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Creatures of Comfort: Getting a Gelding

December 28, 2015

A broke, honest horse can be hard to find. Ranch gelding auctions are a great solution, offering seasoned horses with valuable mileage. Gavin Ehringer reports on some of the best sales–and tells buyers how not to be taken for a ride.

“There’s nothing that makes a good horse better than wet saddle blankets,” goes an old cowboy saying. And that, in a nutshell, explains the popularity of ranch geldings and the auction sales that feature them.

Across the West and Southwest, people travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles to sales where they can purchase horses born, raised and trained on working ranches. In their daily work, these horses have sweated through many a saddle blanket.

Buyers run the gamut, from professional horseman to first-time horse owners. Rodeo cowboys come hunting for solid, unflappable roping or steer-wrestling horses. Ranchers too old to break colts come seeking mature horses that are cow-savvy. And recreational riders come looking for “bombproof” trail horses that can handle all-day rides and won’t bolt at the shake of a rattler’s tail.

Why geldings? Well, most horse riders view stallions as unpredictable due to their strong sexual urges and a need to be dominant. To a lesser extent, mares can also be hormonally-driven. But geldings—the name given to castrated males – tend to be docile, even-headed and focused on their tasks. Ranchers find them easiest to part with, as they have no reproductive value.

Ranch gelding sales have been a western tradition for decades. This year, for instance, the Red Bluff (Calif.) Bull & Gelding Sale, one of the oldest and longest-running sales, will celebrate its 75th anniversary. But the events really got cooking only in the last 20 years, as demand for all-around ranch horses has increased at the same time supply has declined.

In the 1950s, when my dad was a ranch hand, well-broke ranch horses were as common as pickup trucks. Ranchers with plenty of rangeland frequently raised horses as a hedge against falling cattle prices – if beef wasn’t fetching a good price, a rancher could always go to the local livestock auction and sell off some horses.

But by the time I started working on ranches in the 1980s, good ranch horses were becoming harder to find. First, there were fewer cowboys to ride them. Second, there was less rangeland. And third, the big ranches that formerly raised hundreds of horses were being broken up, and the ranchers that remained used horses less and less for daily work. By the 1990s, gelding sales began sprouting up to provide forums for buyers to find the increasingly rare horses.

According to internationally acclaimed equine clinician Ken McNabb, the auction sales really boomed after the turn-of-the 21st Century. He cites a number of possible reasons for interest in gelding and ranch production sales.

“A lot of the customers are baby boomers. They grew up with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and John Wayne. Maybe they couldn’t have a horse as a kid, but rode one on their uncle’s or grandpa’s farm. Now, they’re in retirement or approaching it and can afford to own a horse. But they lack the experience needed to make a horse themselves,” he said. For these customers, already-broke, dependable horses fulfill their dreams.

Another factor, Ken says, is the development of “ranch versatility” classes in the American Quarter Horse and American Paint Horse Associations, the two largest breed registries in America. These classes began about a decade ago to emulate skills used on working ranches – roping and cattle handling, for instance. According to the AQHA, these competitions are among their fastest-growing participant sports.

Regardless of their motivations, buyers come to the top sales in droves. Ken McNabb’s Diamond-McNabb Ranch Horse Sale near Douglas, Wyo., typically draws 400 to 600 spectators to a sale featuring anywhere from 85 to 100 horses. The Red Bluff Bull & Gelding Sale draws a whopping 3,500 people (though many, admittedly, come looking for select cattle). And the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo’s Gelding Stakes and Sale, plus its Select Sale of performance and halter horses sees equally large audiences that are multiples of the actual horses offered.

Since it’s always the case given that there are far more spectators than actual buyers at a sale, what compels so many non-participants to fill the stands? Well, the auctions themselves can be quite exciting. The staccato chanting of the auctioneer, the excited “yep! yep!” of the auction spotters, and the inevitable tension between the last, determined bidders to see who will hold and who will fold makes for pretty good drama.

And the horses themselves can be quite impressive. Some of the very top horses can bring $50,000 or more. But bargain hunters aren’t necessarily edged out. Most horses sell for less than $15,000, and an astute buyer may find an overlooked gem for less than half that amount. Part of the fun is seeing how high prices can go, or outsmarting the field and buying a great horse on the cheap.

Usually, potential buyers and lookie-loos are given the opportunity to view the horses before the auction begins. But at some of the events, there are competitions between the various sellers to see who brought the most accomplished and versatile horses. Sellers often aim to pocket bonus money in the arena in addition to what they make in the sale ring. And a win or two is a great way to polish one’s reputation for good horses.

San Antonio’s Ranch Gelding Stakes and Sale is a prime example. In the early part of the day, horses and riders take to the arena to show off their abilities to perform ranching tasks and cow work. Winners divvy up more than $15,000 in cash and prizes before the auction itself begins.

“The sale is a specialty niche,” says equine events manager Katy Reynolds. “We want to give the high-echelon ranch horse a place to show his abilities. It’s pretty exciting to see horses that are good at their jobs actually working. A lot of people who aren’t buyers simply come to enjoy the show.”

At Red Bluff, the pre-sale competition is even bigger, both in prize money and variety. Horse and rider teams compete for prizes in roping, cutting and cow horse contests. At the conclusion of the 2016 competition, one lucky horse will be named the “Craig Owens Ideal Ranch Horse” and his owner will receive a $7,500 prize!

Every sale has its own character, quality and quirks. There are the big events with lots of action and hoopla, like the San Antonio and Red Bluff sales. Then, there are more intimate sales, often held on the ranches where the horses came from, that tend to be informal and low-key. At these sales, it’s easy to talk to the individual who trained a particular horse and gain a deeper sense of the animals up for sale.

