Horse-Auction

Horse auctions are an exciting place to buy a horse, often at a low cost. However, in most cases, the cost is low because there is a serious problem with the horse and it is not worth more. The exception to this is the occasional gem (young, healthy, trained and well behaved) which is selling for a low price at auction because the owner needs to sell the horse quick (typically because the owner has financial problems). Consequently, if one is buying a riding horse at auction, one needs to be able to separate out the few good quality horses from the rest.

The following discusses the most common problems with horses being auctioned, followed by a guide on how to avoid these issues. It is written with general horse auctions in mind, rather than the less common specialized horse auctions (where horses are much better quality, but are correspondingly more expensive). If one is looking for an inexpensive horse, one might also want to consider rescue horses, where it is also possible to get a good horse inexpensively and with less risk.

Eliminating Obvious Problems

There are a number of common problems which one will often see in horses at auctions:

  • Old. Horses are often at auction because they are at the end of their working life, so this is the easiest method for owners to dispose of them, at a profit. If you are unable to judge a horse's age, do not take the seller's word for it, but ask to see the horses documentation. The documentation should specify its age, with a tattoo or identify chip which can be used to confirm that the documentation does in fact match the horse being offered.
  • Sick. Even if the horse looks well, it may have any number of hidden problems, such as a tendency to colic or an allergy. Depending on the type of illness, it may be merely inconvenient, or require expensive treatment, or may leave the horse unusable (e.g. severe case of laminitis).
  • Bad Temperament. Horses may have an aggressive temperament (which is dangerous) or nervous disposition (also dangerous, if the horse spooks while you are riding it). It is well known that many horses at auction are drugged to hide these problems.
  • Bad Behaviors. There are any number of bad behaviors which a horse can have, some of which make them more difficult to handle, while others pose a risk to the horse itself (e.g. cribbing).
  • Un-broke or Un-trained. A horse may appear broke and well trained at auction, only to show otherwise later. More than a few horses are drugged, to make them calmer for the auction. Also, in the unfamiliar surroundings of the auction, a horse may be more obedient and subdued. However, a few days after you get it home and all this has worn off, a different horse can emerge.

One must remember that there is a reason for horses being sold cheaply at auctions and it is usually one or more of the above reasons. This is not to say that all horses at auction have problems, but most of them do, or they would not be there.

It is also important to know that you have relatively little legal protection in the event of a problem with the horse. At auctions, horses are sold largely 'as-is', without any guarantee or other protection. Even if you can show that the description of the horse was inaccurate, you may face a lengthy and expensive court process to recover your money, perhaps finding out at the end that the seller has gone bankrupt and can no longer pay. Consequently, you need to realize that it is up to yourself to verify the condition of the horse. Also, as nobody can be 100% certain of identifying all possible problems, you need to accept a certain amount of risk. For these reasons, it is generally advised that one should not buy a horse at a general auction unless one is a professional with expertise in this area. However, If you are still determined to buy at auction, following are some tips.

Examine Horses During Delivery

Find out when the horses are being delivered (typically a few hours before auction) and show up to watch the horses as they are being unloaded and taken to their pens. Arriving well in advance of the auction gives you the time to do your homework on the various horses and see what they are like before the auction starts.

If you can get a copy of the auction list or catalogue in advance which you can make notes on, it will help you keep track of your observations on the different horses.

Watch the horses as they are being unloaded and walked to their pen:

  • It should unload relatively easily. A horse which is unfamiliar with trailers may be a bit hesitant, but there should not be a major problem.
  • It  should walk easily (no sign of lameness). It should display good overall condition.
  • It should not display a nervous or aggressive nature.
  • Given the noise and strange surroundings of the auction, one would expect the horse to be alert and somewhat nervous. If it is seems very relaxed, it is quite possibly drugged or sick. 
  • If you are not happy with the horse at this stage, one can remove it from consideration (put a line through it in the catalogue).

