Prepare Before Going to an Auction

Many sellers choose to sell a horse at auction to limit the time they have to spend fielding inquiries, sending videos, and staying home to show a horse to people who may or may not really plan to buy.

For buyers, auctions or horse sales, as they are often called provide an opportunity to examine many horses at once. (We’re talking about buying a riding horse, by the way auction shopping for broodmares and bred mares is a topic for another article.)

The sale professionals we spoke to repeated the same refrain: America has too many horses, which is leading to a correction in the market. Many backyard breeders, who may enjoy the idea of breeding a favorite mare, but don’t actually have the time or experience to train the resulting foal, are selling young horses. This means that there are many bargains to be found among green or non-broke horses, while experienced mounts are currently more scarce on the grounds and thus more expensive.

Choosing An Auction

How do you know if you’re dealing with a quality auction company’ Good auction companies want their clients to do their homework before coming to the sale, so they will typically send out a catalog, or have one available online, usually as a large PDF (portable document format) file.

Reliable auctions offer some kind of sale conditions or warranty on at least some of the horses offered, although herd or farm dispersals may not. Often, auctions are breed- or discipline-specific, so looking in trade publications may yield some results.

David Solum, who owns Mid-America Equine Sales in Lamar, Mo., says that you should check with the local Better Business Bureau to see if the company you are considering has any complaints on record.

The top end of the horse sales, explains Mike Jennings of Professional Auction in Berryville, Va., are select show horse or breeder’s auctions. These normally will be horses screened by the auction company for quality. Some horses sell ”as is,” which can be a risky proposition, although it’s important to remember that it’s just as risky as buying most horses from a private party.

”As is” doesn’t always mean there is something terribly wrong with the horse, but it does mean the sale company has not asked the sellers to be responsible for any warrantees on him. If your purchase is lame or crazy the next day, Jennings says, it is still your horse.

Sellers have a responsibility to announce defects that could affect a horse’s health or soundness, but what is a defect to one person may not be to another. You might not do well trying to show a paddler at a high level in the performance ring, but he could still be a great foxhunter. Or a horse could be perfectly sound as the walk-trot trail horse he was called in the catalog, but go lame as soon as he was pushed into jumping.

Examine a horse as carefully as you can before bidding. Solum’s company offers a DVD on many of the horses in his sales. He said asking all consignors to send a DVD one month before the sale will soon be standard operating procedure.

When you get to the auction, get a map of the stalls from the front office, which may be no more than a card table, and start making the rounds. Going to horse sales can be fun and a good way to learn about your local horse population even if you are not ready to buy. Pick up a catalog, and start walking the stall rows. Then settle in to watch the horses sell. You’ll see many people making notes each time the hammer falls they are keeping track of local prices. It’s a good idea to do the same.

If you’re looking to purchase a horse, make a mental checklist about your requirements for conformation faults or defects, size, attitude, and stall manners before you go. The spontaneous buy can be disastrous at a horse sale. Interestingly, our auction experts agreed that the biggest mistake people make is coming to a sale looking for a horse of a particular color, such as a palomino or roan.

The auction professionals we spoke with stressed the importance of doing your research. We could not agree more. Reading an auction catalog for trail horses, for example, you would think every single one is bombproof, legged up, and goes on the buckle.

If you are truly interested, go beyond the catalog and quiz the owners to learn the horse’s history, find out how long the owner has had him, and who has ridden him. Where has he been trail ridden’ Around the farm’ In suburban subdivisions’ In the mountains’ English or Western’ What kind of bit’ Through water’ By children’

If stable manners are important to you, be sure to visit the horse in his stall. You should know, too, what he is like in the pasture, whether he is used to company, and how he is to groom, shoe, clip, and haul.

Auction officials differ in whether they make contact information available to prospective buyers before the sale. Parker says she likes to put people in touch, as does Jennings. Solum says that he is sometimes reticent to do this, because people will try to buy a horse before the sale day. So he calls the seller and asks them to make contact with the interested buyer.

The Corsica Horse Sales website says the company will not give out numbers, because it is unfair to other prospective buyers. If you can’t contact a seller (sellers are called consignors in auction lingo) beforehand, be sure to allow plenty of time to chat at the sale.

Some sellers will allow their horses to be ridden at the sale, which is a great way to learn more about the horse. Some, however, avoid this because having a new rider climb aboard a horse they are trying to sell could be counterproductive — other prospective bidders could see the horse under unskilled hands, and think less of the horse.

Professional Auction has a sort of ”show” before the bidding begins, which allows buyers to see the horses for sale in a competition environment.

While many sales say that you could have a horse examined by your vet at the sale, this doesn’t happen too often, unless your vet happens to be a friend of yours who might be shopping, too. After all, you would have to pay your vet for her time for the whole day, which would probably be cost prohibitive. Solum says that if you want a horse checked by your own vet, have it done before the sale.

Most sales offer a soundness ”guarantee” on catalog horses. Here is Billings Livestock’s soundness guarantee, for example: sight out of both eyes, good in the air (meaning no breathing problems), hit the ground sound on all four, and not crib.

When reading auction catalogs, be well versed in the lingo of the sport you’re buying into, especially if you’re changing disciplines. An English rider may not know what a horse that ”rides and slides” does (reining), while a Western one may not know if she really wants a hunter-type horse who moves well at the trot. A ny horse listed as a cowboy’s horse means that only experienced riders need apply.

Sale horses are numbered consecutively by what is called ”hip number,” so called because the number goes on the horse’s hip or rump. These correspond to the numbers in the catalog. Catalog entries usually consist of the horse’s pedigree and then an owner-written description, which can give anything from a few words, such as the classic phrase, ”sadly outgrown,” or extend for paragraphs about the horse’s history and training to date.

Once you’ve taken your seat at the auction, staffers will help you. Talk with one of the bid-spotters, also called ringmen, before the sale starts, and tell him if you’re new to this. For example, if you’re wondering if you have the highest bid, your bid-spotter will tell you. If the price on a certain horse never gets as high as the seller was hoping, the auctioneer may say, after a look at the seller, ”no sale.”

If you get the horse, you will be presented with a ticket right away, which binds you to buying the horse. Make sure it’s the right ticket for the right horse — things get hectic in the bidding ring. There is even online bidding at, but this strikes us as a risky proposition.

If you did not bring a trailer, now is the time to line up a hauler. They typically leave flyers all around the sale grounds, but you can always ask the auction company to get you one. In this day of cell phones, someone is usually available to trailer your new horse home.

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