Going for Broke: Best of the West

Western Auction is Talk of the Town

Story by Pam Gleason

When the horses from the Best of the West auction arrived in Aiken during the last week of September, they were hard to miss. Horses entered in the sale were stabled at the Aiken Training Track downtown from Tuesday on, in preparation for the Saturday, October 2 event. While some of them remained at or near the track where the sale would be held, others made appearances on the dirt roads of the historic district, on Winthrop Polo Field, and in the iconic Hitchcock Woods. On Thursday evening at cocktail hour, Ike Sankey, who ran the sale, led a trio of horsemen through the historic district and down to the Willcox. Dressed in their cowboy hats and boots, they rode their horses up the marble steps of the inn and halted inside the lobby, to the delight of the regular Thursday crowd.

“Welcome to the Best of the West!”

“Welcome to the Best of the West!” declared Ike, as the bartender brought him his beer. Then the three riders turned their horses around on the carpet, and rode back down the steps and out into the street, ducking their heads as they passed through the entryway. They certainly knew how to make an impression.

Ike Sankey runs his family business, Horse Resource Sales, from his home base in Montana. He puts on three sales per year: one in Arizona, one in Wyoming, and now, one in Aiken. Specializing in safe, broke, ranch horses, these sales include only approved horses from high quality professional consignors. In addition to welcoming onsite buyers, the auction also entertained bids from customers over the phone and online. Because the entire auction was live-streamed on YouTube, preregistered and qualified buyers from all over the country could follow along and bid if they saw a horse they liked.

The sales catalogue was posted online, and prospective buyers were encouraged to contact consignors and make arrangements to try out the horses before the sale. There were also many opportunities to meet the horses and see what they could do, including a “soft preview” on Friday afternoon, followed by a “buyer’s social” at the Training Track that evening. The next morning, the official auction preview started at 10:00 a.m. on the Aiken Training Track. 

Here, the consignors demonstrated their horses’ skills – in some cases, spins like a reining horse, quick stops and roll backs, quiet jogs and lopes. The main type of demonstration, however, was intended to show how quiet and broke the horses were. Some cowboys cantered around shooting guns off their horses’ backs, swinging ropes or waving flags. Quite a few stood up on them, sometimes while jogging or loping. Little kids rode them, often double or triple. Dogs rode them. They carried giant stuffed animals. They stood quietly, and then sometimes performed without a bridle or a saddle. Seeing children and adults climbing over and under the horses and around and between their legs, even their back legs, got to be quite commonplace, as did seeing people jumping up on them from behind and then sliding back off their rumps – in short, violating every principle of horse safety you might find in an English riding manual. But, for the most part, the horses did not bat an eye, and no one seems to have gotten hurt. (It also might be noted that there was not a safety helmet in sight anywhere, even on the youngest children riding the tallest horses.)

In addition to all this, there were horses that had been trained to sit down on cushions, horses that seem to enjoy being covered with flapping tarps, horses that bounced a giant rubber ball, and at least one that could pick up your coat from the ground and hand it to you so you wouldn’t have to dismount if you dropped it. No mounting block? No problem. Many horses were trained to lie down on command and quite a few even had the strength to allow riders to step onto their backs while they were down, and then stand up. The majority of the horses were Quarter Horses with good pedigrees, but there were also imported Gypsy Vanners, draft crosses, Paints, and a pair of young polo ponies from Greymar ranch, a polo breeding and training outfit in Franklin, Tennessee. 

Traditional Aiken horse culture was built on the English sports. Western sports are on the upswing locally, but many Aikenites had never been exposed to quality stock from out West before this sale. Although the Sankeys’ auctions have a reputation for bringing top dollar, many prospective buyers and casual gawkers came away from the sale with a case of sticker shock. They had been advised that the horses would sell for very significant sums, but when they heard this, a lot of people just shook their heads and said, maybe somewhere, but not in Aiken.

