Bull Market: The Rise of Rope Horse Prices

As the big jackpots' payouts number in the millions each year, the demand for horses ropers can win on continues to climb. So do their prices.
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As the big jackpots' payouts number in the millions each year, the demand for horses ropers can win on continues to climb. So do their prices.

Patrick Smith paid $6,000 for Jaws and won his first world title on him in 2005. Trevor Brazile paid $4,000 for his 2012 PRCA/AQHA Head Horse of the Year, Sic ’Em. Charly Crawford paid $8,500 for Armadillo in 2001, Jade Corkill’s great Ice Cube cost him $5,000 and Kollin VonAhn’s grey mare Hali only cost $5,000.

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Maybe it’s stories like those that keep ropers looking for that next diamond in the rough. After all, Scamper was a feedlot horse, Seabiscuit was an outlaw and (at first) nobody wanted Jackyl. But today, with jackpot ropings paying $100,000 or more for every level of roper, many are questioning whether trying to compete on a $3,500 horse is worth it.

So, what should your average roper look to spend for a horse he or she can go win on next weekend? The best professionals, some of the country’s top sale barn managers and everyday ropers all weigh in. While the sport of team roping has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade, the supply of quality horses has stagnated, leading to an increase in horse prices across the board.

The Payouts
The top cowboys in the PRCA have roped for big payouts like the Bob Feist Invitational, the Wildfire Open to the World and the George Strait Team Roping Classic for years. (Though admittedly, they spend tens of thousands just getting down the road and some don’t break even.) Amateur ropers, with day jobs in agriculture, oil, education and so on, have only been able to rope for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last 10 years. And with weekly jackpots paying tens of thousands of dollars across the country, the stakes are higher than ever for the average roper.

“Every morning in Wickenburg, Ariz., throughout the winter, we put on a team roping that gets around 120 teams, is done by 11 a.m. and pays $1,500 to $2,000 to win,” said Ty Yost, of the National Team Roping Tour. “These horses are cheap investments. We will have a #8 roping that will pay $100,000 this year. People are spending $150,000 on an average living quarters trailer. A decent horse anymore is worth $25,000. And a $20,000 horse is the norm. People aren’t forcing themselves to pay it yet. But the wealthy, successful guys are spending the money.”

The World Series of Team Roping Finale paid out some $10.1 million in 2014, and the USTRC’s Cinch National Finals of Team Roping paid out another $5.1 million, while the Reno Rodeo Invitational alone paid out $903,000 to 11-point teams. Never before has there been so much money on the line for ropers to win at every level. 


The Shortage

So with those “wealthy, successful guys” looking for good horses to help them compete for the big payouts, they’re willing to pay more and are looking harder than ever. When the economy and the price of horses crashed in 2008, many ranches across the West sold off some of their bands of broodmares and studs, said Jann Parker of Billings (Mont.) Livestock, who has been in the horse sale business for 17 years. That horse shortage is beginning to catch up with the industry today, as the horses that would have been bred in those tough years should be reaching their prime right about now, Parker said.

“People don’t use horses like they used to on the ranch—so the ones who are broke to ride then trained to be a rope horse, the demand for them is high,” added Mike Samples of Farmers and Ranchers Livestock Sale in Salina, Kans., a company that’s been in business since 1966. “People used to think you can give $2,500 to $5000 for a good ranch gelding, but now it’s $10,000 to $15,000 for a good ranch horse. And good ranch horses make good rope horses.”

It’s not just that there are fewer horses—the horses that make it need to be better than ever, too. 

“Our sport has grown so much, the money has gotten so good,” added Steve Friskup, Horse Sale Manager at Clovis Livestock. “Everybody understands you’ve got to have a good horse. But there aren’t near as many people building horses. I tend to think it takes maybe longer to get one ready behind the World Series barrier, too. Some may disagree, but to get them ready, it takes more scoring, more horsemanship. The way this sport is growing, and the availability of horses, there just aren’t enough.”

The New Middle
The great horses have always cost a lot—not much has changed there. But the mid-level horses, those that might not make the cut at Salinas or Cheyenne but that excel behind a World Series barrier, those are the ones whose prices are skyrocketing.

