Pick a Performance Prospect That Fits

Top trainers Casey Deary and Clayton Edsall offer 10 tips to find the right horse to help you to show pen success.

Clayton Edsall

Clayton achieved NRCHA Million Dollar Rider status in 2021 during the Snaffle Bit Futurity.

Casey Deary

Casey is a three-time NRHA Open Futurity Champion and NRHA $3 Million Dollar Rider.

Pick Your Prospect

In today’s horse market, there are multiple ways to find a potential prospect—private sale, online auction, in-person auction, and through a third-party sale site. But how do you know you’re buying the one

Whether you’re able to put hands on a prospect or only evaluating from afar, advice and tips from National Reined Cow Horse Association Million Dollar Rider Clayton Edsall and National Reining Horse Association three-time Open Futurity Champion Casey Deary can help you make the most educated decision for the horse you’ll take to the show pen. 

It isn’t easy to find a unicorn in the vast number of horses for sale and, unfortunately, not even being at the top of a trainer’s game ensures a champion. However, Deary says it all comes down to focus, budget, and the end goal. 

“What’s your goal with that horse? Is it for a trainer to win a futurity or to buy a horse for you to fall in love with and show on weekends? You have to have an idea what you’re after,” he says. “A show horse, as a rule, I try to buy more horse than what they need at the time. If I have someone just learning to ride, I don’t buy one that will only last a year.”

What Drives a Sale?

Budget and the desire to have the right horse, right now, often drive a sale. For Edsall, wading through prospects for the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity can come down to his gut reaction. And, if the horse is for a client, it’s more often that connection that makes a sale. 

“If you see a horse and there is a connection between you and the horse, you’ll get farther down the road than if a horse vets perfect and you don’t get along,” Edsall says. “If you like a horse, buy it—but I can’t comment about the price because the horse market is what someone will pay for it. A horse that catches your eye and meets requirements doesn’t have to do it all perfect, but if there is something you enjoy about watching that horse, then you’re more than likely going to get along with it.”

With time, and attention, finding the horse to fit your needs is attainable. The advice provided has come from years of looking at all ages of horses for sale in their respective disciplines, reining and reined cow horse. 

TOP: A horse that wants to naturally complete reining maneuvers is top on Deary’s ideal prospect list. BOTTOM: A horse that lopes with its wither raised can naturally carry its head in an ideal position. Photos by Abigail Boatwright

Buying to Slide

Whether at a large horse sale or visiting a ranch with multiple prospects in a pasture, which is his preferred method to evaluate, Deary sticks to the same plan when looking to purchase. He wants a horse that’s naturally inclined to perform the reining maneuvers, not one he’ll have to force to be in the proper position. 

1. Go Old School 

“I am still a traditionalist. I like to pick the phone up, call and see what people have, and I ask for pictures before I drive out,” Deary says. “I like the old-fashioned way of hunting them down and looking at a prospect in the pasture, where they live. I am not the guy who wants a horse to be worked for two weeks in the round pen before I look at them; I want to see that horse lope in its natural surroundings.”

Don’t be afraid to make a blind call to a trainer, breeder, or representative, he says. Horses are for sale to everybody, not just to horse trainers or big-name buyers. While videos are popular these days, there’s nothing like seeing a horse in person, Deary says. 

2. Find the Eye Appeal 

For Deary, two things are equally important: eye-catching and a natural loper.

“When I walk out [in a pasture], I want a horse that grabs me because it will most likely have that same effect with the judge,” he says. “The horse needs to be a naturally good loper because a good mover is going to do all the parts [of reining] easier than a bad mover. That’s something I’ve found to be true. Conformation goes hand-in-hand with quality of movement. A horse that’s long-backed but deep strided can do the same thing as a short-backed horse can do; I don’t think you can separate conformation from quality of movement.”

Looking at a horse loping, Deary isn’t focused on its headset. Instead, he watches the stride from wither to feet. 

“I know that when I teach a horse to pick its back up, the neck will go flat to where it is the most efficient traveling,” he explains. “If the wither stays elevated, I am more than likely going to be able to get that horse to operate the way I want it to operate.”

3. Know Your Goal 

First, decide if the colt or filly being purchased is eventually intended for the breeding barn, or if being a show horse is the only goal. It makes a difference, even looking at a yearling or a 2-year-old.

“If I’m looking at a breeding horse, I’m going to be extremely picky about straightness of the leg, how it comes out of the joint or twists,” he says. “Realistically, there’s a large number of breeding horses out there without ideal conformation to their legs. I am going to be a little pickier about that if I’m looking for a breeding horse for my customer because I don’t want to breed to something a little crooked legged. I want to breed to something that will last a long time.”

4. Be Picky; It’s OK!

Watching those horses make a 230- scored run at the NRHA Futurity, some are more eye-catching than other and some much more natural than others. When a buyer has an ideal horse in their mind, one that looks nearly ready to show may not be the right one.  

“A big turn off for me is buying a 2-year-old that is doing a lot,” Deary explains. “I have trained enough horses to know that occasionally, a really special individual comes along and is great at it. Like Ten Thirty; he ran and stopped in the summer of his 2-year-old year with Dany Tremblay like he did when I won the Futurity on him. There are individuals out there, but they are so rare. 

