Prospecting for Gold
Increase the odds of staking your claim on a solid-gold barrel prospect with advice from industry veterans.
There is a distinctly exhilarating feeling involved in searching for the next “big thing,” particularly when it’s your future barrel racing superstar. The anticipation of seeing your dreams materialize in the form of horseflesh is a powerful force, one that motivates many a barrel racer. You know your dream horse is out there just waiting for you to find him. Barrel Horse News caught up with a handful of knowledgeable professionals whose proven insights into the world of barrel racing can help you sift through the fool’s gold in your hunt for a solid-gold barrel horse prospect.
The evolution of specific barrel racing bloodlines has played a large part in the progression of the industry and in the quality of barrel racing prospects available in the marketplace today. The racetrack was once the go-to place for hopeful barrel racers looking for the sprinter that could be persuaded to rate up and make three tight turns.
Others asked for more speed from the already-agile cow horses. After generations of calculated manipulation in barrel racing breeding programs, the industry has produced what Barrel Futurities of America and National Barrel Horse Association champion Cody Bauserman, Salisaw, Okla., refers to as “barrel blood.”
“We have our own breed, almost,” he says. “Barrel racing is bred into them.”
In the early years of his career, Bauserman sought race-bred horses that he could afford to purchase on a limited budget. “I would buy for $1,500, and they probably wouldn’t have any look to them, but they had some race blood and the rest was up to me. It took hard work, time and effort. Now, you take a Dash Ta Fame or [a prospect out of] a mare that’s produced, and our training job becomes easier. They’re more willing.”
Accomplished futurity trainer Bo Hill shares Bauserman’s analysis and uses the philosophy of breeding for the barrel pen as a foundational principle behind the well-known Bob’s Pawn Shop brand, based out of Dodge City, Kan. “The cutters, the reiners and the Thoroughbred people have been about pedigree for 100 years,” she says. “The last 15 years, the barrel racers have started breeding for their sport. We’re more pedigree-aware now. We’re getting it.”
Putting confidence in the great strides the industry has made in turning out prospects with proven genetics, Hill uses pedigree as the starting point in prospect selection. “I go with statistics instead of the exception. There’s always a no-name horse that can win, but five of the top 10 horses at the 2012 Old Fort Days Barrel Futurity were Dash Ta Fames. I pick a pedigree that works for me and I stick with it.”
Form to function
For four-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier Kelly Yates of Pueblo, Colo., the scale tips in favor of conformation over bloodlines. Yates found early success with Fols Native and Bully Bullion progeny, but it was before the stallions had established themselves as barrel horse producers. “[Pedigree] is not why I bought them. I bought them because they were nice colts and I liked the way they were put together,” she says.
When evaluating the conformation of a prospect, Yates first looks for good bone and feet on a horse that is up underneath himself enough to stop and engage the hindquarters for quick and powerful turns. Bad hocks are a deal breaker for Yates.
“That’s your acceleration; that’s where you get the power in the hind end to leave a barrel. If their hocks are bad, or if they’re built straight up and down, it’s hard for them to get in the ground,” she says.
When it comes to pedigree, Yates prefers to see a degree of cow horse breeding in her barrel racing prospects.
“I like them to focus. To run is one thing, but those three turns need to be quick. I want a cow horse that naturally wants to use its rear end and cow the barrel. They take to the barrel racing easier because it’s not much work for them,” says Yates, who works closely with her brother and multiple American Quarter Horse Association world champion and NFR qualifier, J.D., on cross-training prospects in the roping pen.
While an exceptional pedigree with an emphasis on the maternal line is a prerequisite for two-time NFR qualifier Sue Smith, she also heavily weighs the form-to-function attributes that lead to balance and efficiency of movement. Smith selects for good feet, a long hip, low hock and sloping shoulder.
“I like a front end that is at least as high as the hip. I don’t like a horse to drop in its turn, and this allows them to stay more stood up,” she explains. “Way of going is a big deal, too. I’ve got to see them move and I look at that from behind. I also like to see a horse turn and for that, you can turn them loose in the round pen. I like to watch them move flat, low to the ground and reachy. A lot of knee action is a deal breaker, because they spend too much time in the air climbing and they don’t cover ground. [The horse] can look like a million bucks, but if they can’t move, I don’t want them.”
Smith has also adapted a fundamental baseball principle to the unique prospect criteria that works the best for her.
