Find your next reining prospect with tips from horse-shopping experts Nathan Piper, Gabe Hutchins, and Shannon Quinlan.
Article and Photos by Abigail Boatwright
Find your next reining prospect and start your journey with a new horse using these tips from the experts. There’s seemingly endless potential for greatness yet untapped in any young horse embarking on a quest to what could be futurity fame, derby titles, or a career as a weekend warrior. To increase your chances of finding the right prospect to achieve your goals, we asked three trainers to weigh in on what they look for—and where.
Why Choose a Prospect?
If you want to take a horse to the NRHA Futurity, buying a finished horse at that level can be quite expensive, says NRHA professional Nathan Piper. Choosing to invest in a prospect is a riskier decision, but one with more potential on the upside.
“You don’t know how a prospect is going to turn out,” Piper said. “But you have the opportunity to use less funds to buy a prospect, and if you find a good one, there’s an opportunity to have a great horse to show or sell, and you can end up making money.”
It’s important to determine and plan your goals before going horse hunting, Piper says. Your desired outcome helps you decide your budget and the level of horse you’re looking for.
NRHA Professional Shannon Quinlan said one of the biggest benefits of buying a prospect is the possibility of success on a smaller budget.
“If you spend your money smart, you might come out ahead because you’re not paying the finished-horse price,” Quinlan said. “And you get to choose who starts and finishes the horse, and that’s big for some people.”
Developing a Wish List
Piper prefers a good track record on the dam’s side along with a great sire.
“I really look for one where the mother has produced [offspring] that have earned more than $100,000,” Piper said. “You can buy some reasonably priced horses in that range. Having a great bottom side helps our chances of success. If the mother has produced a lot and the father has produced a lot, the odds are, we’re going to have one that’s more successful.”
With conformation, Piper wants a horse that’s functionally built and attractive.
“I love a pretty-necked horse with a big, soft eye,” Piper said. “I want to watch the horse carry his neck level and low. That makes my job easier, when the horse naturally has good head carriage, because that’s often followed with carrying his shoulders and body well. I also want straight legs, and for me, I like a shorter, athletic build.”
Temperament-wise, Piper looks for a level-headed horse, even when considering a stallion.
“If I find one that’s attractive that I like, and if he’s acting studdy, he’s going to have to really convince me that he’s the one,” Piper said. “I try to stay away from a horse like that, or a horse that runs to the back of the stall and pins his ears. I want to see one that has good muscle development and a good haircoat—I want to make sure the horse is the whole package.”
When looking for a non pro horse, Piper wants one with quite a bit more riding on it, so the non pro can test-ride the prospect.
“I want the non pro to ride that horse and feel if it’s a fit,” Piper said. “I want the non pro to love the horse. Ultimately, they’ll make the choice to go with what feels right to them.”
NRHA Professional Gabe Hutchins looks at the horse’s mental capacity first and foremost.
“I want to know that the horse’s mind and brain are going to make him a horse that wants to be on my team,” Hutchins said. “With as good as the reining is today, and as good as we’re breeding our horses, it’s very rare to find a horse that doesn’t stop and turn. The breeding is getting better and better all the time, so when you try to set yourself apart at a competitive level, you need a horse with a good mind.”
Conformation and the way the horse moves are also top priorities for Hutchins, because he’s building a breeding program at Tamarack Ranch and wants it based on well-built horses.
“The way our shows have progressed in the last five years, the degree of difficulty is where it’s at,” Hutchins said. “In the reining, if a horse isn’t a good mover, it’s going to be hard to be competitive.”
Bloodlines are part of why modern reiners have good movement and conformation, Hutchins says. He sees good bloodlines as key to the quality of the next set of horses coming up in five to 10 years.
Quinlan says it’s important to determine your horse’s purpose before you start looking—are you buying a prospect to train and resell? A yearling to sell as a 2-year-old? Are you looking for a show horse, and will it be an open horse or a non pro horse?
“As I’m looking for an open rider or a non pro, I look for a set of bloodlines that fit my program and my style, based on bloodlines that have worked for my program in the past,” Quinlan said.
She wants a modern set of papers: a stallion that’s hot at the moment and has produced a lot of winners. She also looks at full siblings, their accomplishments, and the training programs that they worked well under. She’s interested in other crosses with that pair and the mare’s percentage of money-earning offspring. However, Quinlan says pedigree isn’t everything when looking at a prospect.
“You need to take the individual prospect that you’re looking at into account as well,” she said. “Not every horse matches his set of papers. You need to look at the individual horse, too. But for resale, papers are huge, especially if it’s a mare.”
Conformation is also important to Quinlan, particularly a low hock set, low tail set, short back, and low neckline.
“You want a horse that’s built to do his job and one whose body makes it easy,” Quinlan said. “A horse that’s built right is going to be healthier. If his legs aren’t straight, or he’s not built for the job, he’s more apt to get hurt.”
Quinlan also looks for a horse that’s a good mover—specifically, one that picks up his leads consistently.
“If he’s good-leaded, that’s helpful for a non pro horse,” Quinlan said. “A lot of people get in trouble with lead changes, so that’s important.”
All three sources agree: There are signposts that tell you when a horse isn’t right for you or for reining.
“I’ve made the mistake in the past of thinking that I could feed the prospect and he’s going to bulk up and look more mature,” Piper said about assuming a horse will gain size and muscle. “The horse will obviously grow and change, but don’t think you can make a horse big, strong, and fat if he’s on the lighter side.”
