All things at Fults Ranch revolve around Metallic Cat, and that’s just how the stallion likes it.
written by Kelsey Pecsek – QHN
Shortly after turning onto Tradewind Street in Amarillo, Texas, you reach the edge of Fults Ranch. As you dodge rolling tumbleweeds and continue down the rural road to the driveway, some fields are filled with irrigated alfalfa while others are speckled with roan yearlings. Every day except Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during breeding season, the ranch gates swing wide-open to welcome visitors who come from all over to see Metallic Cat, affectionately known as “Denver.”
Once guests enter the property, which Alvin and Becky Fults have owned for 13 years, they have entered Denver’s house. The 12-year-old stallion (High Brow Cat x Chers Shadow x Peptoboonsmal) resides on his own 200-acre oasis in the middle of the Texas Panhandle. He wants for nothing, and his life is carefully orchestrated by a dedicated team that holds his happiness and success above all else.
The life he lives
Denver follows a regular schedule, especially during breeding season, in an effort to keep him focused on his job and content with his day-to-day life. Alvin, Becky and breeding manager Tara Sagniere are all on the grounds most of the time, but no matter what, at least one of them is always there.
On a typical day, Sagniere arrives around 7 a.m. and feeds Denver his first ration of breakfast. She leaves him to his meal while she feeds the mares she also manages. During the hot days of summer, the stallion stays in his stall with a personal air conditioner. When weather permits, Sagniere waits for him to finish eating and then escorts the stallion from the barn to his 12-acre paddock, where he enjoys a healthy portion of his private selection of Fults Ranch-grown alfalfa, known as “Denver hay.” He is surrounded by a band of mares, and all that separates him from his herd are a few fences for safety.
“On the south side, we generally have two mares per trap, so there will be eight on that side,” Sagniere said. “Then on the north side, it just depends on what’s going on, but it’s going to be mares, or both mares and babies. He enjoys seeing his babies, so we try to keep them close, too.”
On collection days, Dr. Gregg Veneklasen and the crew from Timber Creek Veterinary Hospital arrive mid-morning. The stallion handler walks out to the pasture to retrieve Denver, who is greeted in the barn area by tease mares and then taken directly into his private collection area.
“He doesn’t act like a stud; he’s always just chill,” Sagniere explained of Denver’s disposition. “That’s how he almost always is when we collect, too. He’s just a happy-go-lucky kind of guy.”
While Veneklasen and his team process Denver’s semen in the Fults’ lab, Sagniere returns the laid-back stallion to his field, where he stays for the remainder of the day. He will stand at his gate should he decide he is ready to come in early; otherwise, he returns to his barn full of mares at sunset.
Between collection days during breeding season, and several times a week in the offseason, Denver has a job. Rather than just stand in his stall with the neon green Jolly Ball he mostly ignores or in his paddock next to his herd, he is taken out for rides with Sagniere, who is his main caretaker. Sometimes, Alvin uses the stallion for turning back or Ben Hight, the Fultses’ 2-year-old trainer/breeding assistant, uses him to gather cattle.
“It’s a rough part of the job,” Sagniere joked, admitting she feels pretty special to be the one who keeps the $10 million-plus sire exercised. “He’s wicked smart, but if you didn’t know you were on something so amazing, you’d think he was just a horse because he’s so relaxed.”
To the untrained eye, Denver’s life seems simple. The stallion has bred 300-plus mares every year since 2013, according to American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) records and Becky’s 2016 paperwork, so an outsider may assume it’s merely the product of breeding a fertile young sire. If you ask the team at Fults Ranch, though, it is the result of years of careful planning and the continually revised execution of that plan.
“During breeding season, the phones are ringing off the wall to book him,” Becky said. “We’re blessed because people believe in him, but we’re so blessed because his semen is so potent that he can handle that many.”
Although Denver has always lived on the ranch in Amarillo, his life has changed drastically since he was a show horse. After the 2008 National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Futurity Open Champion amassed $637,711 with Beau Galyean at the reins, Fults Ranch underwent a massive remodel to ensure the facility was fit for the horse they hoped would become one of the industry’s top sires.
The old barn where Denver used to be stalled is now reserved for broodmares preparing to foal. The stallion has moved to a newer wing of the facility, tucked safely away from the bustle of ranch business and isolated from any horses that may be coming or leaving.
When the Fultses are actively showing, a four-stall quarantine barn at the front of the property is utilized to ensure nothing Denver comes into contact with could be contaminated from outside sources. The stallion never has to leave the ranch, and no other horses use his stall, pasture or breeding facilities.
“We didn’t want him to ever get in a trailer again, and outside mares aren’t brought in anymore, either,” Becky said, explaining that during Denver’s first year standing as a stud, he was collected off the premises at Timber Creek in Canyon, Texas. “A freak accident or anything could happen. We just wanted him here. We wanted to see him every day to make sure he was happy and healthy, and just to be hands on.”
Extensive biosecurity measures are just the start of what makes the program at Fults Ranch unique. The design of Denver’s personal barn and paddock is one not commonly seen, especially in the Western performance horse world.