The first horse up, a 2014 buckskin Quarter Horse gelding named FK Frost Flyin Heart (aka Carson) dispelled any such notions in a hurry. The initial bid came in at $12,000, and then the numbers accelerated rapidly. As Carson strutted his stuff in the auction ring near Blue Peter’s Tree in the infield of the Training Track, a giant television screen showed his sales videos and the auctioneer kept up a steady banter. Carson was undoubtedly a good-looking, calm, well-trained horse, who could perform dizzying spins with or without a bridle. He was consigned to the sale by Buckeye Acres Farm, a horse training and sales business owned by the Yoder family in Ohio, that brought four horses to the sale. When the bidding finally stopped, Carson had changed hands for $75,000. That got everyone’s attention.

The next horse out, a 10-year-old pinto gelding name Virgil, had a somewhat more earthbound price tag, going for $19,000. But then came Lot 3. This was Big N Bright (Amarillo) a beautiful palomino quarter horse, that could do just about anything, and do it with a style and composure that belied his age – he was just 5. Amarillo, a 15-hand gelding who came to the sale from Mozaun and Sarah McKibben’s Whitesboro Texas ranch, sold for $125,000. Clearly, this sale was going to be a success.

In fact, when it was over 48 out of 48 horses changed hands. The average sale price was $42,531; the top 10 average was $93,531 and the top five average was $116,000. The high seller fetched the price of a small farm in Aiken County: $190,000. This was for Lot 12, a 4-year-old black Friesian cross gelding that had been started in dressage, would jump a crossrail, could do various tricks and was said to be a superior trail horse with a temperament like no other. Named Buckeye’s Lakota, he was also a horse consigned by the Yoder family, and their young daughter showed how willingly he could carry her, whether she sat in the saddle or stood up on his back, barefoot on a vaulting pad, as he trotted about. 

Buckeye’s Lakota, a Friesian cross gelding, fetched $190,000. Photo by Barry Bornstein.

While many of the horses were sold remotely on the phone or the Internet, about half went to buyers in the South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia region, with over a quarter sold to people in Aiken itself. For instance, Bart and Abby Fry, who live in Virginia Beach, Virginia, but compete regularly at Aiken Polo Club, bought two horses: Lot 13 (Black Spiced Rum: “Captain”) and Lot 14 (Starspangledsportster: “Ozzy.”)

“I had been looking for a trail horse for Bart,” Abby explained, “And a few months ago a ranch horse came up for sale in my area. I saw it on Facebook and it looked so cool – they were shooting off it and you could do anything with it. I thought it would be really fun to try to find a horse like that.”

That horse sold within 24 hours, so when Abby heard that the Best of the West sale would be in Aiken, she was immediately intrigued. She called Ike Sankey and talked to him about the sale, and then arranged to start trying horses as soon as they came to town on Tuesday. “I tried a lot of horses,” she said. “There were different types: one horse we bought, Ozzy, is really sporty and quick. Some were more trail types. They were all really well behaved. The common denominator was that they all had really good brains.”

Abby and Bart Fry plan to use their new horses for general riding. However, as a polo player, Abby said she is thrilled with the handle and quickness of the new acquisitions, and hopes to have them playing polo too. “Captain played some polo out in Wyoming, so I know we can use him. Ozzy has done reining and roping. He hasn’t played polo before, but I stick and balled him when I tried him and he was just fantastic, so hopefully we can play him as well.” It might be noted that Captain has another claim to fame: he was the horse that Ike rode into The Willcox that Thursday evening. 

Although Abby said that she had picked some other horses that she might have bid on, Captain and Ozzy were her top two choices and she is very happy with the sale and the way it was run. “It was just a cool experience all the way around,” she said. “Everyone was so nice, so friendly and so easy to work with. Everyone was also very open about what their horses could and couldn’t do. They were just nice people to work with, and I was really impressed.”

Jerry Mount, who relocated from Hawaii to Aiken with his family in March, also bought a horse at the sale. This was Firefly, one of the two polo ponies on offer.

