Staying Power

A Good Work Horse Never Goes Out of Style

Four-wheelers may cost less to keep, but nothing beats a seasoned ranch horse when working conditions get tough. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Becky Mills)

When Joseph W. Barthle used $500 of his Army pay to buy an orphaned Quarter Horse in 1946, it is a safe bet he didn't imagine that investment would turn into a way of life for future generations.

Today, Barthle's family is still breeding horses and working cattle on the same Florida ranch he started after the end of World War II. And they haven't forgotten that first Quarter Horse, either.

Randy Barthle, Joseph's son, can still tell you that weanling's name was Wrangler, and his American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) registration number was N0001272.

"Daddy didn't spend money recklessly. He was Hancock bred. Daddy roped calves off him and hauled him to rodeos. He had to wear a cavesson bridle, or he'd bite the cattle."

Horses are still a big part of the ranch. They are used for much of the work that takes place here, from moving pairs out of a pasture, to parting bulls, to penning cattle for vaccinations, dewormings, castrations or any other procedure.

Sure, a four-wheeler is cheaper to maintain, said Barthle. But there are some things a horse can do a four-wheeler can't.

"First, a horse can go faster than a cow," he said. "We don't want a cow to go faster than a walk, so we don't need a four-wheeler. Second, last week we moved cattle a mile through 3 feet of water. A four wheeler wouldn't help you much there."

HERITAGE BREEDERS

Randy and his brother, Larry, are part owners and managers of the family's Barthle Brothers Ranch, spread across 8,000 acres of Pasco County, Fla.

Since they breed and use American Quarter Horses to work their cross-breed cattle (a three-way rotational cross of Angus, Brahman and Hereford) they've earned the designation of AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeders. Valerie Smith, American Quarter Horse Association competition coordinator, explains this designation is only for ranchers who have bred horses at least 10 years and use them to work cattle. Out of 300 AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeders, Barthle Brothers Ranch is the only Florida operation in the program. They are also an AQHA Legacy Breeder, having bred these horses for more than 50 years.

The elder Barthle's official start date as an AQHA breeder was 1958. But because Quarter Horses had to be inspected before they could be registered, and the inspector only came by every two years, Barthle would sell the colts before the inspector could get there, said son Randy.

A GOOD START

Today the Barthles keep around 30 broodmares to supply the ranch and to sell as working ranch horses and/or rodeo mounts. One of their favorite foundation mares is Dandy Sandy Candy. Several of her fillies are now part of the Barthle's broodmare band and are AI-bred in partnership with a Texas breeder. Foals are raised and started on the ranch and then sent to Texas for training and competition.

While they have had as many as three studs, they just keep one now, Greystone Playboy, who has two American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame stallions in his pedigree—his sire, Freckles Playboy, and grandsire, Doc O'Lena.

Veterinarian Brian Dillard, son of Randy and Larry's late sister, Jan, lives on the ranch and does part of their AI and horse veterinary work, as well as all of their cattle veterinary work. Randy's son, Clint, also a veterinarian, does the remainder of their AI at his St. Cloud veterinary clinic and shares the ranch's equine vet duties with Dillard.

Whether it is with natural cover or AI, the Barthles usually don't breed every mare every year.

"The last few years the horse market has fallen off," Barthle said. "There were too many horses on the market, but now it is starting to come back. We've sold 10 each the last couple of years."

Once they are bred, mares and then their foals stay together in a bahiagrass and/or bermudagrass pasture. Each pair gets three pounds of 14% protein pellets three times a week. They also have access to free-choice, all-natural protein blocks and feed homegrown pangola grass hay as needed.

At weaning in October, when foals are around 6 months old, they are separated from their mares and put in a pen. There they continue to get feed and hay daily and start their training.

"We put a halter on them, pick up their feet and trim them if they need it," said Barthle. At around 10 months, the weaned foals are separated into two groups, fillies and colts. Colts are gelded by the time they are 2 years old.

When it comes time to introduce them to a saddle and rider, Barthle says they send them out to a colt starter for a couple of weeks, or Chris and Ben, Larry's sons, start them around two years of age. When the colts are through with training and breaking, Randy, Larry, Chris and Ben start teaching them to lope in circles, stop, turn around and back up.

"We'll let them look at the cattle, too. We'll start off riding them an hour, just let them drift along. We'll let them drift a group of cows from one pasture to another. One of the boys might ride a horse that's already broke."

When they are 3, their workload increases until they are working all day, if needed. That goes for fillies and geldings.

"Most of our broodmares get ridden quite a bit before they are bred," said Barthle. "We hardly ever breed one before they're 4. If you don't like them as a horse to ride, you probably won't like a colt from them, either."

SELLING EXPERIENCE

The Barthles' young horses are for sale at any time during the process, usually by private treaty. Prices for a working ranch horse vary.

Randy Barthle said they've priced weanlings as low as $1,500, with started horses beginning around $3,000. He explained cattle day workers can buy this type of younger, greener horse and finish it themselves.

Some finished horses sell in the $5,000 range. Barthle said these tend to go to less-experienced riders or those who favor a finished horse for recreation.

Depending on how many of their horses retire during the year, they also keep enough to maintain their own string of 10 to 12 working horses. While the horses all work for a living, Randy said somebody on the ranch has always competed in rodeos, team roping, barrels, calf roping, steer wrestling and breakaway roping.

"We used to have so many well-broke horses, 'cause we had so many children. Now we're having to do it again for the grandchildren."

SOUND MIND, SOUND BODY

A true horseman will tell you there are no perfect horses. However, Dennis Sigler, Texas A&M University Extension horse specialist, said there are traits that matter when choosing a good ranch horse.

FEET AND LEGS

Limbs must be correct with desirable straightness. Viewed from the front, knees and feet must be in line. Viewed from behind, there should be a straight line from the middle of the hip through the hocks and hooves. "I like to see plenty of bone in the cannons, hocks and knees, and I want to see larger feet. They are more likely to stay sound over a long, useful life," he said.

HEAD AND NECK

Sigler said you can usually evaluate temperament by the head and eyes. They need to have an intelligent look. Once they are working, you can evaluate it even more. They need a fairly long, thin neck and to be deep hearted with a long, sloping shoulder. Prominent withers are essential.

BACK AND LOINS

A ranch horse should be strong in the back and loins so they can carry a saddle and rider all day. They need a long, level croup and length through the hip so they'll have length of stride.

OVERALL SIZE

Sigler likes a ranch horse to be 15 to 15.1 hands with a lot of substance and bone.

When choosing a stud for one of his broodmares, Dade City, Fla., rancher Randy Barthle agreed with Sigler's lineup.

"They need to be substantial enough to be ranch horses but athletic enough to be performance horses," he said noting their stud, Greystone Playboy, meets the requirements. "He is heavy muscled, has a nice head and good feet and is not real big, 14.2 to 14.3 hands. Our broodmares are 1,300 pounds and 15 hands."

Barthle said the best part is Greystone Playboy's attitude. "You can get on him, and right quick you can tell he is paying attention. He has a good, calm attitude and he is eat up with cow."

For more information:

-- American Quarter Horse and the AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeder program: www.aqha.com

-- Barthle Brothers Ranch: www.barthlebrothersranch.com

(VM/CZ)