I remember clearly when the words “ranch gelding” seemed to all-of-a-sudden be on every horseman’s lips. It was 1985 and cattle prices had plummeted. Unable to turn a decent profit with their cattle, ranchers began selling off horses. They quickly realized that people would pay a premium for well-broke, ranch-raised geldings with some rope-handling skills, some cow sense, and plenty of miles under wet saddle blankets. Customers were willing to spend five times as much or more for a horse than the cattle were bringing. It didn’t take a genius with a supercomputer to realize that, even though they required a greater investment of time maturing, producing ranch geldings was a pretty darn good alternative to going broke raising cows.
Ranchers had always bought and sold ranch-raised, cowboy-broke horses among themselves and within the performance horse community. But all of a sudden, these good horses began finding homes in “ranchettes,” the smaller horse properties of people living on the rural borderlands of urban areas such as Dallas/Fort Worth, Raleigh, N.C., across rural California and in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
“While it was happening, you didn’t realize it,” said Beth Bashor, 72, who has owned a horse and cattle ranch with her husband, Dave, for five decades. “Then, all of a sudden, you saw a lot of interest in ranch horses.”
At Bashor Ranch, the growing market became apparent even earlier, when the pair put on their first ranch horse auction in 1982. The couple wasn’t sure they could attract many people to tiny Grover, Colorado (population 153) located in the north-central plains “50 miles from nowhere,” says Beth. But a writer for the Colorado Rancher & Farmer Magazine ran a story on the event and the telephone began ringing off the hook.
“We planned for 300 people, but got nearly 1,000!” remembers Bashor. “People were sitting on the barn roof. It was way beyond what we ever imagined.”
Today, quality, ranch-raised and trained geldings remain in high demand.
“Right now, people want horses they can trust, that they can go on the trail with and have fun. A horse that will go on its own, that will take direction, that doesn’t have to follow behind another horse,” said Beth.
Why geldings? Well, in many cases, ranchers hold onto their best mares and stallions for breeding, leaving the gelded males as sellable commodities. Additionally, most buyers of ranch horses are looking for a dependable horse to ride, not breed, and are happy to avoid the potential “attitude” problems that may appear when some mares are in season. Often, a rancher starts a horse as a “green” colt, gets several years of hard work out of the animal, then sells it as a finished horse—not only benefitting from the horse’s years of service, but in the end pocketing a nice amount of cash too. A win-win all around.
Despite a generally soft market for horses, ranch gelding auctions continue to ring up healthy sales. One of the top-shelf ranch horse auction events is the famous San Antonio Livestock Show & Rodeo’s Ranch Gelding Stakes and Sale. Each year, buyers gather to watch a select group of high-quality geldings perform skills and maneuvers related to actual ranch work such as opening gates, roping, cutting cattle from a herd, and overall handling. The competition allows potential bidders to evaluate the horses’ abilities before the auction gets underway. At the 2012 auction held in February, the top horse, a palomino Quarter horse named HA Gypsys Nic and consigned by Cowboy Collection Quarter Horses, sold for a whopping $25,000.
But, as with all things having to do with horses, prices can range widely, with the bottom of the market horses available for around $2,000-$3,500, and top-of-the-line horses selling for as much as ten times that amount.
Beverly and Wil Howe, who split their time between Eastern Oregon and central Arizona, specialize in high end, high-dollar “Cadillac” trail horses, or what Beverly calls “the nicest geldings that you can throw a saddle over.” If one were to describe what the Howes do, it is to take exceptionally well-built, calm and sound-minded horses and put a “finish” on the animals that allows their customers to have total confidence in their mounts.
Strictly speaking, the couple doesn’t work exclusively with ranch geldings, but rather looks for well-built horses with good minds, then expands on that foundation to produce horses have the requisite skills for trail riding, ranch work and the competition arena.