“It’s three strikes and they’re out. If there are three things I don’t care for, I’ll pass. If there are one or two things but enough things that I like about a horse, I’ll give them a little leeway,” she says. Provided the prospect in question does not strike out, this standard can result in a home run.
Blue Hen mares
A proven mare is worth her weight in gold and her influence becomes keenly helpful when it comes to prospect shopping. A dam that has established herself as either a standout in the arena or a consistent producer of barrel horses can stack the odds toward a favorable future for her offspring.
“Critically and particularly, the maternal side is the single most important line on the pedigree,” says Jud Little, owner of Jud Little Ranch. “That’s what made my horse, JL Dash Ta Heaven. Sure, he’s a Dash Ta Fame, but his mother, Dynas Plain Special, was the 2003 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Barrel Racing World Champion. She’s produced three foals and all three of them have done really well,” he says.
Smith and Little agree that the mare contributes up to 80 percent of the makeup of her progeny. “Those Blue Hen mares make all the difference,” says Little, referring to racing lingo that defines a prolific mare whose offspring have had a significant impact on the breed.
“Of the horses I’ve competed on, the ones that were out of the best mares were the best performers,” Smith says. “It’s never failed. At the level I want to go, that’s what makes the difference. If it’s not out of a mare that’s a producer or has won herself, I’m not interested.”
Very few barrel racers understand the significance of an exceptional mare the way Kelly Yates does. Her mare, Firewater Fiesta, earned two AQHA/WPRA Barrel Horse of the Year titles and carried her to a WPRA Reserve World Championship and three NFR qualifications. Her resume as a producer is growing equally stellar, producing high-money-earning barrel horses when crossed with stallions such as AQHA Superhorse Popular Resort Figure, prolific $20 million cutting sire Dual Rey, $2 million racehorse sire Royal Shake Em, barrel racing world champion Confederate Leader and foundation sire of the Jud Little Ranch, Cash Not Credit, to name a few. The advances in reproductive technology and embryo transfer have made it possible to propagate the impact of Blue Hen mares like Fiesta.
Rolling the dice on an untried prospect is always a gamble, according to Smith.
“You cannot see a horse’s heart and the try they have,” says Smith. “That’s where it would be nice to have a crystal ball, because the part you can’t see is probably the most important part. That’s where the mare’s record, and of course the sire, come into play. That’s what’s going to give you the higher odds that the horse is going to try hard.”
Play the odds
Beyond identifying the key players in a pedigree, there are particular crosses have been pinpointed as “Magic Crosses,” which are tracked by Equi-Stat and readily available to consumers who wish to further analyze barrel horse bloodlines. Certain stallions cross better on certain mares and the end product has a greater propensity to be successful than other crosses.
“If I see that there’s been a good niche, a good Magic Cross, I’m going to keep coming back to that,” says Kenny Nichols, owner of Nichols Quarter Horses. “We keep seeing the cross of our favorite mare lines with certain lines on the sire side and over and over we see consistency in the trainability and the ability that they have.”
Nichols frequently utilizes Magic Cross reports to help evaluate a prospect’s potential from a variety of angles.
“Any time I’m looking at a prospect, I’m going to start with some pedigree information that I really like. I’ll call Tysh [Franklin, Equi-Stat statistician], and say, ‘let’s look up this mare and see what her family’s done.’ The biggest thing that does, if you’re not familiar with the horses, is it shows trainability besides athleticism. Not every horse is going to the AQHA or the racetrack where they have performance records,” he says.
“Also, if they don’t fit your style when you get them trained, you’ve got to think about what will resell. If you’ve got some proven lines, you aren’t going to waste your time and money, because someone else will give it a chance more quickly than a line with less notoriety. People can verify with Equi-Stat themselves, because the [barrel racing] records are documented,” he says.
Your intentions in buying a prospect – whether it’s for the resale value or it’s destined to be a futurity or rodeo mount – may affect the weight placed upon particular selection criteria. Keeping the end result in mind can give you direction and focus in your search.
If you’re looking to turn a short-term investment into a profitable business venture, different factors can influence a horse’s salability. When buying a horse for its resale value, Hill makes eye appeal her No. 1 consideration. “Everybody likes a pretty horse. Of course, everyone likes a winner, but they’ll take the lower win record on a pretty horse over a horse with a higher win record. A good-looking, athletic horse sells,” she explains.
