A look at how horse trainers and owners view the business of placing their horses after their futurity year is over.
A horse’s futurity year has come and gone, and after countless hours spent with that horse, it’s time to decide the next step in his life. Will the owner or trainer keep the horse and continue to campaign it, or will the search begin to find the horse a new home?
The decision to keep or sell a horse has usually been made by an owner or trainer by the end of the horse’s futurity season, with at least a year’s worth of riding and development serving as a basis for that decision.
For Jud Little, owner of Jud Little Ranch in Springer, Okla., the decision of what to do next with a horse that has come up through his futurity program depends greatly on the ability that horse has shown, and whether or not it fits into the long-range goals of his competitive program.
“We’ll just let the horse mature at its own pace,” Little says. “The main thing is don’t force the horse. If you try to get them doing something beyond their ability or their mental status, then you’re just going to blow that sucker up, and it’s just going to be wasted.”
With a goal of each of his rodeo jockeys running home-bred horses, Little believes that in order to continue in his program, a horse must show it has the ability to compete in the big leagues, or it must have shown enough development during its futurity year that he believes it may have success as a derby horse. An example of a developing prospect from his own futurity herd that he believes is worth holding onto a bit longer is Nicks Show Of Roses.
“I think the horse is handling terrible ground really well,” Little says, “and get it outside in my big outdoor pen at home, it will fly, so I think it will make a great rodeo horse for Pendleton, Cheyenne, Reno.
“There’s other horses—and Cash Not Credit is a real good example of this—his get won Oklahoma City twice, but by and large, most of his colts were far better derby horses than futurity horses because they matured late.”
Horses that developed too slowly to run in the 4-year-old futurities, but still show promise, may be sent to California to compete in 5-year-old futurities, or they may be sold to interested buyers as Open or Youth horses
“We’re very honest,” Little says, “and we tell people ‘This horse was a nice futurity horse. It won X amount of money, but it’s not going to make a true rodeo horse, which is what our goal is.’”
Futurity champion and trainer Lance Graves never keeps the futurity horses that he trains. All are ultimately sold.
“I’ll either own what I didn’t sell,” he says, “or a lot of times, I’ll sell horses to clients, and they’ll request that I continue training the horse for them and ride it for them.”
As a competitor and trainer, Graves believes it is important not to get blinded by his own ambition to win because it can get in the way of his larger goal of selling that horse once its futurity year is over. While winning is rewarding, the larger reward is reinforcing his reputation as a trainer and purveyor of quality barrel horses for his clients.
“It’s real easy to go, ‘I want a horse that wins $100,000,’” he says, “but I’d rather a horse bring $100,000 [when it’s sold] than win $100,000. I can’t risk not developing the best animal I can just because I want a pat on the back.”
Neither Little nor Graves deals exclusively in futurity standouts. There is a huge demand for horses that didn’t develop in time to flourish in the futurities, but have the breeding to develop into standout Open performers, and Little and Graves do their best to fill that demand.
“That’s a large part of our market, treating those people right,” Little says. “We’ve got lots of NBHA customers.”
Finding the Right Fit
“It’s the ultimate American barrel racing dream to have that little colt that grows up to be a rock star,” Graves says.
That dream is the very thing that can complicate the job of an owner or trainer when it comes to finding the right personal match and right home for a former futurity mount who is still a young horse.
Little and Graves both believe that one of the most important parts of their jobs is to ensure that the horses they sell wind up in the hands of riders who are a match for them.
“Frankly, there are some people the horse can just run way too fast for,” Little says. “It would scare them. There are other people the horse turns too quickly for. That’s very important because we want people to succeed on our horses. We don’t want our horses going out there and turning out from under people.”
Adults are especially bad about understanding this concept when it comes to buying high-powered horses on which they believe their kids can win.
“Grandpa comes in here and says, ‘I’d like to buy that Aced My Bully mare for my 12-year-old,’” Little explains, “and it’s like, ‘Sir, unless your 12-year-old is something really, really special, she can’t ride that mare.’”
Once the issue of rider control is addressed, Graves believes barrel racers should always purchase the best young horse they can afford.