“We don’t look for ‘good deals,’ we look for good horses,” Beverly says of the horses that go through their program. Sometimes the horses come from a ranching background, other times from the performance horse arena. Whichever the case, the couple strives for complete versatility, spending a year or more training each individual horse for ranch, trail and arena duties.
“We say we have premier ranch horse utility geldings, that have been roped off, used outdoors and have the miles under saddle. But our horses aren’t rough-rode and they are roped on correctly,” she says. “They can work a cow in the arena and they can go along a mountain side trail with sure feet.”
Merely being raised and trained on a ranch, Beverly cautions, doesn’t assure that a horse will be everything a rider may want and need.
“We’ve seen horses that come from the Midwest, from Nebraska or Kansas, that have never seen the backcountry, never seen a mountain, never been on a trail. And we’ve seen horses from the mountains of Oregon that have never been asked to lope or canter because the hills where they follow cattle are so steep, and their Border collies do all the work,” she said.
So, what in Beverly Howe’s mind, is a ‘finished’ ranch gelding?
“A ranch horse, to us, has to be versatile and well broke, a good-minded, quiet gelding that has a velvet neck rein, rides in a finished bridle with romel reins in one hand, [and] will watch and move on a cow effortlessly. One that will willingly do his job or task at hand…take you up a rocky trail to the back country high pastures or rim rocks [while] navigating all trail obstacles with ease or even ride in a parade amongst noise and traffic,” she said. “That’ll be one of ours.”
For Lori Fisher, a licensed and bonded livestock broker from Twin Bridges, Montana, the goal is the same, but the means to the goal differs. She works with cowboys throughout her region of western Montana to identify and train horses on actual working ranches. Fisher then rides every horse and makes certain they meet her very high standards.
“True working cowboys. That’s who I work with… guys who make a dollar working off the back of a horse,” she says. In her area of the country, Fisher can spot the genuine working type by the tilt of his hat, the curl of his brim, and the type of boot he wears. That’s because she was a working cowboy herself.
A horsewoman almost from birth, Fisher grew up back east, in Pittsburgh, and she’s been a horse trader almost all her life too.
“From the age of nine, I started buying and selling horses,” she said. She apprenticed with a reining horse trainer back east, but was lured west by frequent trips to visit her uncle, who operated an outfitting business for 40 years in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. She eventually moved west to stay, marrying a cowboy. The marriage didn’t last, but the love affair with Montana and the cowboy traditions stuck.
“From the time I moved out here, I started selling horses. And I started getting lots of calls from buyers. Cowboying is how I met my contacts who supply me with horses. My network on both sides kept getting bigger and bigger,” she said.
To Fisher, the biggest reason that a ranch horse suits the needs of many riders is simple: a well-seasoned ranch horse has a mature, sensible mind. For many cowgirls, especially those of a certain age, the dependability, safety and responsiveness of a good, no-nonsense ranch gelding make them worth their weight in gold.
“Whether you never throw a rope or never work a cow, the fact that the horse has done those things and has used his head independently is what makes him solid,” Lori says.
Citing a “for instance,” she tells the story of a horse in her keep that got stuck in a barb wire fence. The horse had gotten her legs wrapped in wire. At dawn, Fisher got a call from a frantic neighbor telling her about the mare’s predicament.
“The mare had stood there all night, waiting for someone to come save her. I cut her loose and she didn’t have a single wire cut on her,” she recalled. “This was a horse that was used to ropes, that was used to having things wrapped around her legs, and that knew to stand and wait for help. That’s a solid horse.”
In 2004, Fisher began posting pictures and videos of the ranch geldings she had for sale and in short order, her business went national, then international. She has sold to clients in 42 states including Hawaii and Alaska and has international customers as far afield as Great Britain, Italy and Bulgaria. Today, the demand for her carefully-selected horses exceeds the supply. She maintains a waiting list and says that she scrambles to find horses without ever compromising her own high standards.
(Originally published in the September/October 2012 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).