“Most of the time, a [purchaser] ends up buying something that has been really pushed on early. Then, when I need to build on it later, there isn’t enough foundation there to build off a solid base that I need to work with, so I would caution against buying a horse just because it looks like it could win the reining Futurity now [as a 2-year-old].”

5. Do Your Homework

“Make sure you do your homework and go through the process of doing a pre-purchase [exam],” Deary says. “Take time and spend money to get a little help from someone [like a trainer] that can help you evaluate it. Just because the mom or the dad were successful, doesn’t mean the baby will be.” 

Deary thinks back on horses he’s purchased for clients that had good show careers, then had an injury that took them out of the pen. But owners kept the ones they could simply ride for pleasure. 

“If you can only buy one horse, buy one you really enjoy. Don’t talk yourself into one just to have it,” he says. “Buy one you truly enjoy riding. There are so many nice horses out there and reputable places to buy them, make sure you’re buying into one you love.”

LEFT: A 3-yer-old competing in the Snaffle Bit Futurity, as seen here, must have stamina, conformation, and the heart to control a cow. RIGHT: Bet He Sparks sizes up a cow with style and positive ear expression, which is one thing Edsall looks for in a prospect. Photos by Kate Bradley Byars

Cow Smart Sale 

In 2016, Edsall won the NRCHA World’s Greatest Horseman, an event that pairs one horse and one rider, using the same bit, for four events: herd work, reining, working cow horse, and steer stopping. It takes a special horse, and finding those special individuals to cultivate from a yearling to an older traditionally trained cow horse takes a lot of commitment. 

“Buying prospects has changed quite a bit! When I bought Skeets Oak Peppy, the horse I won the World’s Greatest Horseman on, that year I bought three horses through the NRCHA Sale,” Edsall recalls. “I was concerned with size, shape, feet, and conformation, but definitely size. I was dealing with a budget, and I had to hunt around.”

Today, Edsall may have more freedom with the budget, but the need for conformation and cow smart is still a top requirement for his purchases. 

1. Don’t Just Check the Box

The Western Bloodstock-produced NRCHA and National Cutting Horse Association winter sales facilitate a lot of horse purchases for reined cow horses, selling yearlings and 2-year-old prospects. Yearlings can be tricky to evaluate, Edsall says. 

“You’re buying a prospect and you don’t know how they will react to riding,” he says. “You’re buying a set of papers and what you can see there at the sale, and that is a lot more difficult. There are an awful lot of yearlings that check a lot of boxes: good dad, good mom with produce record, full siblings that have a cool look to them. That’s all good, and I go from there as to what I think their value is, but you can’t only ride a bloodline. You have to feel out their attitude and judge their conformation and how all that will work out for us in the cow horse.”

2. Connect the Conformation

From a foal to a show horse, Edsall believes that if you see that style or if the baby is “cute” it will find its way back to that no matter the awkward stage it goes through as it grows up. 

“Style matters, but conformation is more important when you consider taking a horse down the fence to turn a cow,” Edsall says. “I am always interested in a horse with a good back on them, being upright or level in the wither is a plus, but I’ve had a lot of horses that were a tick downhill but with a good shape to their back. The shape of the back and the way the shoulder and neck connects to the back is more important for me than if they’re a little downhill on the front end. 

“The horse has to lope right. If they don’t lope well and the saddle doesn’t fit them and you constantly have to ready just that saddle so it feels right to use, but it doesn’t feel great to the horse, then you cinch them up tighter—at a certain point the horse will get sore in their belly, back, and shoulder blades. Where a horse that the saddle fits and you don’t have to cinch them up so tight, you will get farther down the road because they aren’t cranky or sore. You’re not trying to make that saddle fit the horse as you’re also training.”

3. Be Sale Video Savvy

“The popular thing right now is to put a yearling in the round pen because everybody wants to see how they lope: do they fall out of lead, how do they stop and come through a turn? There are quite a few people who are on to that explosiveness in the round pen,” Edsall says. “Just like everything, a horse can be trained to that more so than just a natural, traveling moving horse. To me, you have to be careful if you’re watching a horse in the round pen the first, fifth or 30th time. Have they been trained to look outstanding for the video and have been in that pen a lot? There are a lot of videos that look like one person is in the pen, but if you pan back, you may see more people in there creating that situation for that horse.”

For Edsall, watching the horse in the round pen the first time or a horse that hasn’t been fitted for a few months for a sale provides more information to him about its natural ability. 

“A lot of times those horses trained to the round pen will look 10 times better than how they would look the first time being moved around in the round pen,” he cautions. “If I like a horse, I’ll be into it through its looks and presentation, and I’ll be more influenced by that than how the horse goes around in the round pen.”

4. Ear Expression

Reined cow horse combines a rein work pattern and then working the cow; in the cow horse three-event Spectaculars, a horse must do herd work and take a cow down the fence. When the majority of a horse’s show pen success depends on how it reacts to and works that cow, the eye-appeal is a big factor. 

