Over the years, Ben has purchased a lot of horses for our herd at Vista Verde. It takes a special horse to do the work of dude ranching, and we have had a lot of wonderful horses over the years! We sat down with Ben to learn more about his approach to buying horses at sales right after he returned from one of the Spring sales.
What are you looking for in a horse for VVR?
First, I look at the feet, as they are like the tires on a car. I start at the base, and if the tires are bad, it’s a no go. I’m looking for symmetry in the hoof and ideally no defects. Proportional size is really important, meaning the feet are proportional to the size of the horse. Moving up the leg I start by looking at the cannon bone. I like short cannon bone with stocky bone. And then I continue up the body for overall conformation. I’m looking for things like, is the length of neck is proportional to the length of the back? I don’t want a horse with a long back and a short neck, for example. I am drawn towards a boxy hip on a ranch horse. To explain that, if you draw a box on the hip, it should fill it up. Ideally the horse has a good, strong stifle. Because of all the hills we climb here, the hindquarters are important for a horse to be successful at VVR. I like a wide chest with good muscling as you look at the horse from the front. Prominent withers are important for us, which can be harder with some quarter horse bloodlines as well as the draft crosses. Prominent withers help keep the saddle from sliding around if the rider isn’t balanced, so that is something I want to find since we have many novice riders coming to the ranch.
Once I’ve moved past conformation, I look for a horse with a good mind. At a sale, there is always a viewing time, and I’ll walk around and talk to the owner and make a quick movement; like I raise my hand quickly just to see what the horse does. If a horse is reactive to that, it’s a red flag. If it doesn’t care about my quick movements, I know it’s got a quiet mind. When I’m not sure about the seller and the horse isn’t registered, I’ll look at its teeth just to make sure it’s the age they claim it to be. You can roughly tell a horse’s age by looking at their teeth, as they change over the years.
As I watch the horse being ridden, I want to see that the rider can use light hands and leg, and that the horse rides off quiet, not with their head set way up in the air. I’m watching for how hard the rider has to work to get the horse to move forward, turn, etc… I want a horse that moves easily and quietly.
I’ll see a lot of fancy horses at sales that are excellent for one type of riding but aren’t a fit for what we’re doing at Vista Verde. At the end of the day, soundness and safety are our most critical needs. Our ideal horse has a good mind and is built to handle the mountains.
What are your non-negotiables?
If I move around them and if they are really watching me and seem scared, I’m out. I typically preview the horses earlier and make notes on the ones I want to bid on, so I know when to go in to bid. Then I spend a lot of time outside watching the horses getting ridden when everyone else is in watching the horses come through for bidding. Sometimes I’ll see a horse throw a tantrum while they are waiting for their turn to go into the sale arena, and that is a deal breaker.
How do you evaluate the horse without being able to spend much time with it?
At a sale all you can do is to take a good look at their conformation, talk to the owner, watch them being handled and ridden. Most sales with good reputations have a guarantee for a couple days at least, so if you get them home and they are a totally different horse, and you suspect they were drugged you can bring them back. It’s a gamble, and I just do my best and do my research. But until you “get that player on the field” you don’t really know how they will work out. Based on our budget and the number of horses we need to purchase each year, we have found sales to be a better option than buying horses private treaty.
Do you get excited during the bidding process?
I used to, but not as much anymore. It’s not a good place to allow emotions to come in. There always is the pressure to stretch for the horse that I really want, but I must stay rational and levelheaded.
Biggest win at a sale?
General Lee, Aspen, and Ringo are three that come to mind who I didn’t pay too much for, but they turned out to be amazing. Some of the 2 year-olds I’ve gotten from the Colorado State University sale have turned into all-stars in our herd once they finished their training. Penny, Blue Moon, Scotch, Lizzie, Gary, and Nellie are some of those.
Funniest experience with a seller?
Years ago, at a CSU sale, I bought a 2-year-old mare. The guy who was the ring man (they spot the bidders) made a mistake. There was another guy bidding against me for the horse. Somehow the gavel fell, and I got the horse, but the other guy apparently wasn’t done bidding. Turns out that guy was the dad of the student who trained the horse, and he was trying to buy the horse for his daughter as she had fallen in love with the horse while training it. I found out about it afterwards from someone else, so I introduced myself to the student, and she was super sweet and gracious about it all. I got the horse back to the ranch and just didn’t feel right about it. I called CSU back the next day and offered to sell the horse to her for what we paid for it. She was overjoyed and very thankful and came up right away to get the mare. That would have been a good horse for us, but it was the right thing to do.
If you’re curious to learn more about conformation, check out this page.