If you’ve been around horses long enough, then you’ve probably witnessed a scenario like this: a middle-aged woman buys a very expensive horse but shortly thereafter becomes afraid to ride the animal. Then the woman’s coach takes over the ride until the horse becomes more “rideable.” And sometimes the woman never feels safe in the saddle and that horse gets sold, and she goes horse shopping again and repeats the ordeal.
Confession: I’ve been that woman.
It certainly doesn’t happen to all women riders; many continue to be brave and are able to ride young or difficult horses and enjoy the experience for their entire lives. For me, one bad fall in my late thirties that required surgery pretty much robbed me of my confidence. Since then, I’ve bought and sold four warmblood dressage horses, eventually owning one that suits me the most.
But I still can’t hit the trails without taking my life into my hands. Likewise, snow sliding off an arena roof, a line of trees, water, a bag of shavings/wheelbarrow/standard/etc. that moved from one location to another overnight, or any object blowing in the wind and I’m hanging on for dear life as my horse does a 180 spin-and-bolt. In the ring he’s fabulous, but at this stage in my riding “career” I don’t have a goal to compete, and I get bored of circles and half-passes faster than my horse does.
That’s why shows like Yellowstone make me envious, and I fantasize about mounting up on a western saddle and galloping across fields, crossing rivers, and just walking along a trail in the summer and being able to relax on a quiet, trustworthy mount.
And I’m not alone. There’s a market for well-trained western horses that are geared towards women like me. South of the border, the Sankey family in Wyoming have devoted themselves to finding these horses and bringing them to one place for female buyers. Cowgirl Cadillacs is an auction that began in 2018 and takes place every February in Wickenburg, Arizona. “Horses from ladies, for ladies” is the motto on the homepage, and pretty much sums up what’s special about this niche sale. This year marks the introduction of a summer Cowgirl Cadillac sale, June 16-17 in Sheridan, Wyoming.
“The ideal Cowgirl Cadillac horse is safe, gentle, classy and beautiful,” says Ryan Sankey, who runs the auction with her parents, Ike and Roberta. Ike, a lifelong rodeo rider and cowboy, is the director of the sales and he screens all the horses, while Roberta does the bookkeeping and paperwork. Ryan works hard at the marketing and public relations, including social media, and when she isn’t working on auction stuff, she’s working for her brother’s rodeo company in Montana.
I stumbled across the Cowgirl Cadillac Instagram account and was intrigued. The idea seemed simple; women train horses for women, and yet it was the first auction of its kind I’d heard of. I asked Ryan why she thinks the idea struck a chord with buyers. “I think it’s twofold. One, there’s a degree of intimidation to auctions for a lot of people, not just women, and then combine that with if you’re a woman and you’re a little unsure about the auction process to start with, then to talk to some man you don’t know, I think there’s a lot of women who don’t like that idea at all,” she says.
“The other component of it is women tend to have a different training perspective than men do. And what women are looking for in horses also tends to be a bit different. And so, when you can put a woman to a woman as far as the horse goes, they seem to make more of a connection.”
To find those connections, the Sankey’s screen consignors every bit as hard as they do horses, and with the horse world being as small as it is, it doesn’t take much to get some information on somebody as far as their reputation goes. As for the horses, the screening process typically involves an initial phone conversation with the seller to determine their background, experience, and the specifics of the horse they want to consign, with an emphasis on how safe and “broke” the horse in question is. They also ensure there is a variety of animals offered in the sale. “We don’t want to have a sale that’s all draft-cross, or heavily loaded on reining horses; we want a truly diverse set of horses for people to choose from,” says Ryan.
Potential consignors are then asked to send in a video of the horse, and this is where sometimes what a seller considers suitable for Cowgirl Cadillacs proves different from reality. “The seller will say the horse is real broke and my grandkids ride it and on and on,” Ryan explains. “And then they’ll send the video, and they go to rope a calf and it takes a half-acre and two reins and the muscle of a full-grown man to get turned around – and yet this is what some people call a broke horse.”
As for the buyers, there is a definite mix of experience levels. There are women who haven’t really ridden before and are very green, but they want a “get on and go” horse, or a horse they can enjoy with their friends and family and have an easy trail ride. But by far, according to Ryan, the largest contingent of buyers are women just like me. “Women that used to ride competitive and adrenaline sorts of horse events,” she explains. “And now they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m kind of over the adrenaline and I just want to get on my horse and not have any drama.’”
Yup, that’s me!
But buyers must also be realistic about their riding limitations. As Ryan tells me, “There is a horse for every rider in the sale, but not every horse is for every rider.” To wit, she recalls a green rider who opted into the new Cowgirl Cadillacs concierge service, where buyers submit a short survey about what they were looking for including size, goals, budget etc., and she and her family replied with a list of suitable horses.
One green rider asked why a certain horse she liked wasn’t included on the list the Sankeys sent to her. Ryan had to explain the horse was too broke for her level of skill. “What happens with a green rider is they lean off to one side, and the super broke horse says, ‘Oh, well, I’m supposed to get away from that.’ because lean in a stirrup means get away from the pressure. And so the horse ducks out from underneath them and they don’t know what happened,” she explains. “Ultimately, a buyer needs to be responsible for the horse that they purchased and knowing what their level of competency is, and we’ll do our best to match that up. But we can only do so much. And sometimes the ego of the buyer gets in the way.”
To ensure that all their buyers get what they are looking for, the Sankeys devote time and energy into finding safe, well-trained, beautiful horses that come from screened sellers, so that women like me don’t have to do the legwork or guesswork. But make no mistake, all that training, quality, and good looks come at a price. The top seller this past February was a draft cross that sold for $125,000 USD, while the auction’s overall average price was $44,875 USD.
Buyers are encouraged to try horses ahead of time, either by flying to where the horses are living or showing up a couple of days ahead of the auction. “We also strongly encourage people to talk to the consignors and ask all of your questions,” Ryan says. “If you want x-rays, go get the x-rays. If you want your vet to do a pre-purchase exam on them, then get that done. We want everybody to feel comfortable with their purchase. But they need to do their homework to make that happen.”
Currently there are the two Cowgirl Cadillac auctions in Arizona and Wyoming, and the Sankey’s also put on The Best of the West sale in Aiken, South Carolina.
For me and a few of my fellow riding ladies, the fantasy of a well-trained and safe horse that we can trail ride to our hearts content just got one step closer to reality.