Chance worth taking: Sutton, contractors come together in crossbreeding effort

Farm Forum

Steve Sutton is a gambling man. But he’s playing no ordinary game of chance. Sutton’s using mares as chips and superstar studs as his ace in the hole.

There isn’t much to lose, the South Dakota stock contractor figures. A little time, effort and money could be up in smoke if his experiment fails. On the other hand, a windfall could be in the cards.

Patience is in order first. He and five other stock contractors won’t know if their wager will pay off for about five years.

“Nope, there are no guarantees,” Sutton said. “It’s a risk, and I’ve had people tell me I was crazy. But the bucking horse world needs a boost, and I’m hoping this deal can help.”

Earlier this year, Sutton, who co-owns Onida, S.D.-based Sutton Rodeos Inc., with his father, Jim, launched the Breeding to Buck Program of 2012.

“I watched the bull world change from 20 years ago by trading semen. I couldn’t talk anybody in the horse world into doing that,” Sutton said. “Now, we’re in the same situation with bucking horses – there’s a shortage of good ones.”

The population of bucking horses has been in a crisis mode before. After World War II ended and rodeo resurged in popularity, stock contractors scrambled to meet demand, as more wide-open spaces became fenced, and fewer wild horses roamed the land.

Stock contractors like Sutton’s grandfather James, a ProRodeo Hall of Famer, figured out how to breed horses to buck, and the process became an industry standard.

Today, demand for rank bucking horses is once again outpacing supply, according to stock contractors.

“It’s been the case for a while, and overall, there are more good bucking horses now than there were in the ’70s and ’80s, due to breeding, but we definitely need more,” said Ike Sankey, a Joliet, Mont., cowboy and the PRCA’s Stock Contractor of the Year in 1999.

Sutton’s concept is simple. He rallied five competing stock contractors, including Sankey, to agree to share bloodlines of their champion bucking horses. Each brought 10 mares and one high-caliber stud to Sutton’s ranch. All of the studs had been selected for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at some point.

From May 1 to July 1, Sutton babysat as the horses went to pasture. Sutton’s property is large enough that each band of mares – ranging from seven to 13 in number – had a separate pasture bordered by two fences, so the stallions couldn’t fight. Stock contractors paired at least one of their mares – some bred before, others maiden – with each stud. The cross-breeding arrangement was all horse trade – no fees changed hands, with the exception of a feed payment to Sutton of $3 per day, per horse.

Some 15 stock contractors showed interest, Sutton said. But some snubbed the program from the get-go; others folded at the last minute.

Kirsten Vold, who runs Harry Vold Rodeo Co., which her father started in 1954, thought about joining but decided not to – not because she thinks it’s a bad idea but because the setup wasn’t right for her.

Sutton asked Vold to pony up Painted Valley, the PRCA’s 2010 Saddle Bronc of the Year and the top saddle bronc at the 2009 NFR. Vold declined.

“I’m glad more rodeo companies are working together to try to improve the genetics of our sport, and I appreciate the opportunity,” she said. “But I currently get $2,500 per mare for a breeding with (Painted Valley’s) semen, and I want to keep the value of the product. My lack of involvement is not due to me not supporting the project but of protecting my commodity.”

While stock contractors sometimes arrange individual stud trades with a fellow contractor to diversify bloodlines, they are generally protective of their stock. That, Vold

said, has been a mistake.

“What everyone’s figuring out is we all succeed if we all share and cross bloodlines,” she said. “What Steve is doing is groundbreaking, the start of something new. It’s an easy way to breed a lot of different studs at one time.”

Breeding the same stud year after year results in good mixes with some mares but not others, Vold said, which can reduce the chances of ending up with a stellar bucking horse.

Sankey agrees it’s a challenge for breeders to introduce new genetics to their stock and said he was excited to give Sutton’s program a try, bringing two world-champion mares and others who have been good producers.

“The ideal situation would be to end up with 10 colts that were all world champions. That’s not a realistic goal, but who knows?” he said.

A proven bucking horse that’s good enough to be selected for the NFR can fetch around $40,000, Sutton said, adding that the rare top bucking broncs have sold for $100,000 to $200,000.

Sutton did not test the mares in this year’s program to see if they’re pregnant. Foaling should occur in mid-April. The offspring won’t be bucked until they’re about five years old, which is when they’ll demonstrate their prowess.

No one seems worried about creating bucking horses that are just too rank for cowboys to ride.

“One thing time has proven: the better the horses are, the better the contestants are,” Sankey said. “I think raising bucking horses is going to spread out to more than just a select group of stock contractors. I think you’ll find investors starting to get into breeding because a horse can perform at his peak from five years old until 14 or 15. A bull has maybe two to three years, and he’s peaked.”

Sutton wants to make the crossbreeding program an annual event and has dreams of expanding to a larger-scale operation. He also has visions of being able to announce success in five years.

“I hope we’ll celebrate at the NFR the great thing that was started here,” he said.