The morning sun settled gently on my skin – I turned my head slightly to one side, letting the gentle rays warm my cheek. An old Conway and Loretta song played on the radio, their voices harmonizing in classic country style. I rested my arm on my pick up truck’s windowsill and smiled, watching dust clouds roll across the valley behind me. I was headed to the Babbitt Ranches Colt sale and I knew it was going to be a good day.
Established in 1886, Babbitt Ranches is considered one of the largest and most historic ranches in Arizona. Its boundaries stretch across 700,000 acres of northern Arizona, kissing the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and brushing up against the vast expanse of the Navajo reservation. Between cows and calves, the ranch runs around 7,800 to 8,000 head of cattle.
For the Babbitt ranch, tradition, family and a man’s character are its defining traits. The ranch was built into an empire by the Babbitt family. Now an LLC, it is privately owned and operated through family share holds. Since the late 1960s the ranch has been managed by the Howell family. Today the Howells run four generations strong, living and working on the small empire.
With a ranch the size of the Babbitt operation, having an adequate number of horses for everyday use is essential.
It has been 10 years since Babbitt Ranches won the coveted Best Remuda Award from the AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association), recognizing the ranch’s ability to raise some of the best working horses in the U.S.
Babbitt horses are legendary and breeding and raising some of the best horses in the nation has given them a name for themselves. The horses are tried and true mounts that are trusted by the cowboys who ride them and the horse lovers who buy them. Over the years, the Babbitt’s Hashknife brand, through the colt sale, has made its way around the U.S. and has even crossed into international borders. Today, the sale is advertised on a single billboard positioned along Arizona Highway 89. It also marks where the sale takes place. Ask anyone for directions and they’ll tell you that if you pass that billboard you’ve gone too far. The turn off for the sale and the Spider Web Camp where it is held, lies 35 miles north of Flagstaff. The dusty dirt road has seen strangers from the far reaches of the globe making their way out for a chance at a Babbitt colt.
“We have people from Kentucky, Canada and Mexico that have actually bought horses, but we’ve got people who hear about it from the Grand Canyon and they stop in here from Europe,” says Victor Howell, who succeeded his father, Bill Howell as ranch manager.
Starting with its annual herd of foals, the colt sale is held every second weekend in July. It’s a tradition – one that has been around since the 1980s.
“It started with just a few people coming out. We would have a handful of fillies and if you wanted one you put your name in the hat and if you drew your name it would be a set price,” says Howell. “The sale has progressed to what it is today.”
Brian Kemp and his brother work an 800 acre soybean and corn operation in the Canadian farmland of Renfrew, Ontario. Together, they’ve put in a lot of hard work and lengthy hours to make farming their livelihood. In his down time, Kemp likes to flip through the pages of some of his favorite magazines, including Western Horseman.
“I read the article that was in the Western Horseman. That would have been two summers ago and I was intrigued by it,” says Kemp. “Then last year I came down to see (the sale) and now I’ve decided to buy.”
“My brother and I used to show draft horses, so horses aren’t new to me,” he says, smiling a little just thinking about it. ““I have a Clydesdale background.”
After that first sale Kemp liked what he saw and made it a point to make a second trip to the ranch, just to take another look at the horses and the operation. He still liked what he saw.
“I like the breeder, I like the country and I like the people. Vic Howell’s been very kind to me,” says Kemp. It was after Kemp and his brother decided to wind down their farming operation that Kemp knew he wanted to buy a Babbitt colt. For him the colts have a legacy and are guaranteed to be the best.
Part of that legacy is the Hashknife brand used by the Babbitts and the stake they have in the Driftwood breeding line. The famous stud, Driftwood, has history dating back to the 1920s and Babbitt Ranches uses the Hashknife brand to market that breeding line.
“Most of their horses go back to Driftwood in three or four places of some sort, but that’s the family of horses – their cornerstone family of horses,” says Scott Westlake a ranch hand at the Babbitts and one of Howell’s son-in-laws.
“Pretty much a ranch this size has to raise horses,” Westlake explains. “Like me, it takes seven horses to keep mounted, and there are 10 (cowboys) like me here, so right there, is 70 head of saddle horses just to keep your cowboys mounted. At a point, you have to raise horses. They just took it a step further and added extra mares and then marketed them. Vic usually keeps between seven and 10 stud colts a year that will then be cut – turned into geldings and then become horses that we ride.”
The foals born on the ranch are there to stay for the first year of their lives. With the coming of the sale, the mares and their offspring are brought in for the auction. Each year Babbitt’s will breed around five studs to 60 mares. By the time the sale rolled around this year, 45 of those mares had given birth.
Before the sale, Howell inspected the foals and chose the ones that will be trained to work the ranch. The others were designated to be sold at the sale and were transported to the Spider Web Camp.
The day of the sale, people arrive early to look at the colts, but by 11 o’clock the crowds milling around the horse corrals had all started to make their way to the sale arena…a short bleacher parked in front of the barn, with a roped off area designated as the sale pen.
Thirty-one mares and their foals were brought in as pairs. Cowboys shooed them around the pen and the seasoned auctioneer watched the crowd. The ring men are a few of the Babbitt hands playing dual roles for the day.
As the sale works its way into a steady rhythm, spectators watch intently, eyeing each colt, waiting and then jumping up to outbid one another. I watch as Kemp’s sale flyer goes up once, twice and then again, indicating he’s in for a bid.
After the sale, a deposit is collected – $250 on sales up to $2,000 and $500 on sales over $5,000. It’s a check or cash only policy. The babies will be kept at the ranch until March, living in an area near the Grand Canyon. Once they are weaned and halter broke they will be taken back to the Spider Web Camp where their new owners will finish paying them off and will take them to their new homes.
“I’m afraid to look…$10,000 maybe 12,” he says sheepishly when I ask how much he thought he spent. “I don’t know if it’s an investment. It’s a hobby and I did think about it all year, (since) I was up in December for a visit. I decided to do it.”
The foals go to a vast assortment of homes, while the Driftwood line is more of a competitive bloodline and are considered to have the qualities of a roper style horse, there is no guarantee they will end up as ranch or competitive rodeo horses.
“There (are) at least 200 people here,” Westlake says. “A pretty big chunk of the horses will go to the Navajo people. A lot of Navajo ropers will buy the horses and then you will get some people from as far away as Canada. Two guys from Tennessee bought horses here last year. We’ve sent horses to Georgia, Wisconsin, Florida, Mexico …that’s some of the ones I can remember.”
With a lot of winter still left in Ontario in March, Kemp makes arrangements with the ranch to hang onto the yearlings for another month. He plans to pick them up in April. He’ll spend part of the winter getting their paperwork secured for international transportation to ensure their passage across the border goes smoothly.
I ask Kemp what he plans to do with the colts once he gets them home. He gets a thoughtful look in his eye saying, “I bought three mares and a stallion, all foals, so I have a Babbitt breeding unit now to take home and I’ll do what they do here, that’s the logic. This is going to be my new hobby…and I’m pretty happy about it.”
I’m happy for him too, confident the colts have gone to a good home. Although as I hop into my pick up and drive back down the dusty, red dirt road I can’t help but think about next year’s sale and how much money I can save between now and the following March.