Buying Horses at Auction

Buying horses from auctions can be a risky business. Make sure you know what you're buying before you write the check!

Several years ago, my cousin was in the market for a horse, and having trained Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods for many years, I agreed to offer my services. She was looking for a calm, quiet animal of ten or more years with jumping and dressage training, which are difficult criteria to begin with. She needed something that she could ride on the trails, but also show.

After four or five weeks of answering classified ads and visiting barns, she decided to go to an auction. She invited me along, but I was under a deadline for a book, so I was unable to accompany her. She found a horse auction in a small town west of Houston called Bellville, and set out to find her dream horse.

That afternoon, I received a call from my excited cousin, who had trailered home "the most beautiful horse" she'd ever seen. She had already named him - Vegas - and couldn't wait to give him a try.

"You didn't ride him before you bought him?" I asked, aghast.

"No, but the cowboy rode him around in the ring, and he was really calm," she assured me. "And his owner said that he'd been through six months of dressage and two years of jumping training. He's eleven, and he's perfect."

I inquired about his shot records and she said that the owner was going to fax them to her. I already had my qualms about the whole situation, but I agreed to come out and watch her ride the next day.

Vegas was, as my cousin had said, a truly beautiful animal. He was a gorgeous chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail and a beautiful white blaze down the center of his face. His eyes were widespread and bright, and his hooves looked well cared for. I helped her saddle and bridle him, and suggested that we first try him in the roundpen, which is a circle arena about forty feet in diameter. She agreed, and we headed out.

Vegas led well, and stood still while I gave my cousin a leg-up into the saddle. I adjusted her stirrups, tightened the girth, and stood back to watch the ride. She squeezed lightly with her heels, and Vegas went ballistic.

I can't remember ever being so scared for another rider. The horse reared straight up on his haunches, came down, kicked out with his back legs, and took off around the pen. He could only go so fast because of the tight space, but he nearly fell several times as his hooves attempted to regain traction in the sand. He "crow-hopped" several times (when all four hooves leave the ground at once) and bucked sporadically as he continued to circle me in the round pen.

Finally, not knowing what else to do, I stepped in front of Vegas and grabbed the reins. He attempted to doge me by cutting to the left, but I held fast, and the bit stopped him. My cousin, unprepared for the sudden halt, flew out of the saddle and into the round pen railing. She was mostly unhurt, though terrified, and we headed back to the barn.

After seeing a picture of my cousin with Vegas at the auction just after she'd written the check, I figured out what probably had happened. In the photo, Vegas' head was hanging how to the ground and his eyes were slightly gazed. My cousin admitted that he had seemed lethargic, but she'd assumed that he was just overwhelmed by the noise and commotion at the auction. His previous owner had probably drugged him before he was ridden into the ring, which is illegal, but rarely caught.

I completely advise against buying horses - or any animal, for that matter - at an auction. You hardly ever have a chance to have a vet look at the animal you intend to buy, and drug tests are few and far between. Auction horses are typically sold because they cannot be sold to private parties. Many of diseases, lamenesses, prior injuries, or are untrained and dangerous.

If you do find yourself at an auction, however, there are a few things you should look at before writing the check:

1. Physical Blemishes

Scars, cuts, lumps, and knots are left-overs from prior injuries, and should be investigated. If the owner cannot explain the blemishes, or if his excuse sounds far-fetched, you are probably being suckered. Lumps under the skin can be an indication of cancer or other disease.

2. Lameness

Insist that you must trot the horse on concrete before you buy him. Let someone else lead him into a trot, and watch the way his hooves hit the ground. If he favors a single leg, or moves "funny", then there is probably something wrong. Use common sense.

4. Behavior

Sometimes it is more beneficial to look for lethargic behavior than wild behavior. Horses at auction will typically be wound up because of the commotion and might paw the ground or winney to other horses. Those aren't necessarily indicators of bad behavior. But if he appears unalert and "doped up," then he might be drugged. If a veterinarian is available, as for blood work.

5. Shifty Owners

It is perfectly acceptable to ask people at the auction about the person from whom you intend to buy. Get an idea of their reputation, because chances are, they have sold at the same acution before. Ask the owner if you can handle the horse, or, even better, if you can ride the horse. If he refuses, then you may be dealing with a shifty owner.

These are good rules to follow if you are buying from a private party, as well. If you visit someone else's property, make sure that they ride the animal for you first. It is customary for the owner to show you how the horse behaves under saddle before you get in the driver's seat. The best dealers to buy from are the ones who will give you a seven-day guarantee. That way, you have a week to ride the animal before making a decision.