Who is bringing the horse and how many horses are they bringing? If it is a professional or someone bringing multiple horses, don't expect any bargains. However, a private individual may be selling a horse here due to financial problems or simply that they are no longer interested in keeping it (a common problem with horses purchased for children, whose interests change). Such private sales offer a better chance to get a good horse at a modest price. Make a mental note of the people delivering the horse (or write down a distinguishing feature on the catalogue beside the horse) so that you can talk to them later.

How do the people unloading the horse treat it. If they are the owners and are gentle with it, obviously sorry to see it go, then it is likely that the horse has been well treated. On the other hand, if the owners are treating it roughly, perhaps even whipping it into place, then it may have a history of abuse which can easily have resulted in the development of behavioral issues.

Look at Penned Horses

The above step will have eliminated many, or even most, of the horses on offer. The next step is to go to where the horses are penned or stabled.

Watch how the horse moves and behaves. Check for blemishes or scars that may indicate a previous injury or mistreatment. If all looks well, try to find the owner to discuss the horse. If the owner isn't available, ask who at the auction knows most about that horse. If you find someone, ask:

  • Can you tell me about the horse? Let them talk as long as they like without interruption. You are looking to learn about the horse, not have a conversation.
  • What illnesses has the horse had? Do not ask "Has the horse ever been ill?" is it is to easy for them to simply reply "No.". By assuming that the horse has been ill, you make it easier for them to tell you about previous illnesses.
  • What injuries has the horse had? Again, do not ask "Has the horse ever been injured?".
  • Has the horse ever hurt anyone? If so, ask what happened. A simple accident is understandable but one needs to understand why the accident occurred. For example, if someone fell off the horse, was it because they did something stupid or because the horse bucked.
  • Should the horse have an experienced rider or could a child ride it? Most horses aren't suitable for children and a horse that needs an experienced rider isn't necessarily bad. However, if they say it needs an experienced rider, one can ask "Why?" and maybe get some useful information.
  • Does the horse have any undesirable behaviors? Unlikely to get a truthful answer, but it never hurts to ask.
  • Anything else a potential buyer would like to know? A general catch-all question.

In most cases, you will eliminate the horse before you reach the end of these questions. In this case, politely thank the other person for their time and move on to the next horse.

Don't stop when you have found a horse you like. Go through the rest of your short list to see if there are any others. It is better to go into an auction with a few horses that you are interested in, rather than depending on a single horse where you may be outbid.

Examination

At this point, if it is a typical horse auction, there won't be many horses that you are interested in. However, for the horses still on your short list, you need to examine them more closely.

Ask the owner if it is OK to examine their horse. If so, ask if they could take the horse out of the pen to another area where you can examine it alone. In a pen, it is more difficult to concentrate with other horses milling about, and there is the risk of accidental injury with so many horses unfamiliar with each other being in a confined space.

Go through as many of the standard health checks as you can. Of course, a number of them may not be practical (e.g. riding) at an auction but certainly the close physical inspection should be done. If you see a potential problem, don't be afraid to ask about it.

Bidding

If you don't see any horses that you are absolutely happy with, it is best not to bid at all. Although the sale price may not be that high, the cost of owning a horse is substantial so it is best not to make a commitment unless you are sure.

Also, make sure that you have a way to transport the horse home and a place to keep it before buying. The seller probably expects that you will take the horse immediately and isn't planning on taking it back to his place for a month while you arrange stabling. If this is an issue for you, discuss with the auction house if they know of a reputable interim stable who could pick of the horse and keep it until you are ready, then contact them to confirm this before bidding.

Each auction has different rules and some of the more reputable have policies to protect the buyer. For example, some auctions allow the buyers to have the horse examined by the on-site veterinarian, where the sale is not binding if the horse fails the examination. It is wise to inform yourself of such policies and options in advance, in case you should wish to take advantage of them.

If there are horses that you would be happy to own, set a maximum price for each. It is very easy to be carried away at auction and pay more that you wanted, so setting a firm budget before the bidding starts is advisable.