So You Want to Rescue an Auction Horse, Part III: How Auctions Work

Horse auctions can be a great place to source well-bred and well-trained animals; some auctions may also be the last stop for horses before shipping to slaughter. Esther Roberts details what to look for.

Catch up on past installments: Part I: Adopting From a Rescue Organization and Part II: Finding the Right Horse

Horse auctions can be a legitimate place to buy and sell excellent animals:

All four of these Percherons were purchased at draft horse auctions. Photo by Kristen Kovatch.

You can find well-bred, well-trained horses available at fairly reasonable prices. Many high-end auctions publish their entries in advance, complete with show records and pedigrees, to draw buyers seeking their next competition animal.

(Insider’s tip: towards the end of summer, many camps sell off their entire string of “camp” horses to avoid having to board or feed them during the winter months. You can find healthy, reliable riding horses of every size, shape, and color if you attend the right auction at the close of camp season!)

Kate, an 8 year old stock horse, was purchased at auction in Tennessee. Kate was being sold for slaughter, but I saw her potential and wanted to give her a chance at “happily ever after.” While in quarantine, you can check ground manners and the basic training of your rescue horse. All photos by Esther Roberts.

Kate’s first ride post-quarantine. Hat tip to Amanda Grace Woodside for investing time tuning up Kate to get her ready for adoption!

Following a 30-day quarantine, Kate showed herself to be a trail-savvy horse who was eager to bond with a human of her own.

As these photos illustrate, some auctions sell quality stock. At the time she was purchased from auction, where she was standing in the loose pen with other horses (more on that later), “Kate” was an eight year old stock horse with perfect manners and a sweet, sunny disposition. (Hat tip to Amanda Grace Woodside for rehabbing Kate and giving her a riding tune-up so she could be rehomed successfully through a nonprofit adoption program.)

The upside of purchasing a horse via auction is you can do one-stop shopping and often find exactly what you were looking for without having to drive from farm to farm looking at individual prospects one at a time.

The downside to purchasing any horse at auction – whether slaughter-bound or savvy trail mount – is the animals have been exposed to every equine disease imaginable, simply from the volume and turnover rates, so a minimum thirty-day quarantine is a must. (Details on quarantine procedures in a future installment!) And, depending on the auction’s house rules, you may or may not be able to try the animal prior to bidding.

If your heart is set on rescuing a “slaughter-bound” horse, God bless you! And yet there are many things to consider as you go forward to save an equine life.

If you want to find an auction that sells horses on a “per-pound” basis (read: for slaughter) you can ask some horse-savvy folks in your area, or call your local feed store and inquire about cattle auctions. Typically, if an auction house sells cattle on a regular basis, they will sell horses for slaughter, as well.

As you go visit the auction, look for a chute system where unhandled animals can be “run through” without having to be captured, haltered, or led. Look for pens full of loose horses. Saddle stock or harness stock are typically penned individually to prevent the animal from getting kicked or injured in any way.

Horses being sold for slaughter are penned together in groups, and, since the animals are often strangers to each other, you will see and hear the scuffles and anxiety that are part-and-parcel of herd animals trying to establish their pecking order quickly and in an incredibly confined space.

One sure way to determine you’re at an auction that sells horses for slaughter is to note the livestock semi tractor-trailers lined up out back, waiting to load and roll.

Typically, slaughter auctions begin in mid-afternoon, so all the sold-for-slaughter animals can be loaded and shipped during the night. One reason is for the well-being of these animals, as night shipping means less heat and less traffic. Another reason is to avoid the questions that would result if families passed truckloads of horses shipping on a sunny afternoon.

Americans see truckloads of cattle, pigs, chickens, and turkeys rolling on the interstate on a daily basis. But the vast majority of Americans oppose the idea of human consumption of horsemeat; shipping these animals at night helps keep the entire issue, quite literally, “in the dark.”

Auctions are typically run weekly or bi-weekly by private individuals or privately-held companies and on privately-owned land. Be as respectful at the auction as you would want visitors to be at your own farm.

As with any aspect of the equine world, there are some “bad actors.” And there also men and women who provide for their families by selling horses for slaughter.

Equine slaughter is a complex issue that involves such things as overbreeding, backyard breeding, the decades-long lifespan of most horses, and the ever-changing economics of horse upkeep, training, veterinary costs and euthanasia/removal costs. To address these topics in detail is well beyond the scope of this series; my focus here is to help you successfully select and rescue a slaughter-bound horse.

To buy a horse at auction, it is advisable to arrive at least two hours before the auction begins, so you have time to peruse the pens, locate the horse or horses you want to bid on, and get registered in the office to bid.

Assuming you have a list of pre-established criteria in hand (refer installment two of this series), you can focus your review of the horses in the pens to those who fit your criteria.

Write down or snap photos of the tag number on each horse you like. This tag number is the singular way to identify a horse being presented at auction. On average, each horse is in the auction arena only two to five minutes and the auction staff won’t respond to descriptions of animals; you must have that tag number.

A word of caution: some auctions are extremely sensitive to allowing any photographs, due to adverse undercover exposés by groups like Animals’ Angels. Some well-intentioned buyers have been forced to leave auction premises for refusing to put their phones and/or cameras away when asked to do so.

Typically, saddle stock and driving stock are run through the auction first, while the animals intended for slaughter are run through towards the end of the auction. Large auctions often have 200-600 animals to sell, so be prepared to wait some time for the animal(s) you are interested in to come through.

Next week: how to win the bid!

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