Memory Ranch’s Ranch Gelding Production Sale is that type of auction. Located in west central Idaho, Memory Ranch is a family-run outfit that raises Angus cattle and Quarter horses. Every other year, they host a production sale auction that prominently features horses from the old, revered Driftwood bloodline. Driftwood was a champion running horse and an outstanding rodeo mount whose offspring are prized for their speed, athleticism and herculean work ethic.

Rodeo cowboys say, “A man has to be well-mounted to win,” and a Driftwood horse often proved to be money in the bank. Even half a century after his demise, rodeo cowboys and arena competitors come to the Memory Ranch sale hoping to find a Driftwood descendant to trailer home. But the ranch also raises exceptional all-around horses well-suited to daily ranch work or even weekends spent riding the high-country on trails.

Whether you go to a small ranch sale where the feeling is familial or a big sale with lots of action and activity, they’re all great places to mingle with horse people. In fact, it’s a great idea to attend one or two sales, get a feel for how they operate, and meet some of the people who can clue you in on making wise purchases.

Whether you intend to buy or not, you’ll enjoy the festivities that accompany the auction itself, as ranch gelding sales tend to be highly social events. You may find yourself dining with Texas’ oil barons at the historic Pitchfork Ranch, taking part in a barn dance, or just sitting in the bleachers initiating new life-long friendships. Just don’t forget your checkbook – when the gavel hits the block, it might just come in handy.

SOLD! HOW TO LASSO A RANCH GELDING

If you’re a newcomer to a horse sale auction, the experience can be a bit daunting. The bidding is fast-paced and the strange, sing-song cadence of the auctioneer is intended to excite the emotions—and increase the amounts people are willing to spend. Competitive instincts kick in, causing people to pay more for a horse just to vanquish their bidding opponents. Stay cool. Here are some tips to help make good decisions in the heat of the bidding battle.

1. Get professional advice.

Before you even begin to consider a horse, enlist the help of a knowledgeable trainer or life-long horseman to help sort out which sales to attend and the kind of horses to focus on. If you don’t already have a trainer, call local training stables for recommendations. The fee is well worth it. Your advisor should accompany you to the sale.

2. Know what you want in a ranch gelding.

Ranch horses come in all descriptions and abilities. One may be exceptional at sorting cattle, or roping steers…but he might chafe at a less-experienced rider and kick up his heels to shake off the morning dew. Do you want a horse that’s high performance, or one that will babysit your kids on the trail? Most people want a horse that’s safe, gentle, stays quiet while being saddled, and can handle rough terrain. Leave the rodeo-ready horses to rodeo-ready riders.

3. Know your seller.

Horse traders can be as disreputable as used car sellers. That said, those who plan to stay in the business know that honesty and integrity are the best policies. And nobody wants a horse to be returned or a buyer to bad mouth them. Your trainer should have a sense of who’s trustworthy and who’s not. Sellers with solid track record are preferable to newcomers.

4. Know the horses.

Now that you know the type of horse you’re looking for—approximate age, experience, training level, etc., start narrowing down your choices. Sale catalogs (printed or online) often provide detailed descriptions, including age, the number of years the horse has been in training, its background, parentage, abilities, and more. Cross off the many horses that don’t fit your criteria to create a working list of prospects.

5. Get a good look.

A whole range of preview options may be available, including pre-sale ranch visits, online videos, and the tried-and-true phone call. Many ranchers will help you pick the horses that best suit your needs. At the very least, you’ll want to be at the sale in time for any competitive events or auction previews that allow you to see the horses in action. Surprisingly, many buyers get their first look at a horse in the sale ring! Unless you’re an excellent judge of horse flesh, don’t make this mistake.

6. Beauty is secondary.

Everyone wants a pretty horse. But don’t overlook that plain brown, Roman-nosed old campaigner who’s seen and done it all. And don’t be swayed by a flashy palomino-colored coat or a flowing mane and tail. Sure, they’re nice if you can get ‘em. But you’ll likely pay more for looks, or worse, you could get stuck with a pretty horse that doesn’t suit your style. Consider your riding needs first and a horse’s curb appeal second.

7. Experience can trump youth.

Novice buyers often make the mistake of choosing a young horse with a long life ahead of it. But less experienced riders need more experienced horses. Remember, wet saddle blankets matter. Older horses (say, 10 or more years of age) can give many years of enjoyment and may be a better bargain, too.

8. Is the price nice?

There are no “blue book” price guides for horses, as there are for used cars. But your advisor should have a pretty good idea of the current market and what a buyer should reasonably expect to pay for a given horse. Mark up your auction catalog with the top-line values of the horses you want to bid on, and be willing to bow out if the prices climb much higher. Knowing the sale prices from the previous year’s auction should help you determine the value of comparable horses in the current sale.

9. What if you’re not satisfied?

Is there a guarantee? Some auctions offer a 30-day guarantee. If you buy a horse that’s not as advertised, they may refund your money or give you credit for the next auction. The caveat: the horse must be returned in the same condition as the day it was sold. Guarantees can give you peace of mind. But don’t abuse this privilege.

10. Don’t be afraid to leave empty handed.

Didn’t win the horse you wanted? Missed a few other good ones too? Don’t despair. It’s better to go home empty-handed than to settle for less than you bargained for. There are more sales and opportunities. The simple act of attending a sale makes you better prepared for the next one. Your ideal ranch horse is out there, somewhere, and you’ll find it.

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