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“The big payouts on these ropings have really changed the supply/demand curve” said WSTR founder Denny Gentry. “You will have trouble getting someone to put a price on a great horse, and mid-range horses are bringing the price that we were paying for the good ones 10 years ago. It use to be big news when someone got $40,000 or $50,000 for a horse, and seems like you hear that all the time now. Hopefully, the cowboys will take advantage of this situation and start turning out more rope horses."

Clovis Livestock’s Friskup sees $10,000 as the new bottom of the market on head and heel horses, even at the sales where horses used to bring less. 

“When you do find them, that caliber should bring $10,000 to $15,000,” Friskup said. “At some of the specialty sales, you’ll see them $25,000 to $30,000 and as high as $50,000.”

Lari Dee Guy, rope horse trainer and multiple-time Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world champion, buys and sells horses for ropers from the junior rodeo ranks to NFR-caliber cowboys and everything in between. She breaks down the market like this: For under $10,000, buyers should expect a green horse with some issues or an older horse with some health/soundness problems. For $10,000 to $15,000, you can expect a green horse that needs some tuning or an older horse that can last a few more years. From $15,000 to $20,000, that’s your top end breakaway horses and some pretty good heel horses. Pretty good head horses fall in the $20,000 to $25,000 range. To get a great head horse, you’ve got to be ready to spend $25,000 to $100,000, depending on what other factors (looks, breeding, experience) you’re looking for.

“We’ve got the chance to rope for $100,000 every year in Las Vegas,” Guy said. “And the ropings every weekend are paying $5,000 to $25,000. Then there’s the Reno Rodeo Invitational, the US Finals, the Wildfire. We have a real chance at real money, and a good horse is one of the first investments ropers should make if they want to compete.”

Mare Magic
When those ranchers cut back on breeding in 2008, an unexpected consequence kicked in—an overstock of mares and a shortage of geldings, according to Billings Livestock’s Parker.

“We’re already seeing more mares, and you’re going to continue to see more mares,” Parker said. “So many people sold off their studs and mares in 2008, 2009 and 2010. That horse shortage is catching up with us today. There are more mares out there, and, in general, they’re bringing less, but they’ve certainly stepped it up.”

Eight-time NFR qualifier Charly Crawford won RodeoHouston on the first mare he’s had in his career just this winter.

“I didn’t like mares because I didn’t like what they did to my geldings hauling,” Crawford said. “It’s like having a good-looking girl with five guys in the rig—everyone is fighting, establishing their territory. Another thing, you’re dealing with a horse with hormones that a gelding doesn’t have. The heats, the emotions that are just part of the way they’re built. I turned my mare out this spring because I knew the spring cycle was going to come. I had a buddy ride her and get her more broke. Nature gets in the way with how they are in the box. But a good horse is a good horse, and I’ve gotten off the no mare rule. If it’s a good mare, it’s a good horse.”

Brandon Beers’ Jewel has made a name for herself as one of the most famous mares to emerge in the last few years, becoming the first mare to win the AQHA/PRCA Head Horse of the Year in 2013, the same year she won the Head Horse of the BFI title.
“I’m not a big fan of mares,” Beers admitted. “But I’m a Jewel fan because of what she is. But mares do affect the geldings. Tevo [Beers’ top gelding] makes horrible stud noises with her. She must talk dirty to them because she makes them all crazy. It wasn’t her, she never changed. It was my geldings.”

Blood Money
Team ropers used to be notorious for not caring about bloodlines—but like everything else, that’s beginning to change. Team ropers like Randon Adams are hooked on cutting- and reining-bred horses, and those too come with a heavy price tag.

“It has mattered in the past, but not like it does now. I’ve got a dun stud and a yellow head horse, and we own the dad to them,” Adams said. “They’ve been the easiest horses I’ve ever trained in my life. We’ve trained a pile of them, and we’re jackpotting on them at 4 years old.”

Randon and Jay Adams won Salinas on two half-brothers they raised out of Adams’ Hollywood Dun It stud, and Adams points to them as shining examples of what good breeding can do. 

“You can buy one for $1,500 and you can buy one for $15,000 to $20,000,” Adams said. “I was talking to (cutting horse breeder) Beau Galyean who is getting $25,000 for his horses that have never had a rope swung on them as a 4-year-old when he sells them to ropers.”