“My friend, Bo Hill, said in an interview one time, “If you have $10,000 to spend, don’t buy three horses at $3,333 a piece—try to buy the best horse you can buy with all the money you have,’” Graves says, “and I live by that theory.”
But that doesn’t mean when it comes to selling a horse that Graves is all about the money.
“I would rather a horse go for 20 percent less and go to the correct client and that client come back for the next 20 years and continue buying animals, than for that horse to go for 50 percent more, and it end in disaster,” Graves says. “It’s always better to have repeat clients with return business than trying to go for one big hit that won’t help anybody.
“Nobody wants to see a Versace suit that doesn’t fit because no matter how beautiful it was on the mannequin, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t fit the person wearing it.”
The desire to find the right fit for his young horses is precisely why Graves keeps his current and former clients in mind when training his horses or trying out new prospects.
“I have probably five different families that I ride for all the time,” Graves says, “and there are absolutely horses that come through the barn, and I’ll ride them for a month or two, and I’ll think, ‘This horse would really fit well with this family.’ I’m always scouting. It’s like being a college football coach.
“I will call people out of the clear, blue sky and tell them ‘I have a horse that will fit your family.’ I also have people who call me up and say, ‘I want this and this and this, and you just call me up when you run across something like that.’ So there’s always those in the back of my head. I might not talk to someone for three months and call them up and say, ‘I’ve got the perfect horse for your family.’”
Little does the same with many of the top horses that run through his program, often matching them up with trainers that fit their style and who have owners who might be interested in adding another quality horse to their stable.
“We want repeat customers, just like anybody else,” he says. “We want you to like your Chevrolet Corvette because in three years, we want you to buy another one.”
What A Buyer Should Know
If you are in the market for a younger horse, Graves and Little recommend that first you do some honest reflecting, not only about what you want that horse to be able to do for you, but about your own abilities as a barrel racer.
Little says the first thing he wants to know is what the prospective buyer’s goals are for that horse.
“If they’re looking for a futurity colt, are you going to futurity this horse yourself?” he asks. “Or are you going to pick one of the big trainers to do it? I’ve seen those girls ride enough that I know what kind of horse suits them. So first of all, you want to know who’s going to jockey the horse and finish the horse.”
It is important to Little to be totally honest with people when selling them a horse, so as not to set them up for failure. When his horses and their new owners succeed, not only does it show the barrel racing community the quality of his brand, but it also creates repeat customers.
If you plan to ride the horse yourself, Graves believes that you must, above all else, be honest about your own capabilities as a rider.
“I think that sometimes people get blinded by ambition and think, ‘Oh, this horse is a champion. Look what this horse just ran. Look how fast this horse is,’” Graves says, “and they go out and purchase the horse because of ambition—and because all their friends know the horse and all he’s done—without regard for ‘is the animal even remotely going to fit into my lifestyle.’”
In some cases, a buyer’s eyes may be bigger than their proverbial stomach—with an over-abundance of ambition clouding their judgment for what they can realistically handle.
“There is a place for rationality,” Graves says. “I could give you a list of famous horses that have gone out and won a bunch of money that if they had been at the Graves Ranch, I wouldn’t have done any good with them at all.
“Know yourself, and know what you can realistically deal with and realistically work with, and convey that to the person that you’re purchasing the animal from, and see if they feel like the horse will fit that.”
Graves says he grew up hearing that it takes six months to get to know your new horse, but he gives it little credence.
“I believe you meet the new horse, you brush him, you saddle him, you play with him a little bit, you ride him around, and you like him, or you don’t like him,” he says. “It should go positive from there. You should never go, ‘Well…’ If you go, ‘Well…’, it’s the wrong horse.”
Graves looks for those “Well…” moments when customers visit his ranch to try out a horse. If at any point, the horse does something to make the rider uncomfortable or the rider does something to make Graves uncomfortable, the session ends.
“It doesn’t mean you’re a no-riding idiot,” Graves says, “It just means I know that this isn’t going to happen—that there’s doom in the future.
“These people might be from 1,000 miles away, or from another country and be from 10,000 miles away, so you literally have these horses’ lives in your hands. Not only are you going to have an unhappy client if they take the horse home, and they don’t get along with it and don’t like it, what’s going to happen to the animal? You try to do the best for all of them.”