Hutchins emphasizes that the rider and the horse need to be able to work together. If the horse doesn’t want to be part of your team, you can’t force it. He’s also picky about clean radiographs.
“When I look at prospects, I’m not looking at a horse that’s just going to be a futurity horse,” Hutchins said. “I’m looking at a horse to be a futurity horse and a derby horse, and when he ages out of the derbies, he’s going to be an ancillary horse. So to me, those radiographs are important so the horse can hopefully go for the long haul.”
Looking at videos of prospects, Quinlan watches out for a horse that seems like he’s struggling through his paces, or has a hard time picking up his leads. She also rules out horses that lack conformation suitable for reining.
“If a horse isn’t built to do it, you’ll constantly fight it in your training,” Quinlan said.
When to Look
Purchase timing can be everything. Piper says if you want an open rider to show your horse, you may want to purchase earlier when you can get the most bang for your buck.
“With a smaller budget, I may look for a yearling or early 2-year-old prospect,” he said. “If you wait to buy a prospect at the end of his 2-year-old year, a L4 prospect will be very expensive, but you’re gambling less because you can sit on him and try him out. You’ll know how he spins and stops, and you’ll have a better idea of what you’re purchasing.”
Hutchins said if you’re looking for a yearling, you’ll be working with more unknown factors. But there are pluses to starting young.
“You’ll need to do all your homework with a yearling,” Hutchins said. “You don’t know as much as you would with a 2-year-old. But the nicer thing about buying a yearling is that if he’s unstarted, you’ll know everything he’s done from the time he’s started to the time he goes to the show pen.”
Hutchins starts looking for prospects—yearlings and 2-year-olds—in the fall leading up to the NRHA Futurity. He does this for several reasons. With a yearling, there’s the least amount of cost in the horse, because he’ll often start training in January. For a 2-year-old, the horse is farther along in his training at that point versus earlier in the year.
Where to Look
Piper likes to purchase prospects from familiar families of horses, where he knows the people selling the horse, has purchased from them before, or has ridden full siblings of that horse. If he’s unfamiliar with a horse or its pedigree, Piper reaches out to friends in the reining community for info on the dam or a sibling’s personality, buttons, and style to see if it’s a horse he might get along with. Most of the purchases Piper facilitates are private, within his network in North Texas.
Hutchins says if he goes to a horse sale, he does a lot of homework beforehand.
“Look through the sale catalog; look at the black type and the pedigrees. I’ll watch any videos available—over and over again,” Hutchins said. “I’ll make a long list, and a short list—and then a real short list.”
From that short list, he makes calls to the people who are fitting the horses to get a feel for each prospect’s ground manners and personality. Over the years, Hutchins has developed relationships with horse fitters, so he knows he can depend on their perspective on a horse’s mindset.
“I want to know how the horse is every day when he gets out of his stall, and when you put him in the wash rack, for example,” Hutchins said. “It might sound silly, but that’s the daily regimen of what the horse does. That daily regimen is going to turn into his training every day. And if he’s the kind of horse that pins his ears when you go in his stall and doesn’t want you to put a halter on him, then I really don’t want that one.”
Hutchins also looks at radiographs, which many sales offer, and discusses them with his veterinarian. If possible, Hutchins looks over prospects in person several times before the actual sale begins to see how the horse behaves in and out of the stall.
“I really try to get to know these horses as much as I can before I decide if I’m going to buy one in a sale,” Hutchins said.
Quinlan says the rise of social media makes finding good horses on those platforms even easier.
She also finds horse sales helpful, due to the ready access to more than one prospect in one location, at one time. She looks at the sale catalog for pedigree info, and then logs on to nrha.com to dig into records, other crosses on the mare, and additional info. She’ll peruse videos of prospects, paying attention to how each one moves, their strengths, and where they are in the training process. She also talks to people who may have ridden the dam, sire, or full siblings about their experiences.
“Going into a sale with a game plan and having professional help is huge,” Quinlan said. “Bring a trusted professional you’ve worked with to help you pick one out.”
All three experts said a prepurchase exam and radiographs are important before making a decision on a prospect. Piper relies on the guidance of his veterinarian to anticipate if a horse’s maintenance requirements will be extensive and how the horse could possibly re-sell.
“The vet check is important for resale,” Piper explained. “We want to go in knowing if there are issues that could prevent selling that horse in the future.”
Hutchins feels a vet check is a crucial step, but says a perfect evaluation is not the goal.
“A vet check is more or less for me to find out if the horse has issues that the veterinarian thinks will be a problem; if they’re things that can be managed or not,” Hutchins said.
Quinlan encourages owners to take horses to be checked out by a veterinarian to make sure there are no issues that need to be addressed before training.
Piper feels that, when making the final decision to purchase a chosen prospect, it’s valuable to have the whole team on the same page. He finds that a final consult with the clients buying the horse and his wife, Jean, help to ensure that no red flags are being overlooked and that everyone is excited about the purchase and on board.
“Buying a prospect is definitely a game of odds,” Piper said. “You’re trying to alleviate as many risks as you can by doing your homework and trying to hedge your bets for the best possible outcome.”
Hutchins said if you’re going to buy a prospect for a trainer to work with, it’s a good idea to ask the trainer’s opinion before purchasing the horse.
“A lot of times the communication between the trainer and owner aren’t clear enough,” Hutchins said. “You need to be clear about what you want to do with the horse, and make sure the horse fits the training program where that horse will be sent. There will always be a horse out there that will fit what you’re looking for. You just have to be patient.”