So You Want To Rescue An Auction Horse, Part IV: Buying Your Horse

In this continuing series, Esther Roberts helps walk readers through the process of saving a horse from slaughter sale, from adopting via a reputable rescue to purchasing from auction directly. Today, we’re looking at the auction and bidding process.

Catch up on earlier installments: Part I: Adopting From a Rescue Organization; Part II: Finding the Right Horse; Part III: How Auctions Work

Rescuing a slaughter-bound horse directly from an auction can be an exhilarating experience. You are literally saving that horse’s life. Attending an auction of slaughter-bound animals, however, is not for the faint of heart, nor for a novice equestrian.

If you forego adopting through a reputable nonprofit, and decide to go directly to auction to rescue a slaughter-bound horse, be prepared for the onslaught of emotions you’re likely to feel as you walk past pen after pen of upset, anxious, terrified horses crowded in together. You’re there to buy one horse; the remaining ninety-nine percent of the “loose stock” (as opposed to “saddle stock” or “harness stock” which I discussed in the third installment in this series) will load on those double-decker semi trucks waiting out back. Theirs is a one-way trip to a horrible end: slaughter, either in Mexico, Canada, or possibly live-shipped to Asia. Be prepared to leave pieces of your heart behind as you walk past so many questioning eyes, reaching muzzles, anxious nickers. Horses know.

If you decide to rescue a slaughter-bound horse from auction, you just have to decide you will focus on the one life you can save. For that one very fortunate animal, you are literally his lifeline.

This is “Caleb,” a young Tennessee Walking Horse that was rescued from a pen of slaughter-bound horses. In this photo, Caleb had just been separated out from the “ship” pens to the “privately purchased” pen. We guesstimated his age to be 6 months old; however, he is actually 18 months old at this time. He had deep, infected wound in his right shoulder that needed immediate veterinary attention. Photos by Esther Roberts

If it is your first time at an auction, keep your emotions in check and focus on saving that one horse you came there to save. Lecturing the auction regulars (for example, the office staff, kill buyers, horse wranglers, concession staff, etc.) about the horrors of horse slaughter is not going to make them suddenly stop selling horses that day.

So stay focused on your mission. Be polite. Respect and good manners can go a long way towards saving a life: some wranglers will take the time to pull a horse out of a pen so you can see it up close and do a quick “meet and greet.” Some will even offer to ride the animal for you so you can see if it has had any training.

If the auction has not yet started and there is a particular horse that you’ve got your eye on, you can go to the auction office and inquire as to whether the owner would sell the animal via private treaty prior to the auction. You will probably pay a premium price (at least $100.00 over the per-pound rate) but this is a way to guarantee you get the horse you want and avoid the possibility of being outbid during the auction. The downside to this “pre-auction” approach is now the auction staff and the horse’s owner, know you are interested in that particular animal, so if the private treaty option is not available for that animal, you may find the bidding very active for that horse in order to drive up the price.

As the auction begins, be prepared to bid against the “kill buyers.” A kill buyer is someone who is purchasing horses for slaughter. They buy the animals on a per-pound rate, like cattle or swine. While I, personally, am against the sale of equines for human consumption, I also understand the problem of horse overpopulation in America is a complex, long-standing issue. Addressing that issue is outside the scope of this series. I’m just giving you tips on how to save The One.

The auctioneers know the kill buyers well because those buyers attend the auction regularly. Thus, at some auctions, the auctioneer will ignore individual buyers bidding on one horse in order to help the kill buyers get a full load purchased quickly. If this happens and you “lose” the horse you wanted to a kill buyer’s higher bid, don’t lose hope just yet.

If you do lose the bid, you could try this secondary avenue of purchase, which has proved successful in the past: approach the kill buyer and respectfully explain to him that you really wanted to purchase horse #xxx but the auctioneer failed to recognize your bid number.

Be careful not to insinuate any misdeeds by the auctioneer, even if you suspect you were purposefully ignored. Just ask the kill buyer if he would be willing to sell you horse #xxx. Many times, if the horses have not yet begun loading onto the trucks, the kill buyer will sell you the horse for something higher than the per-pound rate – typically $50.00 to $100.00 above the price he just paid for the animal.

Guard your heart carefully, however, because if the animals have begun loading onto the trucks, typically the kill buyers will not stop the process to separate out the one animal you had hoped to save. It is gut-wrenching to watch the slaughter-bound horses being herded up the loading chutes. Most of the 100,000+ American horses that ship to slaughter every year are in the prime of life, healthy, and already have saddle training, harness training, or both.

Be prepared to pay for the horse immediately upon purchase and to haul out immediately, as well. Some auctions allow overnight stabling, but most do not. Further, it is wise to get your new horse out of the auction environment as quickly as possible, for several reasons. First, an immediate exit helps limit your new horse’s exposure to the myriad diseases rampant in every auction house. The auction environment is an extremely high-stress one to most horses, so you do your new horse a great kindness by getting her out of there as quickly as possible. Loading immediately after purchase also minimizes any risk of your horse being inadvertently loaded in a slaughter shipment. Mistakes do happen, and the best way to make sure your newly-purchased rescue horse is safe is to haul him out of the auction as quickly as possible.

Caleb was exhausted and collapsed immediately upon arrival to his quarantine facility. The University of Tennessee Veterinary Field Team came out and treated his shoulder; Caleb ran a fever of 105 F for five days and it was touch and go whether he would live during that first week.

Bring an old but serviceable halter and lead rope for your new horse. You will want to destroy both once you get your horse through quarantine, because all the germs, bacteria, and viruses that cause strangles, Potomac, West Nile, and other potentially life-threatening illnesses can survive in either leather or nylon. So don’t take brand new tack with you to the auction. Once your new riding partner has completed quarantine, either at your farm or a reputable quarantine facility, destroy the old halter and lead rope and splurge for a brand new set for your new equine friend.

Fast forward a couple of years; Caleb is now a healthy, sweet, smart trail horse. He is a wonderful ambassador for the kind-natured Tennessee Walking Horse; he’s also an excellent example of the fantastic animals one can find at “slaughter” auctions.

The harsh reality of our current American horse population is this: there are far too many horses and few too few homes for them. Saving one horse from auction does not provide a magic “cure” to the problem of equine overpopulation; however, your winning bid literally buys – and saves – that horse’s life.

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