In trying to do the best for everyone involved, Little says that buyers should come in prepared to ask lots of questions and to answer questions about exactly what they want to do with that horse and how they expect that horse to act—something he considers vital information when selling younger horses.
“That’s the number one thing,” he says. “It’s like doctors. First, do no harm—to the rider or the horse.”
Graves says since he already knows the horses on his ranch, his job is to figure out a new buyer as quickly as possible.
“You can usually tell by someone’s demeanor, by how they walk, by how aggressive they are or how un-aggressive they are, to see at least if the temperament is right,” Graves says. “So if someone calls me for a horse, and I don’t know them, I have to try to get to know them as much as I possibly can in a short period of time.”
Graves will then go into great detail about the horse’s likes and dislikes, as well as any special handling instructions—all the while observing the client to see how he or she reacts.
“The important part is just everybody being on the same page and having the same goals,” he says. “I try to ask them, what’s you’re goal, what are you going to try to do, and I try to decide if it’s feasible to meet that goal or not.
“It doesn’t seem like it should be that big a deal,” Graves says, “but it’s a process to try to hook that all up, especially with a young animal.”
Graves tries to develop a mental profile of the client before they arrive at his ranch—in part to narrow the 130 head of horses on his ranch down to 2-3 that might actually fit the rider and to avoid wasting the person’s time if he doesn’t have the kind of horse they are looking for.
Graves says some people have gotten offended when he told them none of his 130 head of horses were right for them.
“My goal is for you to have an animal you’re going to cherish,” Graves says, “that it’s going to be what you want. It’s a compliment to you if I tell you I don’t have a horse that’s going to fit you. It doesn’t mean I think you’re a lousy horse person. It means that I don’t think I have a horse that’s going to fit in your program exactly the way that you want.
“It’s kind of like trying to make a size 6 shoe fit on a size 8½ foot. Who cares how good it looks if you can’t walk down the aisle in it?”
As a regular buyer of futurity prospects himself, Graves knows what his clients are going through when they are trying to find the right horse. That’s why he buys prospects from the same people over and over again.
He appreciates that the owners he purchases horses from go into the same sort of detail about the horse’s habits and traits as he does with his own clients.
“That stuff is so important,” Graves says. “I always feel like, when I’m buying a prospect, that I have a breeder that’s knowledgeable of what that horse has been like. It gives me such a head start.”
Being honest with them about what he wants in a horse makes the process easier, for both him and the person selling him the horse.
“You have to be honest with yourself about what kind of person you are and what you can accept and can’t accept in the animal,” he says. “And if you know those things, then you’ll be able to say, ‘This is how I am, this is what I do, this is what I like, and I want an animal that will fit into that program.’ If the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand that, then you should probably find someone else that will understand.”
According to Graves, the quickest way to learn if you’re on the same page or not is to try to quickly become friends with the current handler.
“The most important thing when you go to purchase an animal is to be able to communicate with the person that has that animal,” he says. “You should have a rapport with that person to think, ‘This is a person that I could be friends with.’ If you have enough in common that you could be friends with the person that’s selling you that horse, then you can probably ask them the questions they can relate to.”
After the Sale
The job of the owner or trainer doesn’t end once a sale is complete. That’s when the customer service part of the job kicks into high gear.
Little says clients who have bought his horses come back all the time.
“It’s a constant stream of people coming back to ride with [my trainers] and get their input to help them fix whatever problem they’re having.”
Graves spends much of his time in contact with clients he has sold horses to, as well.
“Anybody who knows me knows that I have this flip-phone Blackberry, so I can text while I’m still galloping,” Graves says. “I get reports from all over the world. My phone goes off all the time. I don’t talk on the phone much, but I text all the time, so I can keep 11 conversations going at one time. I’m completely interactive with the people with whom I’ve done business. It’s the service after the sale. I’m pretty involved.
“There is nothing better than being able to watch all that work you put in,” Graves says. “There’s nothing more satisfying to me than watching that animal that I took that didn’t know anything and watch them go and do their job and be so aggressive with somebody else. That’s when I feel accomplished.”