed horses over the winter, I could have bought those geldings for $400 to $500 each. Of course, I would spend several months working them into a saleable condition, and at that point I might sell those geldings for $4,000 or $5,000, but I would be earning my money.
The sale totaled 80 horses, ranging from weanling colts to broken-down senior citizens, and of the 80, probably five or six looked to be good well-broke saddle horses. That’s a low percentage of good horses, with a very high risk factor. Many of the horses at this sale were bought by the killer buyer, who will ship them either to Mexico or Canada to be slaughtered for human consumption, or sold to zoos to feed the lions, tigers, and bears. Of the horses bought by the killer buyer, most were fat brood mares that no one had ever trained. They were pretty nice, well-bred horses, but middle-aged, totally out of shape, unbroke, and guaranteed to possess ingrained bad habits. Who needs a project like that? The horses that sold well were ridden into the ring and showed themselves as calm, gentle horses. There’s a world of unwanted horses out there, but gentle, well broke, sound horses will always have a home.
RANCH REAL ESTATE BROKER
I hope you’ve enjoyed my little treatise on stocking your ranch with good horses. If you need me to locate some horses for you, I can probably do that. Check out my website at www.mountaintrailhorses.com and you may find that trail horse or ranch horse that you’ve been seeking.
If you like my thorough approach on covering the subject of horses, I’m sure you’ll like how I work with buyers and sellers in ranch real estate transactions. I have the knowledge, experience, and work ethic to do the job right for you. Call me if you have any questions about your dream Colorado cattle ranch, horse property, mountain retreat, log cabin, dude ranch, or outfitting business.