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How to Buy a Horse at a Livestock Auction

By Carolyn M. Bertin

This article first appeared in the free Hoofprints magazine of Edgewood, NM.

You may have heard of a show horse that someone got for a song at a New Mexico livestock auction. Then again, you've probably heard of critters that turned out to be lame or locoed. Buying at a livestock auction may look like a lottery. Yet, if you know your way around, you can come up the winner.

The first thing to remember is that most folks at livestock auctions are friendly and helpful. This will come in handy if you react like most greenhorns. Everything is confusing! You can't understand a word the auctioneer is saying! Help! The fellow (or gal) who can help is probably standing right next to you.

Now let's back up to what you need to do before you head for the auction. When you buy that horse, you probably won't know what it's been eating. It might been through auctions from Alberta to New Mexico and encountered microbes for everything from strangles to rhinopneumonitis. It may never have touched a barbed wire fence or walked inside a barn. Even if she is thin or under two, she could drop a foal the next morning. Or tonight. How do you prepare for these possibilities?

The most important thing is to have a quarantine area. You'll also need bleach to disinfect your boots when you get back so you won't track strangles or salmonella all over your place.

A stall in a barn is not usually the best quarantine area. Strangles can linger in your barn for years, and the vaccine isn't reliable. Perhaps your new horse will think bears hibernate in places like these. Maybe nobody ever told her that she wasn't supposed to jump out over the stall door and play with your tack.

A barbed wire enclosure could be even worse. Your new horse might not know that barbed wire bites.

The next thing to consider is food and water. At many auctions, by the time a horse has gone through the sale ring, it could have gone over a day without water. Bring a five-gallon bucket to take the edge off your new horse's thirst.

A horse who has been living on grass may wolf down alfalfa, then colic and you know what's next. Your safest bet is to start your new horse on Bermuda, timothy or oat hay. You can gradually add alfalfa over the next few days. If underweight, slowly introduce foods such as sweet feed or Calf Manna. For a malnourished animal, vitamin and mineral supplements will speed recovery. Don't give grain-type supplements to donkeys or ponies, as they are prone to founder. They will plump up fast on hay alone.

It's a good idea to have all the vaccinations you'll need on hand, as well as tetanus antitoxin in case your purchase gets hurt before the vaccination achieves immunity. Don't forget wormers.

The last thing to consider is what kind of clothes and equipment you should bring to an auction. In part, this will depend upon what kind of a horse you plan to get. Of course it will tie and trailer quietly. Oh, yeah? A horse that is perfect under saddle may have tantrums when tied or hurl itself around a trailer. So it's a good idea to bring a trailer that your horse cannot possibly fly out of at 70 MPH in the middle of I-25. You also want an arrangement that is stable enough that a thrashing horse won't be able to capsize the whole works. There's a reason ranchers haul livestock with pickup trucks and not SUVs.

You don't have the right stuff to haul a potentially dangerous horse? Ask around at the auction and you'll find someone who will deliver, probably for $25.

As for clothes, there's a reason cowboys wear leather and gloves. Those horses you'll want to get close to might attack. If you aren't afraid of looking like a sissy, you can also wear a riding helmet. A lariat if needed to catch your horse, halter, lead rope and trailering boots almost round out the picture.

Here's a trick few people know. Bring along a bucket with a little grain. Don't feed it (colic!), just use it to make noise.

One last thing. Pen and notepaper.

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© 2004 Carolyn M. Bertin. All rights reserved.