Buying a Rope Horse

Buyer’s remorse is when you bought a bigger TV than will fit in your entertainment center. Not that big a deal. Horse buyer’s remorse, on the other hand, takes the wind out of your sails faster than a summer hailstorm.

To not only find the right horse, but know before you get home that he’s 14 years old instead of nine or cribs, you just need to do your homework and take your time. Read on for some veterans’ tips on becoming a happy horse buyer.

On the hunt
NFR champion heeler Patrick Smith, who bought his first horse (“a plug”) for $900, advises keeping your eye out at area ropings. If you see something you like, ask the owner if he’d be interested in selling or tell him to look you up when he does want to sell. Then keep your eye on the horse so you know where he ends up.

Be prepared to spend some time searching. Dennis Watkins, who roped at 19 NFRs and currently coaches ropers in Bakersfield, Calif., has been hunting a horse for four months for one customer. His client is on to something-it never hurts to get someone to look around or go with you that you trust and who knows what you need in a horse.

That’s what you “need” to rope well-not “want” for appearances. Buy a horse that fits your style, Smith says, and then don’t try to change him.

“Start small,” Smith says, “You’ll know when it’s time to move up because you’ll get to where you catch and your horse doesn’t get you there fast enough. That’s when you upgrade.”

If you’re just learning to rope and a horse gets you there before you’re ready, you’re bound to panic and start pulling on him. Then he gets scared and you’re left with an aggravating domino effect.

“I don’t care how pretty or cheap a horse is, he has to fit your style of roping,” Watkins says. “I’ve gotten on horses I knew were excellent horses but they didn’t fit my style.”

Regardless of whether you like one to run further in there or rate off more, you need one that’s not too broke, Watkins says, especially if you’re a novice, because you want a little room for error. On the other hand, you need a horse broke enough that if your left hand drifts out (who does that?), your horse will respond when you bring it back in.

A rope horse will work better and last longer if he uses his hind end well, most pros agree. And a horse whose style is to leave the box flat instead of running with his head and front end elevated is a better bet. Also, a trend toward smaller head horses has come out of the fact that a shorter-strided horse can help you keep speed on your rope.

The reason tough heel horses are more plentiful than wicked head horses, Smith thinks, is because they just last longer. A head horse that can stand dead still, blow off the corner as hard as he can, and not duck will get asked for his life every time, where a heel horse can kind of coast out of there and turn in using a common pattern.

Seeing the whole picture
Watkins is always seeing his clients get hung up on a horse’s price. Or his papers. Or his demeanor. Remember that a horse might be beautiful, but work like a pickle in the arena and vice versa. For starters, Watkins says, the price doesn’t make the horse. If he fits you and his cost is realistic, that’s a good purchase. He isn’t saying you can’t buy a $3,500 horse and turn him into a $15,000 horse-he’s just saying don’t try.

Neither should you let age be a limiting factor in your search. In J.D. Yates’ opinion, a rope horse doesn’t hit his prime until he’s 13 or 14 years old. Look at the average age of NFR horses and you’ll find it’s the oldies but goodies that have the goods.

Papers aren’t everything, either. Don’t think Charles Pogue hasn’t tried some of Scooter’s relatives unsuccessfully.

“I go by the way a horse looks and then I get on him and go by the way he feels,” says Watkins, who once fell for a gorgeous, catty Doc O’Lena gelding that could fly. Planning to make a world-beater on the heel end, Watkins finally cajoled the owner into selling and paid a good chunk of money for the horse. He camped on him for two years-then sold him as a mediocre head horse.

“He should have been way better than he was,” Watkins says. “But that happens. And you can come across one you don’t think is anything and he turns out to be real good.”

If you’re hunting a prospect, keep in mind that a horse doesn’t mature until he’s 5, Watkins says. Make sure he’s had a job and learned to be a horse before you go to roping on him, and know that at the top level, it will take a good year or two of hauling before he’s proven.

This from the guy who rode a 5-year-old at his first NFR in 1974. The colt he got for his 15th birthday went on to become an AQHA star.

“Usually it doesn’t work very good,” he says, “because they’re going to make mistakes.”

Ultimately, you should let breeding and looks take a backseat to how a horse feels to you and whether he responds when you ask him to pull off a steer or step in close, Watkins says.

Stepping up to the plate

We’ve all been to try a horse where the owner just kind of points him out and says, “Well, here he is.”

But it’s worth the effort to find out as much background information as you can on any horse worth your money.

People are always telling Smith they have this horse they know will fit him. That might be true, but he still finds out as much as he can beforehand. For instance, he’ll ask where the seller got the horse and what his real age is if there are no papers (old-timers can help you use a horse’s ribs or teeth as a guide). Smith especially wants to watch the seller use

a horse hard while practicing or at a jackpot.

“I’m not one to go out and make three or four runs on a horse and buy him,” says 25-year-old Smith, who currently owns four horses. “That way you’ll see if a horse is going to get sore or will do something stupid when he gets hot.”

