Lesson horses, trail horses, horses for clients…you can waste lots of time and gas searching for good candidates to fill these roles. You hear about a likely horse, drive hours to see it, and discover that it’s unsound or unsuitable. What if you could make just one trip, to a place where dozens of prospects would be on view—a sort of equine shopping mall?
You’d be at an auction.
Many people steer clear of horse auctions because they don’t understand how these sales work or because they fear they’ll get stuck with a four-legged lemon. There are risks, to be sure. But if you understand the sales and how to shop them, and have a sharp eye for horses, you can come away with good deals. So says Mike Jennings of Professional Auction Services (PAS), a Virginia-based company that runs sales around the country.
The first rule of auction shopping, Jennings says, is to know what you want. “The most common error I see is not considering the purpose the horse will serve. People are attracted by the beauty of a horse, and end up buying something that won’t do the job,” he says.
In other words, auctions are not for impulse buyers—or those prone to buyer’s remorse. If you make the winning bid, you own the horse the moment the gavel comes down. If you decide you paid too much, you still own it. If you hate it when you get it home, you still own it. There is no return policy.
With those thoughts firmly in mind, here’s how to proceed.
All auctions are not alike. On one hand, there’s the Keeneland September yearling sale, where offspring of America’s top racing sires sell for an average price of more than $90,000. On the other hand, there’s your local livestock market, where you may bid against a slaughter buyer for a horse whose pedigree, history and health records are cloaked in mystery.
In between are many sales run by companies like Jennings’, sometimes focusing on specific breeds, sometimes run in conjunction with shows or as fundraisers. These are catalog sales—the horses offered are listed in a catalog that provides basic information about them and sets out the terms and conditions for the sale. The catalog provides some protections for buyer and seller alike. Prices at such sales vary widely, but at many the average is under $3,000.
What’s best? That depends on what you’re looking for and how much risk you’re willing to take. Local livestock markets are often dumping grounds for problem horses. “A nice horse can turn up at a local sale if someone has an urgent need to sell it, so I wouldn’t say don’t go,” says Jennings. “But you need to understand the risks and know that you have less protection.”
Learn all you can before the bidding starts, says Jennings, whose website (www.professionalauction.com) has information for sellers as well as buyers. If there’s a catalog, pick out horses that interest you in advance. If the sale company provides phone numbers for the sellers, call them up to find out more. This will allow you to focus on the most likely prospects at the sale.
Find out when horses will arrive at the sale and whether demonstrations are scheduled. Go early to investigate your prospects and to check out horses added after the catalog was printed. If this is your first auction, you’ll be more comfortable if you go with someone who’s experienced, Jennings suggests.
You’ll have only a limited chance to get to know each horse, so make the most of it. Meet the seller, go in the stall with the horse, see the horse move, and if possible ride it (or bring a rider who can hop on while you watch).
“Be prepared with a list of the things that are important to you—the characteristics that you can’t live without, and the vices or flaws that you can’t live with,” says Jennings. Run down this list for each prospect, and ask questions. Does the horse bite, crib, or weave? Is it good to shoe, clip and haul? Are registration papers up-to-date, and do they match the horse?
Look carefully for blemishes and conformation faults that may limit the horse in the job you want it to do. Will those sickle hocks hold up in your lesson program? Is the horse resting a front foot in a way that could mean it’s sore? Are eyes clear? Breathing normal? If something worries you and you don’t get answers that make you feel comfortable, Jennings says, move on. If the seller agrees, you can also get a vet to check the horse before you bid, at your expense. Auctions generally have a vet on the premises, or you can make arrangements with your own.
By the time the actual sale begins, you should be able to check off this list:
1) You know which horse (or horses) you want and how much you’re willing to pay. “The bidding is just negotiating the price,” says Jennings.
2) You’ve read the conditions of sale in the catalog (or posted at the sale office). They list the buyer’s and seller’s responsibilities, explain how the sale is run, and specify charges such as the buyer’s premium (generally 5 to 10 percent of the sale price) imposed at many sales.
3) You’ve registered at the sale office and obtained a bidding number, if the auction requires this step.
4) You’re ready to pay for the horse according to the terms the sale requires. Most sales require full payment on the spot. Some large sales accept major credit cards.
Horses are usually sold in the order of their hip numbers, which correspond to their numbers in the catalog. When your prospect comes up, be someplace where you can see the action and catch the auctioneer’s eye. Large sales have bid spotters, assistants who work the crowd to make sure bids aren’t overlooked. If you’re a novice, identify yourself to a bid spotter so he or she will keep an eye out for you.
Listen carefully for announcements when the horse enters the sale ring, says Jennings. The auctioneer’s statements supersede anything in the catalog, and they may disclose defects. If the auctioneer says the horse is being sold “as is” or “breeding sound only,” for example, it may not be sound to ride.
Auctioneers often start the bidding by naming a price that’s highly optimistic, so don’t jump right in. The auctioneer will drop the asking price quickly until someone makes a bid. Then bids will go up in set increments, or advances, typically $25 for bids up to $2,000, $50 to $5,000, and $100 for bids above that. To bid, raise your hand or bidding number. (It’s not true that if you scratch your nose you’ll end up owning the horse.) If the auctioneer doesn't see you, don’t be afraid to call out.
Action in the sale ring goes fast, and the auctioneer’s “chant” can be confusing. “Don’t be intimidated,” says Jennings. “The auction staff doesn’t want you to be confused—they want you in, so ask questions.” If you’re not sure who has the high bid, ask the bid spotter or the auctioneer: “Is that me?” or “Am I in?”
Bidders drop out as the price goes up, and you may end up bidding against one other person who’s equally determined to buy the horse. That’s when it’s important to have a top price firmly in mind, so you won’t get caught up in a bidding war and spend more than you intend.
You may also find yourself bidding, directly or indirectly, against the seller. At most auctions sellers can set a reserve—a price below which they won't sell. The auctioneer may announce that there is a reserve but not say what it is, and if the reserve is not met the consignor can reject the sale.
If you have the high bid when the gavel comes down, the auctioneer will point to you to confirm the sale. A sale company representative will immediately present you with a buyer’s agreement. Before signing it, confirm that the hip number and sale price it shows are correct. When you pay for the horse, you should receive a receipt, a pass or other paperwork that will allow you to take the horse from the sale venue, and whatever health papers (such as a current negative Coggins test) are required for shipping. Many sales require buyers to remove their purchases as soon as the auction ends. The staff may be able to put you in touch with a commercial shipper if you didn’t bring a trailer.
What if, when you get the horse home, it’s not what you expected? As a rule, you’ll be stuck with it. But at some sales you may have recourse in certain situations. The conditions of sale should specify how those situations will be handled.
For example, Jennings’ company permits post-sale vet exams before horses leave the auction. These exams are limited—jogging a riding horse for soundness, or checking a broodmare’s reproductive tract—and intended only to find out if the horse is sound for the advertised purpose. If it’s not, you get your money back.
This company also requires sellers to report known vices and soundness problems that affect the advertised use of a horse. Payment to sellers is delayed for a few days, so you may have recourse if it turns out that a seller failed to disclose such a problem. You must act quickly, though; the company requires a detailed statement from a vet outlining the problem within five days of the sale.
What if the horse has been given medication to mask a soundness or temperament problem? One way to guard against this, Jennings suggests, is to have the sale vet draw a blood sample and hold it. If, within a week, the horse shows a problem that could have been masked by drugs, you can have the sample tested.
Problems such as these are rare, Jennings says. If you shop carefully before bidding, your auction purchase will probably be all you expect.