“When I look at a 2-year-old, especially when it is working a cow or out on its own, I really enjoy a horse that has its ears up,” Edsall says. “Seldom do you watch a horse work a cow and enjoy doing that without it having ears up and expression doing it; those ears show intent and attitude. Bet He Sparks was always expressive with his ears and into it. I’ve had numerous horses come over the years and while that horse may not do one thing great, if they’re expressive with those ears, that shows me they want to learn and be intelligent. 

“Any time I watch a horse go around, work a cow, and perk their ears, to me that means they are into their job and there’s room to build on that. It’s easy to see a horse stop, or its color, but if that horse’s ears aren’t into it, there can be a lot of manmade influence in that.”

5. Don’t Forget to Evaluate Heart

Older show horses sold typically all receive a pre-purchase exam that includes a radiography showing an area of arthritis. Edsall cautions a buyer against discounting a horse that may need some maintenance over its ability and desire to do its job. 

“All horses are going to need maintenance, there’s no way around it. We use horses a lot, and it’s hard to find a horse that x-rays perfectly. I’ve seen people turn down horses based on x-rays for small reasons. If you’re going to buy a horse, there’s a level of responsibility that should be understood for maintenance and vet bills. Just because it doesn’t x-ray perfectly doesn’t mean it can’t do a job,” he says.

“I’m not saying that big issues should be overlooked, but there’s a big benefit of a horse that wants to do its job and you have to overlook a few things. My old veterinarian, Marty Gardiner, said you can’t x-ray how much they give of their heart. If you have a horse that wants to do its job for you, it will overcome a lot of small things.”

[Listen to these pros discuss buying a prospect, at The Winning Insights Podcast]

League of Legends Sale

Since its inception in 2017, League Of Legends is a horse sale that takes pride in providing a sale specifically designed towards the needs of today’s busy buyers with a supportive one-stop-shop buying environment catered to them. Produced by Turner Performance Horses, buyers are provided the best example of all-around legendary horses for the entire family, from beginners to seasoned professionals. 

In 2022, the sale broke performance horse sale records with the top four horses bringing $214,000 to $310,000, with a sale average on 67 horses (plus one stock dog) to $68,338.00. Each horse is approved to the sale after passing a veterinary inspection, as well as sale inspection that includes disposition and performance standards.

The Turners suggest buyers look at the following prior to attending a sale:

    • 1. Review the sales terms and conditions. One of the biggest complaints we hear is, “We didn’t know,” so be in the know and do your homework!

    • 2. Understand a horse’s soundness issues. Does the horse you’re eyeing require maintenance or has he/she had any serious medical issues? If the sale doesn’t require a vet check, get one done with radiographs.

    • 3. What is your skill set?  Be honest about your skill level and what your goals are. If the horse is advertised, for example, as an exceptional trail horse, ask how often they’re ridden on trails. Ask if the horse stays close to the barn or is ridden farther out, and how they handle new places. If your goal is in the arena and competition, be specific on what level you are looking to compete. If you are looking for, a reining horse for example, don’t attend a sale specifically catering to cutting horses.

    • 4. Schedule a time to ride. Ride several of the horses offered at any sale, if that’s an option. You’ll be surprised how often the videos and photos of the sale horse don’t match with what you’ll find in the saddle.

    • 5. Be prepared! Be sure you have all the required methods of payment, paperwork, and documents to bid.
The League of Legends Horse Sale is held at the beautiful home of Turner Performance Horses. Photo courtesy of League of Legends.

Sale Smarts

Attending a horse sale can be intimidating or exhilarating. Sale hype is a real thing and that urge to buy can be strong! Seasoned at evaluating sale horses in their stalls or during the walk-through, Deary says to first see which horse grabs your attention. 

“I am going to walk through them at a good pace; it doesn’t take me hours to go through all the horses at a sale,” Deary explains. “A lot of times, I’ll scroll through [the catalog] online, and if I like what I see, I’ll flip to the catalog, and I’ll watch the [sale] video. In a video, I look for unnatural qualities in a stride. For example, has the horse been bit-up in the round pen and taught to lope around with its nose in the dirt? I don’t gauge much off where the horse’s head and neck goes. That goes back to me liking to see one in its natural habitat to make a determination on how the horse travels.”

The horse’s pedigree can also help Deary make a decision. If he has shown or knows the bloodline, that can weigh positively in the horse’s favor. For Edsall, it isn’t as much the bloodline as how the horse reacts to a cow. 

“Yearlings can be more difficult than a 2-year-old to purchase from a sale,” he says. “When you’re watching a 2-year-old in the sale, you’re seeing it react to the cow it is working. But a yearling, you’re looking at how it reacts to the handler and the environment. Whether or not the 2-year-old reacts to the cow and the rider [the way you want them to] you will see how that horse reacts, and you can’t tell that when watching a yearling. With a yearling, I’ll look at them structurally—how the neck ties to the wither, if the hocks are high or low off the ground, the back, feet, and things like that.”

Both emphasize studying the horse sale catalog prior to a sale, even calling the consignor to do more research, and following up on the veterinary pre-purchase before placing a bid. 

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