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Horse Shopping 101

By Macy McLean

Ranch horse sales have gained a lot of interest over the last decade and are one of the most popular ways for people to purchase horses. These auctions offer a unique environment where people have the opportunity to buy ranch-born and -raised horses, which makes them ideal for a life of ranch work. For the ranches, this is an avenue for them to market their product, a product with a reputation and heritage.

Chris Littlefield is a cowboy who has worn both hats — as a rancher selling a large number of horses in a ranch horse sale, and as a buyer looking for good-minded, ranch-raised horses. He operates a horse training, breeding and consulting business in Henrietta, where he often helps match up horses and buyers, finding horses that fit.

"The ranch horse sales are an ideal setting because of the volume of horses you can look at in one location," says Littlefield. "You aren't filtering through cutting horses and reining horses because ranch horses are their specialty. These are reputable ranches that stand behind their product."

Set realistic goals before you go

Littlefield has helped many clients purchase horses at auctions and through private treaty. He has seen a common thread — the buyers who started with clear goals and who stuck to those goals throughout the buying process remained the happiest with their purchase over the long term.

"Set your goals before you head to the sale so you know what you want to buy before you arrive," Littlefield advises. "This will allow you a better opportunity to purchase something that fits your goals, your lifestyle, your ranch and what you do.

"Too often people buy a horse that doesn't fit them or their lifestyle," he adds. "They need to think about what they are going to use the horse for and how often. They also need to realize, how much time do they have to spend with the horse?"

Littlefield has these questions for potential buyers to ask before purchasing a horse:

Who is going to ride the horse when you get it home? Are you a mature adult who would do better with a slow, gentle horse? Is the horse for your grandkids who visit the ranch occasionally? Is it for your spouse to ride when he or she has time? Is the rider experienced or inexperienced? Be honest with yourself about the answer.

"What I can ride and rope on is a lot different than what an occasional rider can ride," Littlefield says. "There is a big safety factor involved in who is going to ride the horse. This is an important question to ask yourself."

How often will you be riding your new horse? Littlefield reminds us the ranch hands who show the horses in the sales are cowboys every day of the week. Take that into consideration when watching them handle a horse in the pre-work or the sale ring.

"Are you a cowboy 5 days a week or 5 days a year? That will greatly affect the type of horse that will fit you better," he says.

"I see lots of people buying green horses and then wanting to ride them just on the weekends or during roundup time, only to find out then their horse isn't as broke or experienced as they thought," he continues. "Not every good working ranch horse is a bomb-proof horse anyone can ride. Decide what you need."

What skills does the horse need to have? Does the horse need cutting skills, roping skills or just general, all-around ranch skills? Do you ever have plans to show the horse?

"These are all things to think about before you ever go to a sale," Littlefield says. "Buy a horse to fit the needs you have."

Setting your budget

When deciding how much money you are going to spend on a horse purchase, Littlefield advises to weigh out the cost of the initial purchase and the cost of keeping him.

"Are you buying a finished product or an investment?" he asks. "And realize like all investments, there are risks involved and potential for this to fail."

"If you are buying a finished product, which I consider to be a horse 6 years or older, how much are you willing to spend?" he queries.

Littlefield points out that paying $15,000 for a nice, gentle, well-broke horse might not be as expensive as you think when you consider the risks involved with a younger, immature horse. Investing in a young horse might have initial attraction of being usually cheaper but, he advises, have a plan for that investment.

Littlefield notes that regardless of age, feed and care for a horse is around $1,500 to $2,000 a year.

"You can easily spend $4,000 a year for care and training for the second, third and fourth year," Littlefield says. "And that's just sending them out for training for 60 to 90 days each year. So if you paid $1,000 for him as a yearling, you will have at least $13,000 in him by the time he turns 5.

"Some people want a project like that — and if that is your plan, that is fine," he continues. "It is just important to be aware of what kind of investment you are making from the beginning."

Littlefield says if you are trying to find a bargain, you are probably getting what you pay for, and that bargain can end up costing you a lot more in the long run with vet bills, medical bills or workman's comp claims.

Reality versus potential

Littlefield commonly sees buyers not being realistic about the horse they are buying.

"It is really important to understand horses. Understand that you are buying what that horse is on that day," he says.

"If he is a yearling he still has a lot of potential and growing to do.

"If the horse is a 2- or 3-year-old, he has potential, but even with heavy use and steady training that horse is not mentally mature yet. I would very seldom call a horse trustworthy until he is about 6 years old. That's when they become more mentally mature. And like people, some horses just mature later than others.

"Ninety days (of training) as a 2-year-old is like a kid going to summer camp," he explains. "The horse has the foundation and exposure to go work, but he is not finished by any means. The horse is not mentally equipped to think on his own yet. He is still looking for his rider to teach him and learn how to live with humans. He doesn't understand yet that his job is to take care of you and help you.

"Turning him out with no additional schooling does not help him advance in his training skills. He will mature but he hasn't learned anything new," he adds. "Unless he has been in a program where he has been ridden consistently, he will not understand the horse and rider relationship."

Most experts agree that 1 year in a horse's life is like 5 years in a human's life.

"If you buy a 4-year-old horse, that is like a 20-year-old person," Littlefield says. "So by then he has the basic skills and knowledge, but if he doesn't go to school every day he's not going to know what to do when he is 25.

"If you buy an 8- or 10-year-old gelding, then you are buying a mature horse that is settled into who he is going to be," he continues. "He is either a good citizen that does his job or he isn't. Not a lot is going to change about them at that age."

Stick to the plan

So you have a plan and have a sale picked out — now what? Read the sale catalog ahead of time and pick out horses that align with your goals, along with the age and sex of the horse.

The footnotes will indicate what they have done and how much they have been ridden and will help eliminate some of the contenders.

By doing these things, you can narrow a field of 200 horses down to about 10 horses. Littlefield highly suggests buyers make time to view those 10 head before the sale and watch any pre-work if possible.

"Look through those 10 head and again review your criteria," he says. "Be prepared to bid on them and stick to your budget.

"It is easy to get caught up in the bidding frenzy on the well-groomed pretty horse in the ring," Littlefield says. "But do not impulse-buy! Buying the wrong horse can be a long-term and costly mistake. Assess your criteria and prerequisites for your horse. Stop and think, 'Does this horse in the ring match or not?'"

So when the sale is over and the dust has settled, what if you don't get the horse of your dreams? There's always another sale, and now you are a more educated buyer. Enjoy the shopping trip, get another catalog and look forward to the next sale.



"Horse Shopping 101" is from the January 2014 issue of The Cattleman magazine.