The Hunt for Versatility

Ready to buy your first versatility ranch horse? Read this first.

Photos by Abigail Boatwright

The primary consideration, when choosing a versatility ranch horse, is his ability to do many events. If you’re going for the versatility all-around, you have to compete in many classes: cattle classes, trail, pleasure, reining, and conformation. You’re looking for a horse that’s good-looking, can stand up in the conformation class, and also one that’s an extreme athlete for the cutting and reining classes. So, you really are looking at an all-around horse to excel in this event. But before you start your search, here are some things to think about.

Set your goals.

For me, the best success I’ve had with finding a good horse for a customer is when you can sit down together and visit about your goals. Whether you’re a young rider wanting to step up and go down the fence, or a non-pro customer just getting started on these events after having ridden your whole life, maybe you haven’t worked much cattle. So then we can develop a plan for you, deciding how many shows you’d like to go to, what shows you want to attend, at what level you want to show, and then find a horse that fits accordingly.

Will the horse you already have fit the bill or will you need to shop around? 

Before you decide to purchase a horse for versatility ranch horse events, talk with your horse trainer to figure out what your goals are so you can better find a horse that will fit your riding needs.

If you own a horse that you’re comfortable with and that you feel safe around, I would recommend going to a local weekend ranch horse show and watching. Look at the horses competing. Do you feel your horse can be competitive against those horses? Keep in mind, the level of competition can vary from region to region, and if you’re wanting to be competitive at the national level, that will require an even higher-quality horse.

Next, try taking your horse to a local ranch horse show and see how you do. If you’re having fun learning with your horse, and you’re progressing the way you’d like, then you could sign up for some lessons for this event and get some help from a trainer.

If you bring your horse to a show and your horse is unsafe, or you don’t feel comfortable on your horse, or you want to be more competitive, it might be time to start looking for another mount.

Personality considerations.

I first want to say, getting with a trainer you trust is a great start. You’ll have better luck finding the right horse for you if you work with a trainer to help you look at horses and evaluate them.

If you’re looking for a first-time versatility horse, you want to focus on safety. You want a horse with a personality that is laid-back and easygoing. If the horse hasn’t been used a lot in the trail, or hasn’t worked a cow much, you’ll also want him to have an attitude that is willing to try something new.

Cattle experience and natural cow sense are essential for any versatility ranch horse mount. When you’re trying out a potential horse, it’s important to ride him on cattle or a flag to see how he feels on cattle.

Age and conformation.

I think the ideal age for this kind of horse is between 8 and 10 years old. For a first timer, even a 15-year-old, been-there, done-that, show horse that is safe is a great fit. You want to feel really comfortable, and when working a cow, you can feel safe because the horse isn’t as quick as he used to be. You want to be able to feel confident in your horse.

If you want to compete at a high-end amateur or open level, your horse needs to have really good conformation, because that’s a class in which you want to aim to place in the top three. If you have mistakes somewhere in one of the riding classes, like you missed a transition or you lose a cow, that conformation class can bring your score back up. And when it comes to all-around placing, having a horse that stands well in conformation is really important.
So start with conformation. 

Cow sense.

Then move on to the cow—look for a horse that has a lot of natural cow instinct. I am looking for a horse that has cow sense in his bloodlines—a horse with cutting or reined cow horse performance in his pedigree. 

Most of the time, versatility ranch horses that are doing well have some cutting or cow horse pedigree in them. That’s because they’re bred to watch a cow and be smart on the cow, and they’re athletic. But you also need the horse to be quiet enough to turn off that “lookiness” and quick speed during the trail and pleasure events.

You could also start with a reining horse that has been worked on the flag or on cattle, but a reining horse without the cow background might not have enough cow to really score high in the cutting, boxing, or down the fence work. But one of the benefits to a reining horse is they are usually quiet and broke.

When you try out a horse, it’s nice to have your horse trainer come along and test out the horse, too. That way you can see what the horse looks like from the ground and your trainer can help evaluate if this horse will be right for your needs.

The best recipe I’ve found is taking a horse from a cutting or reined cow horse program, evaluating him myself, then having my customer ride him. If we feel like the horse has all the natural cow and athletic ability, and training on cattle work, we can then add trail and ranch pleasure to his skill set. Often, youth and amateurs can find a horse they’re comfortable with, and can work on trail and ranch riding at home—even if it’s just riding in a pasture. You can go over logs and work the gate, practice reining maneuvers, and maintain his training. If your horse already knows his job when it comes to cattle, you don’t have to work him on cattle every day to keep him sharp for those classes.