Selecting a futurity prospect can be a slightly more daunting task and a prospect’s breeding will likely override its aesthetic appearance. In this case, it would be beneficial to look first for bloodlines that are known to mature early, both physically and mentally.
To identify those genetics, Little emphasizes that a prospective buyer has to understand the idiosyncrasies of the particular equine family. “The Dash Ta Fames mature pretty fast, and therefore they’ve become really good futurity horses. The Cash Not Credit horses mature more slowly, and they’ve excelled more often than not as derby horses,” he explains.
Looking further down the line, the search for a horse with the potential to be a long-term rodeo athlete favors the individual that possesses a relatively intangible combination of strengths — stability, athleticism, tenacity and “want to.”
“It takes a special horse to do well as a futurity horse, especially to do it on a consistent basis. One that can win three, four or five a year – that’s special. He might not do anything else the rest of his life, but he did a lot more than a lot will ever do,” says Bauserman. “But a lot of our good futurity horses lack good durability. They can’t go out and perform one night, drive 24 hours and perform the next night. Very few can do that; it takes a special, special horse to be a rodeo horse. It’s not the bloodlines and I don’t think its conformation. I think it’s the desire in the horse to do that and be that, and have that toughness about them. They’re very, very special horses.”
There are also the standouts that have excelled in the futurity pen and gone on to prosper on the rodeo road, like Brittany Pozzi’s Yeah He’s Firen (“Duke”) or Kay Blandford’s The Key Grip (“Llave”). Some might call these awesome horses “freaks,” with a seemingly supernatural ability to win against all odds. Others find logic in the fateful partnership with the right jockey on the right horse at the right time and under the right conditions. Regardless, a certain degree of luck is involved in landing such an extraordinary horse.
“A freak is a freak, period,” says Smith. “They come from anywhere, and its just luck. But with that being said, any great horse is a freak, because that’s what it takes to be a great horse. Whether it came from the best breeding in the world, or it came from the feedlot, like Scamper, if they’re that good, they’re a freak, because that’s what it takes. But the odds of getting one are higher if you play them.”
Despite all efforts at careful selection, that record-setting “freakish” individual can come from the most surprising roots. “I’ve seen reiners that just baffled me [as barrel horses],” says Bauserman. “The Key Grip won the Old Fort Days Futurity, Derby and Maturity. I think he was the only horse to ever do that. I used to watch that horse when I was getting into the futurities and was no good at it. I looked up the pedigree and just shook my head; he was halter bred.”
Barrel horse budgeting
Many of the variables involved in selecting a prospect come down to a subjective perspective. But there is definitely an objective element and whether you’re a weekend gymkhana warrior or the top futurity trainer going, one common denominator exists. Money is the bottom line and time is money. Potential prospectors are subject to their personal time and financial constraints. And, looking ahead, potential for return on investment is a major consideration in determining a horse’s potential. Breaking it down into key considerations that are in line with your budget can help you get the most bang for your buck.
If your maximum bid is $5,000, Bauserman suggests a horse with a little bit of running blood and good conformation, placing an emphasis on eye appeal. “It must be a good-looking horse at that level because if it doesn’t work and you’re on a tight budget, you might lose the time you’ve invested but you can usually get your money back,” he explains.
Hill agrees that it’s important to get the most out of money, adding, “I’ll go with as much pedigree, conformation and looks as I can afford. Instead of buying two mediocre horses, I’ll pool my money and buy the very best horse I can.”
With a little more money to work with and a $15,000 ceiling, Bauserman seeks out the barrel-bred horses. “You can maybe afford to buy one out of a mare that’s produced a barrel horse or two, or maybe by a hot sire, like Bully Bullion.”
Hill confirms that an unbroke 2-year-old with a promising pedigree can be purchased with that price tag, but will require a significant investment of time.
“Sometimes, if your funds are limited, you have to cover up your handicap [of a limited budget] with work. You might have to ride more after dark than the rest of the girls ride all week, but work seems to always prevail,” she emphasizes.
When you’ve got a $50,000 budget to wager with, the complete package is more within reach. “Go after a Dash Ta Fame out of a hot mare that’s won or produced a bunch,” says Bauserman. “And it better have the look to go along with the breeding and conformation.”
Hill steers buyers with those financial resources and the desire to win at the highest level in the direction of a reputable breeder who has a statistically proven record.
