The Breeding Game: To Show or to Sell?

Learn how top breeders decide which foals go toward the show pen or are offered for sale.

By Megan Arszman

Should you breed to keep or to sell? Sources from three NRHA Corporate Partner ranches share their perspectives on this important decision. (Photo by Cam Essick)

The business of breeding usually starts with two essential questions: 

  1. Who’s the best stallion to cross with my mare?
  2. Should I plan to sell this baby or keep him for myself?

If you’re a breeder, each year you play matchmaker to choose the best stallion to complement your mare’s bloodlines and abilities. The process can be stressful, as you evaluate the plusses and minuses of each prospect’s conformation, lineage, and talent. Then, you wait 11 months to see the spindly legged colt that represents the product of your selected cross. 

However, an answer to the second question—to keep or sell the foal—can come at any time from before breeding to the weanling or yearling phase or even later. 

“I try to find the best crosses for my mares and breed good horses,” said Brenda Joyce of Story Book Stables regarding her prerogative as a breeder.

NRHA Million Dollar Rider and Owner Tom McCutcheon concurred: “The goal is always to raise a winner and raise the best horse we can.” 

Making a Decision

The breeding business is a balancing act when it comes to your time, finances, and limitations. Whether you’re breeding one broodmare or 40, you must decide if the foals you’re planning for will show under your name or if you’ll offer them for purchase. 

Your decision to keep a foal may be influenced by a number of factors, whether it’s a special tie to the sire or dam, an unfulfilled need in the barn, or an open slot in the roster for upcoming show seasons. 

“With every crop, there will be a couple that, to me, are special and I really want to keep, whether it’s for a personal reason, because the horse seems especially talented, or I’m attached to the dam or the sire,” Joyce explained. 

At Tamarack Ranch in Joseph, Oregon, the decision whether to keep or sell starts while planning the breeding season. NRHA Professional Gabe Hutchins explained that he plans breedings to fulfill certain needs for the farm, which include both foals to keep and foals to sell. 

“When I sit down to plan the breeding season, I look at my mares and decide to breed some mares to what I think will sell, some mares that I feel would cross well for me to ride the progeny, and then some mares we’ll experiment with to broaden the gene pool,” he shared. 

Timing the sale of young horses is critical and can depend on the marketability of a horse’s bloodlines. (Photo by Cam Essick)

Like all breeders, Hutchins studies his broodmares’ lineages and researches to see what will cross best with those genes. He looks at how a stallion can complement his broodmare’s bloodlines, as well as the mare’s conformation and reining abilities. 

NRHA Professional Franco Bertolani, head trainer at Cardinal Reining Horses in Aubrey, Texas, believes breeding is a commercial business, no matter if you’re breeding to sell or to show yourself. 

“I think a good horse is always commercial, but I never think about just breeding to sell,” he said. 

The aim of Bertolani’s breeding program is to produce horses that best fit his training program. 

“When I look for horses to cross on our stallions and mares, I try to imagine what horse I’d like to ride,” he explained. “Then, I try to point that outcome toward our training and showing program to make that horse as good as I can.” 

Most of the time, Bertolani feels that a colt fits his program better than a filly, so he’s more likely to consider keeping a colt for Cardinal’s show string. However, Bertolani also looks at the breeding program’s needs and the future of the broodmare band when he’s culling the foal crop for sales. He explained that he’ll look especially at the filly’s dam when it comes to making the decision to sell. 

“If we still have the mother, and she’s not too old and can still provide embryos, I’ll probably sell the foal if it’s a filly,” he said. “But, if the filly’s dam has aged, I might keep the filly so we can continue the mother’s bloodline and legacy.”

In-Style Breeding 

Choosing stallions that carry recognizable names or that are an “in style” color might sway buyers. 

“One thing that I have learned is that when you breed, you know that you have to sell whatever your percentage is every year, so you may breed to some stallions that are more popular,” Joyce said. “I do keep that in mind, and I do see that we breed a few mares to the hot and current stallions.”

