Matt Miller rides when he tries a potential purchase, he doesn't train. • Photo by Kate Bradley Byars.

Learning Curve: Matt Miller’s criteria for picking cutting horse prospects

When it comes to purchasing a horse, most buyer’s base decisions on eye appeal, bloodline and athletic ability. Cutting horse trainer Matt Miller’s criteria for picking a cutting horse prospect differs from purchasing a finished performer, and he tailors the choice to the buyer’s criteria. 

A big muscled horse with a shiny coat catches prospective buyers’ eyes at any horse sale. But look past the pretty and there could be flaws that will impact how the young horse handles the show arena. Some buyers want a younger prospect that can be purchased for less money than a seasoned horse, while others are willing to pay top dollar to take the gamble out of the transaction and buy a seasoned mount. Many prospective horse owners leave buying up to a trusted professional, like trainer Matt Miller. 

Miller and his wife, Megan, breed, buy and sell champion cutting horses, from weanlings on up to open-caliber aged event horses. Not every purchase results in a big-name winner, but Miller can identify the horses that best fit his training program based on conformation, bloodlines and athleticism. 

“We buy and sell a lot of horses privately, and we attend sales where we have babies for sale and are purchasing horses,” Miller says. “What I look for in a horse, that depends on the age and experience.”

Though she looks slightly downhill, Miller says that Lil CD Pep’s athletic ability outweighs the flaw in her conformation. 

For Miller, selecting a promising cutting horse prospect is all about the young horse’s conformation and whether he has worked with horses from that bloodline. The trainer has ridden horses to more than $3.1 million in earnings, according to Equi-Stat.

 “An older horse that I know has been competing, I can look past some conformation flaws as long as the horse is sound,” he says. “If I am looking at a horse, I want to know all about it so there are no surprises when I get home.” 

Experience has taught Miller to perform a pre-purchase exam and review x-ray films of the horse’s joints. But, he also wants to know the details, especially in an older horse. 

“When people call me about a horse I have for sale, I tell them what I do like about a horse and also what I don’t like about a horse,” Miller explains. “Even the better horses have issues or things that I disclose to buyers. You want to be honest and the buyer to feel as informed as possible so it is their decision when they buy the horse.”

Here, Miller outlines what he looks for in a young prospect, and also what he reviews before purchasing a finished show horse. With these tips, cutting horse buyers can determine their own criteria for purchasing a potential winner. 

Buying Advice 

No matter how much homework goes in to picking the perfect horse, something can, and often will, go wrong on the way to victory. 

“The sale horse gamble is the real deal. You could buy the prettiest one out there that is bred great and it may never be successful,” Miller says. “Look at all the variables, know what kind of athlete the horse is and the attitude they have when they work. Know what conformation flaws you can look past, and what you won’t accept. In the end, the decision comes down to the buyer’s wants.”

Keep these three tips in mind when making a purchase of a cutting horse prospect or for-sale horse:

1. Do a background check

“When talking about horses that have been ridden, know the program that they are in at the time you buy,” Matt Miller says. “How respectable is that program? It can be tricky because a really good horse can come from anywhere, but know what kind of horse is typical of that program. My first impression is whether that program is known for selling good horses or just rejects.”

2. Give the horse a once-over

“The second thing is conformation and overall look, and really, it is the first thing to look at,” Miller says. “How good looking is the horse? A horse that looks good, feels good and is taken care of, that is one that is in a solid program.”

3. Don’t skip the process 

“If I am ok with those points, then we go on through the whole process: riding them, vet check and so on,” he says. “You can look over little things, like conformation flaws or it’s not quite as pretty as it could be. If the horse works great, I can overlook some flaws. A horse that isn’t as pretty is harder to sell to a client, but a great athlete that fits my program and the rider, that is what we are aiming for.”

Matt Miller
Matt Miller lives and trains from his Sanctuary Ranch in Poolville, Texas.