“I was in the market for a polo pony,” he said. “I didn’t know that there were going to be polo ponies in the sale, but I looked through the catalog and found three with polo experience, so I was interested.”

Jerry says he is a new rider and player, and so was looking for a quiet horse that would take good care of him. He was impressed to read about the Greymar program, which has been breeding and producing quality playing horses for years. His pro, Matt Sekera, told him that Greymar was a well respected outfit and it was definitely worth trying the horses, and so he did. One of them was not the right horse for him, but Firefly definitely fit his bill. He went to the Training Track with a check and ready to buy.

“When the first western horse at the sale went for over $100,000, I put my check back in my pocket,” he said with a laugh, noting that polo ponies of the type he needed don’t typically fetch six figures. But in the end, both polo ponies were gaveled in the low $20,000 range: not cheap for a polo horse, but not out of the ordinary either and on par with what similar horses cost at the polo pony sales that were held in Aiken over a decade ago. Although Jerry has not played his new horse yet, he did ride him the day after the sale, and so far he is very happy.

“He’s just so calm and sweet,” he said. “Riding him is like having a really nice pair of Italian leather shoes, where the first day you put them on they feel perfect.”

The Mounts live in the historic district across from the Training Track, and they were happy to see all the activity there, since the place has been very quiet ever since they moved in. 

“What a wonderful event for Aiken,” said Jerry. “It was so fun, and there was a great turnout – everyone came out. To see the Training Track used for it, and see all those cars and people and horses was such a good feeling.”

Mike Spannaus also bought a horse at the sale. Mike and his wife Lynda live in Johnston on their North Forty Farm, a horse retirement facility. Mike, who is 65, was looking for a quiet, easy trail horse to ride – he has an extensive riding and training background, and he was ready for a horse that would always be easy and reliable. A veteran of horse auctions, he sought out a less flashy horse that he figured would not be a sales-topper, and selected Lot 34, a 10-year-old black draft cross from Idaho named Blackjack. Unlike many other buyers, he didn’t try the horse before he bought it, but he is confident that he made the right move.

“I’m going to give him three to five days to settle in and get comfortable first,” he said. “He had a long trip; he traveled almost 3,000 miles to get here, so we’re just brushing him and feeding him carrots. I want to give him time. He’s super sweet and exactly what I was looking for.” 

Like the other buyers, Mike was extremely impressed with how well the sale was run, as well as with the character and professionalism of the consignors.

“I was thrilled to death that they brought such a great thing to Aiken,” he said. “It was good for the hotels and restaurants and for the horse community. Plus, they all were just fabulous people. Everybody was so positive about one another. Sometimes with trainers there can be a competitive atmosphere, but all these people supported each other.”

Ike Sankey was equally happy.

“We appreciate everything that the City of Aiken did, and that they did at the Training Track. We appreciate all the good people that came out and supported it.” He said. He admitted that he didn’t know in advance how successful the sale would be, but he was definitely pleased with the result.

 “We knew we would have tremendous support on the phone and on the internet because we have a very good following. I had no idea what to expect from the locals: we tried to bring the kind of horse that people said they wanted, and I think we did. The only complaint I heard from anybody was that it was hot in the bleachers when the sun was out.”

Ike said that his company’s next sale, Cowgirl Cadillacs, will be in Wickenburg, Arizona on February 18-19, 2022.  This will be followed by a sale in Wyoming the first week of June, and if all goes according to plan, the Best of the West will return to Aiken in October, 2022.

“We’re hoping to be at the Training Track again,” he said. “It worked out well and we were very happy with it.”

Will they pull another “horses in The Willcox” stunt? Maybe not. Ike had cleared it in advance with Tina McCarthy, who is the manager of the Willcox, but he said she may have thought he was joking. The Willcox likes to think of itself as Aiken’s living room. Although we all do love horses in this city, most of us would agree the living room is one place where they don’t belong.

To see a replay of the sale, visit bestofthewesthorses.com. Missed buying your dream horse? Check out the catalog at cowgirlcadillacs.com, or wait for next year.