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How to Buy
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How to Buy a Horse at a Livestock Auction, continued ...

Now we come to the good stuff. Imagine a tall three-day eventer that will give you years of winning competition, for $700. Imagine a palomino bulldog Quarter Horse with cow sense and friendly as a dog, for $490. Imagine a mustang with hooves so strong you can ride her bare-hoofed all day in the Sandias, for $330. Imagine a leopard Appaloosa, a gaited horse that you could zoom along on without spilling your glass of champagne, a black Percheron 18 hands tall, a semi-retired Thoroughbred who will teach you how to do the piaffe, a Shetland that your kid can ride without even a bridle. All those horses go through auctions and any of them can be yours. The trick is to recognize that horse when you see it.

You don't want to see your horse for the first time when it prances into the sale ring. Your best be is to spot it when the owner or dealer is hauling it into the auction. Many arrive the morning of the auction. So if you get there early, you can meet many people and swap gossip. Where are they coming from? If they live far from cities, they are arriving because it is about the only way to find buyers. If they are local, watch out. Why aren't they selling through a classified ad? Every horse comes to the auction for a reason. It's your job to figure out the reason.

Stay while the horses unload and watch as the wranglers run them to their pens. You can get a good idea of how sound they are as they make that dash. Don't worry about not being an expert. Your intuition can do wonders.

When you've had enough of that, you can enjoy a Western-style breakfast in the auction café and trade more gossip. Even if you don't get a horse this time, chewing the fat (and, trust me, auction food offers plenty of fat) with the old-timers and ranchers is half the fun.

Oh, yes, the old-timers! At every auction, broken down cowboys watch and tell tales and hope to see some greenhorn do something memorable. You don't want to do some memorable thing such as get chased down by a locoed stallion, so instead have breakfast with an old-timer. Let him laugh at your fractured Spanish.

Now go out to the pens with the old-timers and get serious. Most auctions have a catwalk where you can view livestock from above. OK, so half the boards on that catwalk are split and some are missing and things kind of wobble, but the old-timers aren't scared and if you are, hey, you're entertaining them. Now is when you discover that the Quarter Horse whose owner says he heads and heels has a crooked back. Your hunter/jumper prospect wearing aluminum racing shoes has pelvic bones that are somewhat off.

Next comes the you can get killed part. Don't want to get killed? Look for people who are in the pens with the horses and who are busy boring the old-timers. The old-timers are all looking instead at the greenhorn getting into the pen with the wild mustangs. This greenhorn will be fun. See the mustangs go hysterical and the greenhorn run and scramble through the welded pipe bars of the corral, conking his noggin.

If you are not experienced with wild or outlaw horses, you have one safe option and one semi-safe option. The safe one is to ask one of the people in the pens about that special horse. He or she might tell you its age, whether it is sound and broke and give you ideas about its personality. Then again he or she might fib or ignore you. You are still alive.

The semi-safe option is to see what happens when someone else gets into the pen with that special horse and figure you are as good as she is at not freaking out livestock. This is where gloves, leather jacket and helmet can come in handy. Above all, follow your gut. If a horse makes you uneasy, your gut is trying to keep you alive.

Some auctions offer over a thousand horses and attract only a few people fanatical enough to get into the pens. Here is where your bucket of grain comes in. Walk down the aisle between pens shaking it and see which horses whinny and beg. Not all of these may be broke to ride, but they probably are at least safe. Probably.

So you've found your dream horse. You've done the usual checks for soundness and hope that steroids, local anesthetics or a tranquilizer aren't misleading you. Now identify two or three more and vow to be ready to go home empty-handed. You'll find it easier to get a good deal if you don't get hung up on one horse. Yes, a killer buyer might ship it to the Bel-Tex slaughterhouse in one of those stock semi trailers parked nearby, but you can't save every horse.

This is the stage that separates the losers from the winners. The horses that look the best often aren't. Now is the time to consider horses that are obviously defective, but that you can fix.

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© 2004 Carolyn M. Bertin. All rights reserved.