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

Mary Campana's Shadowfax is an example. When that gray Arabian/Thoroughbred mix went through the Belen Cattlemen's Livestock auction in 1996, even though his teeth said he was just ten, he had weak pasterns, a sore back, and ewe neck. Two men had to hold him down to get a saddle on. Under saddle at last and into the ring, he held his head excessively high and looked like he was going to blow up.

Today, at age 18, he places well in dressage and hunter jumper competitions and has show-quality conformation. People are always telling Mary that Shadowfax is the most beautiful horse they have ever seen.

Here are the tests that revealed Shadowfax's inner talent and hidden physical potential. Most important is the spook cool down test. Don't ever do this test in a position where a panicking horse can hurt you! The test is anything that can get a horse to spook. See how soon he calms down. It took Shadowfax about five seconds.

You can detect a sore back by running your thumb and index finger down a horse's back, straddling the backbone, pressing lightly. If a horse squirms or moves his back down under pressure, it's sore. This could be a sign of serious lameness. Or it could mean he was broke to ride by an incompetent, or ridden with an ill-fitting saddle, or might be the victim of many other fixable problems. If the horse's movement at the trot is symmetrical and if you find no other signs of lameness, you can figure it's fixable.

Mary taught Shadowfax to collect using the Pat Parelli method. Within weeks, his sore back and conformation problems went away. A good farrier and exercise fixed his weak pasterns.

A skinny horse is almost a no-brainer. Does it have good teeth? Are its hooves worn down? Are we in a drought? If so, it was out on the range and has a good reason to be skinny. If you buy that kind of horse, even an outlaw will be grateful for your groceries and may -- may! -- have a change of heart.

Does it have overgrown hooves and teeth that need floating? maybe it got that way because someone locked it up without enough food or vet care. This one is iffy.

Does it have a pot belly, signs of great age or missing teeth? You'll buy yourself a money sink.

Now you are almost ready to go inside the sale barn. Your last test is to look for an oval tag with a bar code and number is glued onto each horse. Some will also have brands. Write these down and head for the front office. There you can find out who brought in each horse and where they came from. It's a good way to ensure that you don't end up with a local horse that no one was fool enough to buy when the ad was running.

You might learn more from a brand book. The front desk usually only has a brand book for the state. Here in New Mexico, many horses come from out of state or the Navajo nation. Many Navajo brands consist of a bar N on the left shoulder and three letters on the left hindquarter. The top letter represents the grazing district and the bottom two letters the owner. The Navajo Dept. of Agriculture (928-871-6605) can help you locate the family where your dream horse got its brand. Chances are there are more like it on their ranch.

If it's a Thoroughbred or racing Quarter Horse (often Appendix), see if the office has the racing record. Look for a terrible record, like one or zero races. This is good, usually meaning your prospect didn't run races until it got lame. To be certain the papers match the horse, you can read the tattoo that should be on the horse's upper lip. Beware of biters. This stunt is one of those "you cna get killed" things, so only look for that tatoo if you are really, really experienced with horses.

Don't buy a racing stallion expecting to make money on stud fees. If he had value as a stud, he wouldn't be here. If you see round scars on the lower legs, that means it got lame and the owner was ignorant enough to try firing, meaning burning places on the legs in order to "cure" lameness.

Above all, remember that these race animals have been trained to spook at the start gate and run like heck. They usually are not what you would consider broke to ride. Yet, if sound, with training they often become superior at dressage or jumping.

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© 2004 Carolyn M. Bertin. All rights reserved.