The seriousness of embarking on the journey of a barrel prospect owner is not lost of Smith, who is a veteran of the fame. In any prospect endeavor, her underlying question is, “If I have to sell this horse tomorrow, will I be able to get my original purchase price out of him?”
For Smith, the potential for gain must be able to rival not only the initial expense of the purchase, but also come close to justifying the costs associated with care.
“If it’s a really good deal, sometimes I’ll risk a little more. But no matter what, you still have to feed it, take care of it and you’re going to spend so much on it that way that the initial investment is insignificant when compared to the final outcome, his ability and what you can win on him. The initial investment is the cheapest part of the whole thing.”
Little emphasizes that there are still deals to be had for the wise consumer.
“We’ve all seen the $15,000 horse that won the Kentucky Derby, Mine That Bird. We’ve seen the huge successes; they don’t have to be incredibly expensive,” reminds Little.
Whichever direction you choose to take your search, whether you’re window shopping on the road less traveled or joining the gold rush in pursuit of fashionable genetics, utilizing technological tools and the advice of a trusted friend can help pave the way to a successful journey for you and your chosen prospect.
Do the homework!
Thinking of doing your prospecting at a horse sale? Three little words that you may have often heard in school, “do your homework,” can come to your rescue at a horse sale. Barrel Horse News asked horse industry gurus for their single-most important piece of advice to prospective buyers. We ended up with great tutoring tidbits to prepare bidders for the moment when their potential prospect enters the sale ring.
Jud Little, owner of the Jud Little Ranch: “If you’re a little bit unsure, get one trusted advisor – someone with some success that will be honest, and knows the market and what the horses are worth – and trust that person. Don’t try to have a committee but take one trusted person. You need to go to consignors that have a really good reputation for the truth and the production they’ve had. At a smaller sale, walk through and look at every individual. At a larger sale, go through the catalog first and mark the horses with pedigrees that you’re interested in, because you can’t physically look at them all.”
Kenny Nichols, owner of Nichols Quarter Horses: “Call Equi-Stat and the AQHA; see what they can find out on the family. Try to go a day or two early to see what the horses are before they’re put into the sale environment. You will get a better feel for what the individual is. At a private production sale, you get more input and have a greater opportunity to learn about the prospects. However, there are breeders who will only sell their horses though a public sale. [Public sales are a] particularly great resource for yearlings and if one doesn’t work out, you’ve got several to choose from.”
Brian Fulton, owner of Fulton Performance Horses: “Preparation is the biggest factor in being comfortable at a horse sale. If you’re prepared, it’s not nearly as intimidating. Come a day or two early when possible to see the horses as they are outside of sale day. Get to know the integrity of the people selling the horses and who you’re dealing with.”
Jann Parker, Horse Sale Manager at Billings Livestock Commission: “Before you go, do your pre-sale homework and make a list. Go through the horses, read the descriptions, look at the pictures and videos, and call the owners. When you get there, you’ll have the opportunity to see a lot of horses in a short period of time. The horse that you thought might work for you isn’t going to work at all when you see it, but there’s something else there that will.”
Cody Bauserman, BFA and NBHA World Champion: “Get there early enough to look through them, and have the owner or the owner’s agent get the horse out and watch it move. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
Spence Kidney, Director of Operations at Heritage Place: “Visit with the consignors, study the terms and conditions of the sale, look at the horses and know about them before bidding or making any purchase decisions. Naturally, in a horse event, you already have some competitive will in you to begin with, and an auction is a competitive environment. A lot of people make impulse decisions, but if you know what you’re looking for, you need to take your time and go through the horses and identify the ones in the catalog that meet your criteria. The X-ray repository is a good thing and I recommend anybody buying a prospect that’s been radiographed.”
Jim Ware, Western Bloodstock: “Follow the discipline and what’s popular within that discipline. It’s crucial that you know what job you want that horse to perform and nothing takes the place of that. Then, you can go forward and seek out a certain type of horse.
Bill Myers, owner of Myers Performance Horses: “Learn how to do your research, because there’s more than meets the eye that you need to know about. Study the pedigrees and past performance records of the families of these horses, as well as comparable values of similar horses. Ask specific, in-depth questions about the individual. Keep a good business sense and thought process about you. Don’t let what other people are saying or the sale atmosphere affect your decision and the final amount of money you’re going to spend.”