Up, Up and Away
Leo Camarillo remembers a time in the 1960s when Dean Oliver’s purchase of Vernon, a calf horse from Montana, for $5,000, drew enough attention that the Roper’s Sports News published an article about it.

“Prices have dang sure changed,” Camarillo said. “It wasn’t too long after that that $2,500 to $3,500 was considered a pretty good horse. Fast forward to when I was rodeoing with Tom Ferguson. He paid around $15,000 for one and that was quite a bit in the mid 1970s. It wasn’t too long before the price really started to go up. You look back on great ropers and why they’re there, 90 percent of the time it’s the horse. Guys like Joe Beaver, Fred Whitfield, Cody Ohl and Trevor Brazile, when they have a great one, they set records. You can’t look at an event that Trevor Brazile hasn’t had the best horse in. I was at his place, and he had the steer roping horse of the year, calf roping horse of the year and head horse of the year all standing in his barn at one time. No wonder this guy is the world champion.”

In 2003, Brazile changed to the head side, riding the $100,000 and two-time head horse of the year, Calhoon. 

“One of the first ones I remember anyone buying for a lot of money was Trevor’s yellow horse.” remembered Clay O’Brien Cooper. “It turned all of our heads.”

“I would do the Calhoon deal again,” Brazile said. “I was a heeler, and Al (Bach) wanted me to head for him. I got to know what a good horse felt like so I could recognize that. It helped me know what I want from a horse from then on, and I was able to go do my job.”
With the demand continuing to rise, team ropers and horsemen alike are predicting that prices will just continue to rise.

“We’re just on the edge of it. I think the rope horse market is just going to get stronger,” said Jim Brinkman of Pitzer Ranch, which holds a spring and fall sale. “The reiners and the cutters and the barrel racers are years ahead of us on this. As soon as there’s a big-money event, the horses will start bringing that kind of money. As long as these ropings stay good, I think the market will just get better. Maybe Denny Gentry did more for the horse market than he did for the roping world.”

For the PRCA’s cowboys, the climbing prices seem inevitable.

“We’ll look back in 10 years and $30,000 is going to sound cheap,” said Patrick Smith. “That’s already starting to sound cheap, honestly. The cost of living, the cost of every material thing is causing it. With the World Series, the American, the NFR, the ERA, there are so many more opportunities for big money. The more people have a chance to rope for more money, the higher the prices of these horses will be.”

“The days of paying $10,000 for a horse that scores good, runs like Seabiscuit and finishes good are over,” added Adams. “They’re too valuable. Some guys expect to pay $50,000 to $100,000 for that kind of horse, depending on what they’re looking for.”

Explaining the Outliers

There may always be stories of great horses bought at auction for a few thousand dollars. But more frequently, there will be stories of Brazile’s $100,000 horse helping him win world title after world title. 

2009 World Champion Kollin VonAhn breaks it down best: “Yes, I paid $5,000 for Hali. I rode her all winter and I did a lot of work on her. But it’s the law of averages. We all buy a lot of horses. For every one of those $5,000 horses that makes it, there are 10 $20,000 or $30,000 horses that didn’t cut it.”

Dustin Bird added: “I paid $20,000 for Dolly, and that was what I consider the best horse deal I’ve ever made. But right now, I’m sitting on one I paid $50,000 for and I’m just riding him in the ProAm.”

As for Jaws, the horse Smith paid $6,000 for?

“I could write a list of horses I’ve paid $6,000 for,” he said. “And Jaws is at the top of it. But the other 75 you won’t know their names. It’s a whole lot easier to spend $15,000 or $20,000 and know your money is safe on a good one. Everyone loves the success story of Jaws, but nobody knows the behind-the-scenes of the horses I’ve fought with, that have flipped over on me, those are the ones that make him stand out. And $6,000 was a long time ago. I’m not as young as I used to be. Prices have changed since then. I don’t think you could buy him, as young and green as he was, for $6,000.”

Three-time and reigning world champion Clay Tryan was asked, “What’s the best steal you’ve ever gotten on a horse? Have you ever gotten one so cheap they ended up being a great one?”

In Tryan’s usual no-nonsense approach, he responded: “I have not. You get what you pay for.”