There are plenty of things you’ll see when you watch a horse go, but there are even more you won’t know until you ask (see sidebar). Some issues don’t appear in the arena but can still wear on you over time.

Ask if the horse has ever been hurt, Watkins advises, then read between the lines. If the owner hems and haws, you know something happened to him. You don’t want to drive yourself crazy over it, but you do want to be happy with your purchase.

The biggie is to always, always have the seller get on the horse first, Watkins says, and watch the horse go before you rope one. That way you can see not only how a horse lopes off the bridle, but how he walks into the box, whether he tries to spin out or lock up, and how he scores.

“You might watch him go and oh, he’s so pretty and he works so nice,” Watkins says. “But he might be an outlaw. He might have been saddled for two days.”

You should do this kind of background check whether you’re talking to a horse trader, an online seller, or a consignor at a sale preview before deciding how high you want to go with your bid.

Sale savvy
Watkins says horse sales are starting to shed their bad rep as the place were people get rid of problem horses.

“The industry has changed and a lot of guys are making rope horses now,” he says. “They can get horses seasoned and take them to sales to make some money.”

Bill and Jann Parker have been auctioning performance horses in Billings, Mont., for eight years. Although they sell rope horses 12 months of the year, their major sales are in April and September.

“People sell rope horses going into summer and again in the fall when they’re tired of them,” he said. “It’s been that way for 30 years.”

As a former NFR header (1979), Bill knows what people want in a rope horse and how to showcase those skills for buyers by producing pre-sale ropings. Not your typical Friday-night jackpot, the pick-one, draw-two roping is for sale horses only and typically attracts a big short-round watching crowd because of the top ropers and high-end horses packing stickers.

Parkers’ April rope-horse sale featured 141 horses, including some ridden and consigned by Bobby Harris, Jhett Johnson, and Dennis Tryan. Buyers get to see each horse go six times at the jackpot, then previews allow each horse 12-15 more steers.

The most obvious advantage of an auction is that you can look at more than a hundred rope horses in one day without driving your wheels off-a major plus considering today’s fuel prices.

Parker sees most nice, honest jackpot horses sell in the $4,500 to $6,000 range, but it depends on the day. If you’re lucky, a seller might not have cleaned one up or might not know what he has. You might go knock the hair off him and discover a gem.

And you never know what will turn up when. At one of Parkers’ cutting horse sales, a high-numbered roper from Canada showed up with a one-in-a-million head horse because he hadn’t known where to find the caliber ropers who could ride the sorrel grade mare.

Waiting around can be a drag at auctions, but if the kids get tired, you can make phone bids from home. Most sales should also guarantee that a horse can not only gallop across the parking lot sound on Saturday, but will do the same on Tuesday morning.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the sale producers or horse owners. For that matter, if you can’t attend a sale, the producer might keep an eye out for what you want.

A laundry list of background questions:

• How long have you had him?

• How often have you been roping on him? Every day for a month?

• Have you ever let him get fresh?

• Has this horse ever bucked? If I stay off him for three months will he be a little cold-backed?

• How much has he been hauled?

• Where has he been hauled? To USTRC ropings? Rodeos?

• Has he been used outside the arena? Worked on a ranch?

• Has he ever acted up in the box? Ever just ran off?

• Does he crib?

• Does he haul well? Does he paw the ground tied to the trailer or “buddy up” real bad?

• Has he ever been hurt, sick, or unsound?

• Has he been clipped? Is he good to shoe? Hard to catch?

After the fact
No matter how great a horse you buy or how well he takes care of you, Smith cautions, you need to work on what you’re doing, too.

It always benefits a horse to do some riding without roping-including scoring. If you do start to have problems, Smith says, find a great horseman and ask him to watch the way you ride your new horse and look for what you could be doing wrong. Pulling too hard? Not using enough bit?

“Everybody develops their own habits,” says Smith, who is always striving to improve his horsemanship. “You have to train yourself to ride all horses different.”

Don’t forget that what makes a horse good comes from you, Watkins says.

“Once they have good horses, people love them and pamper them and don’t do the things that got them to that point,” Watkins says. “My horse is good and I love him, but he’s a horse and I’m going to ride him like a horse and use him like a horse.”

Half the time it’s those overlooked practice horses that turn out the best, he says, because they are used more-they know better than to cheat and they get gridiron tough.

So there it is-words of wisdom from those who have been around this particular block a time or two. Happy hunting. 

Ready to look for the right horse for you? Go to, the premier classifieds site of the Equine Network, to search for the perfect horse!

Related Articles
Broc Cresta
Never Forgotten
Broc Cresta: The Legend Lives On
Untitled design-14
5 Things J.D. Yates Did to Raise a Winner in Trey
Steer sitting in the chute getting the horn wrap taken off.
Make Your Steers Last Longer
Editor's Note
Editor's Note: Star Power
Image placeholder title
Get the Edge In Your Roping with Jake Barnes