You’re looking for an athletic, quick-footed horse that’s smart on a cow. If he’s athletic, he’s probably going to be able to do the reining, too.

Gender preference.

Some non pro riders prefer geldings because they tend to be a bit more even keeled, a bit more laid-back in their personality, and they’re more consistent in their mood. But that doesn’t mean mares aren’t good. Many mares have very good attitudes, are willing to work, and willing to do any job.

When searching for a horse and deciding on the preferred gender, consider your short- and long-term goals. Short-term could be a horse you want to show at the local or regional level for the next two years. But if, at some point, you’d like to step back and breed that horse, choosing a mare you can breed to a good stallion might make more sense than a gelding. Think about what you want to do five or 10 years down the road.

Sale avenues.

In my opinion, the best way to find a good ranch versatility horse is through word-of-mouth. If you go to a sale, make sure you really know the trainer working to sell the horse—make sure it’s someone you trust. Try to get a chance to ride the horse before the sale starts. 

The biggest thing is you need to be able to trust the seller. If you exchange contact information, perhaps you can call them for help down the road, and maybe get tips to maintain the horse.

But I think a better option is to talk with your trainer—or have your trainer talk to other trainers—and find out if there are any good horses for sale in their programs. 

Try the horse out.

When you’re trying a potential horse, it’s important to make sure to go through all of the maneuvers you’ll be doing when you show the horse. Take him through a trail course. Go work a cow on him. Change leads. Run and stop. Because if all you do is trot and lope a couple of circles, and you feel uncomfortable with really testing the horse in front of everybody, and you wait till you buy him and get him home…then when you try to run, stop, and lead change, you might realize it’s not going to work. But you have already bought the horse. Not a good situation.

Again, this is why it’s helpful to find a trainer to go with you and help you look at a horse. They can encourage you to try all of the moves the horse will need need to perform in the show pen. If you go by yourself, make a checklist of what you need the horse to do in the show pen. Ask if you can run a reining pattern. Test out everything you’ll be doing when you show, and make sure the horse is a fit for you.

Conformation is a big part of versatility events. If you make a mistake in one of the riding classes, such as missing a transition or losing a cow, that conformation class can bring your score back up. As you’re shopping for a new horse, keep conformation in mind.

When I take customers to try horses, generally, I’ll have the horse’s trainer demonstrate on the horse for us first, then I’ll ride him, and then the customer will get on and try him out. That way we can see how the horse looks and what kind of eye appeal he’s going to have. He does need to look good doing his job, not just feel good. 

Watch for pinned ears, swishing of the tail, or champing on the bit while performing maneuvers. These could be indicators of a bad attitude, and these behaviors can negatively affect your score in the show pen.

When I ride the horse, I can feel how he’ll take training and how he responds to my cues. Then the customer can ride and we can make sure the horse is a good fit for them, and that they’re comfortable doing all of the moves with the horse.

Read More: Be the Dream Buyer

Even if you don’t bring a trainer with you to check out the horse, bring a close friend or family member who knows how you ride and can watch you. Consider taking video of you riding the horse so you can see what you look like on him.

Ask about when the last time the horse was ridden. Ask about his soundness history, and past veterinary care.

Pre-purchase exam.

If you’re looking for a first-time, kid-safe horse, you might not be as concerned about the vet check results. If you’re looking for a horse that you can go win a world championship on, you definitely want to have a pre-purchase exam, because there’ll be more money involved in the purchase, and the stakes are higher.

Vet checks have a variety of price points. They can range from $400 to $1,500, depending on how thorough the exam is going to be, and how many x-rays you want. I do think they’re important, especially if you’re looking at a horse that’s priced at $10,000 or more. It’s worth the money to make sure the horse is sound. It’s not about trusting the seller—no one can see what’s going on inside the joints. There may be a bone spur that is developing, or some arthritis. It’s better to know now, versus six months down the road, when the horse isn’t sound. Pre-purchase exams are important to me. They’re something I do on every horse.

Read More: Find Your Dream Trail Horse

Another thing to consider about pre-purchase exams: If you’re planning to re-sell your horse in the future, maybe after three or four years of competition, the next buyer will probably do a pre-purchase exam. If you didn’t do one, and you don’t know what’s wrong, it could be that much harder to sell your horse later. It’s worth it to have all the information you can before you make that purchase.

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