In the interest of form to function, Denver’s stall is located adjacent to Sagniere’s office and the collection room. The oversized stall, complete with windows and an open-air door, allows the stallion to move freely and socialize. All of the horses in Denver’s area are mares used in the Fultses’ breeding program, so the stallion is able to watch over his band when he is inside. Denver’s designated pasture is doublefenced and lined with smaller traps for his mares. The purpose is to allow the young stallion to live as naturally as possible, while still keeping him, the broodmares and his babies safe.
“To be a stallion is a lonely life,” Alvin said. “They can’t touch other animals or be in the same pen as other animals. We strive to make this as natural of a habitat as we can without it being natural. We are fortunate to have the facility where we can do that.” According to Sagniere, Denver has responded well to his simulated natural environment by producing some of the most viable semen she’s dealt with since entering the equine reproduction field in 2002 while still attending West Texas A&M. It also has benefits for the mares, she said.
“I think it helps Denver’s libido,” she explained. “In the wild, there is a stallion for a herd of mares. That’s as close to it as we can get being in captivity. The talking back and forth with mares and stallions also creates a natural oxytocin release [in the mares], so the ones that are having trouble and carrying fluid in their uterus have a natural way to clean that out, which helps them reproductively.”
Learning how to listen
The art of listening takes time to master, but the team at Fults Ranch has put their experience to good use with Denver. They are constantly reevaluating every aspect of the program to make the stallion’s life more pleasurable. “He speaks loud; we’ve just got to learn to listen,” Alvin explained, adding that simply ensuring Denver has adequate turnout time has been shown to increase his numbers exponentially in the lab. “In my view, it took a year to figure out what he was trying to tell us. Since then, we’ve been able to accommodate what he wants, and it works very well. It’s been a game changer, and it’s the reason we’ve been able to keep him in Amarillo, Texas.”
To help Denver focus on his job, Fults Ranch goes into lockdown on collection days. All but those taking care of Denver are under strict instructions to stay away from the stallion’s barn, and ranch noise is kept to a minimum with a ban on running tractors or other loud equipment. “We make sure everything is perfect for him,” Becky said.
Sagniere, part-time worker Brianna Hogg, Hight and the Fultses use several factors to determine how satisfied Denver is with his routine. His disposition and behavior are major indicators, but at the end of the day, his semen count is considered the most quantifiable way to “listen” to what Denver is telling them he likes or dislikes.
“It’s a roundtable discussion,” Becky explained. “Every collection, we want to know if he was happy or mad, and how his numbers are. Ifhe was mad or his numbers were lower than usual, we all sit around and talk about why and what we may have done differently.”
“Every decision is influenced by Denver. The ranch revolves around him,” Alvin said. “With every decision that’s being made here, the first question is how will it influence him. We keep that as priority one, whether we’re fixing to brand babies or move horses to a different pen. The question is, how is that going to affect him?”
Through trial and error, the Fultses have found that Denver is sensitive to things some would likely dismiss as possible causes of reduced fertility. Something as trivial as who is exercising the 2013 AQHA Leading NCHA Freshman Sire has affected his sperm count. For instance, when Hight has recently ridden Denver, he is unable to be in the room when the horse is collected; however, Denver’s semen count is higher when he’s worked regularly by the horseman.
“He [Denver] has never been in a situation where he wasn’t a using horse and a collecting stallion,” Sagniere said. “For Denver, there’s a place for everything and everything in its place. In [the collection room], he gets to do what he wants; there basically are no rules. But he’s smart enough that he associates a person with what is expected of him, so when Ben was the one riding him, he wouldn’t collect [with Ben in the room] because he sees Ben as an authority figure.”
Other small things have proven to cause a fluctuation in Denver’s viability, and with each new obstacle, the team has worked together to find the best solution. Regardless of how simple or silly those factors may seem, Denver’s well-being and happiness is paramount.
The most difficult situation the team has had to overcome developed when the Fultses brought Sannman home to the ranch. The 2010 son of Metallic Cat (out of The Smart Look x Smart Little Lena) was immediately seen as a threat.
“He was angry,” Becky said of Denver’s reaction. “He couldn’t see l1im because he was on the other side of the farm, but they could hear each other. There was a barn, an arena and a house between them, and we never collected him [Sannman] here, but Denver was angry so his numbers were way down. That’s when we decided to sell Sannman:’
“The very next collection day everything was back to normal,” Alvin added. “But it depends on the horse. I’ve had discussions with other stallion owners that said bringing in another stallion actually helps because it’s competition. We just knew we couldn’t get Sannman any farther away from Denver than we did, and it still didn’t matter. He was saying, ‘This is my house!'”
Although Alvin and Becky recognize that it’s not likely all stallions are as particular as theirs, they do believe their strategy of using semen evaluation as a measurement of Denver’s happiness is vital to the success of the stallion’s breeding career. They count it as a blessing that they are able to manage him so precisely, and welcome others to ask for ideas on how to integrate the Fultses’ concepts into their own breeding facility.
“I would be more than happy to help anyone that owns a stallion with what’s worked for us,” Alvin said. “I think why we’ve been able to excel is that we only have one stallion, so he gets all the attention. But there’s no way we could promote him as well as he’s promoted himself.
“It’s an honor to get to do it. I don’t know why we were the ones to be the owners of such a great animal, but we’ve accepted the challenge. We’re going to enjoy the journey and do everything we can to make him the best that he can be.”