However, Joyce cautioned that those hot stallions aren’t just hot because of their names, but because their records are proven in the show pen, which translates to dollars in the sale arena. 

“The goal is always to raise a winner and raise the best horse we can,” said NRHA Professional and successful breeder Tom McCutcheon. Then, no matter if you keep or sell the horse, you have a product you can be proud of. (Photo by McKinnon Larcombe)

You might feel an urge to breed to a younger stallion, perhaps because he’s fresh out of the show pen after winning a major title, or because his stud fee might be a little less than more mature sires. McCutcheon warned that the marketability for a younger stallion’s progeny isn’t as easy as the offspring of an older, more proven stallion. 

“You have to keep that in mind,” he explained. “So, if you breed several mares, you have to balance your excitement and breed just one or two to that younger stallion at first because it could be more difficult to sell.” 

Along with the recognizable name, there’s often a desire to have a little more flash in the show pen, and for that you need some color. 

“In this day and age, color sells,” Hutchins said. “We have a few mares that produce color, so we try to breed those mares.”

But, as with most things in the equine industry, nothing is a sure bet. Hutchins explained that there have been times he’s bred a mare known to produce color and the foal comes out a plain sorrel. 

“That’s when you might need to change your plans, because that foal is probably not going to sell,” he continued. 

Timing the Sale

It’s impossible to tell exactly what you have in the foaling stall in terms of ability and special skill, so it’s hard to know when to sell. Most breeders look to the bigger sales, such as the Markel/NRHA Futurity Sales. Some sales focus on certain ages, from yearlings to 2-year-olds, while others accept horses of all ages. 

When choosing yearlings for sales, McCutcheon looks at what’s trending in terms of color and chrome, knowing they’ve done their best to breed the best horses. 

“That generally sells better,” he said. “What I know will sell is what we put in the sales, and I’m not afraid to keep and ride a plain sorrel one.”

Tamarack Ranch’s goal is to wait to sell their foals until they’re yearlings or 2-year-olds, but Hutchins said some buyers won’t want to wait. 

“Lately, I’ve been selling weanlings, partly because that breeding or that foal is what people are looking for,” he said. “Some trainers are starting to look at weanlings because they’ve found if they wait until the horse turns 1, he’s already sold.”

Story Book Stables waits to look at their 2-year-olds and chooses a handful to keep on the farm. 

“It’s easier to decide with 2-year-olds because they’re starting your training program,” Joyce explained. “It’s harder with yearlings.”

Bertolani centers his development of a sale strategy around the benefit of the breeding program at Cardinal Reining Horses. 

“If I have a filly out of a young mare and I want to make that mare a producer, then I probably won’t sell the filly as a yearling,” he said. “I’ll start riding her first; then, if she’s good, I’ll keep going with her in my program.”

He explained that keeping that filly in training will help him sell the younger offspring from her dam by giving him an example to show potential buyers. 

“I can tell buyers that while that mare isn’t a known producer yet, I have a 2-year-old in training that’s doing pretty good, and I can show them video,” he explained. 

If Bertolani feels a horse has potential, he’ll hold that horse from the yearling sale ring and put more hours in the saddle in hopes of adding value. 

“I can add more value with three to six months of training because she’s going to show me some maneuvers that can make her more expensive than if I had sold her as a yearling,” he revealed. 

NRHA Professional Franco Bertolani looks for horses like Dun It For Whizkey, who stands at Cardinal Ranch, that can  succeed in the show pen and add value to his breeding program, too. (Photo by Kaycie Timm)

Breeding for Opportunity

The potential for any reining-bred foal can be endless, but so are the challenges. 

Taking time to research bloodlines and study conformation and temperament can help you succeed in the sale pen or the show arena. It’s not an easy undertaking, but it’s worth the extra effort to further your passion.

“It can be great, or it can blow up in your face,” Hutchins concluded with a laugh.