Montana horse auction
Buying a Horse

Buying your horse at auction, pt 4: When you’re in the auction ring

Once you’ve decided on the horses you’re interested in, you can take their auction numbers and check with the auction offices where the horses came from.

If you’ve seen one horse that you like, it’s possible that whoever is selling it has more horses like it — especially when the horses come from a breeder, ranch, trainer or a feral population.

If the horse you’ve got your eye on is a former racing horse, see if you can look up the record.

If a horse had been successful in competition it would likely be used for breeding instead of being sold at auction.

The fewer races a horse has run, the less successful it was as a racer and the sooner it was retired. Many races may indicate that the horse was running races until it got injured.

Sometimes, promising young thoroughbreds turn out to be less successful than hoped and end up for sale at low prices (compared to what they would cost as successful racers) at livestock auctions before ever really having started a career.

It also isn’t unheard of that famous, successful racehorses have been sold for pennies at livestock auctions, simply because they’ve passed the height of their career, have gotten injured and have been forgotten.

Tattoos, microchips and records are your friends when finding out all about the potential new horses.

Don’t buy a racing stallion at an auction thinking you’ll make money from stud fees – if he had any value as a stud, he would not be at the auction.

Also, keep in mind that a racing horse is trained to bolt at a second’s notice and they can be very skittish. A trained racehorse almost never makes a good horse for a young or inexperienced rider.

That said, thoroughbreds can become wonderful leisure, dressage or jumping horses with proper training.

When it’s time to bid

Having gone through your check-list and having written down the numbers of the horses you’re interested in, it’s time to head to the ring.

Sometimes you might see buyers right inside the ring (depending on the kind of facilities and type of auction), and these are the professional buyers that frequent the auctions.

And no, they won’t let you go in the ring, because you might end up getting hurt. Typically auctions only allow the handlers in the ring with the horses.

When a horse enters the ring, the auctioneer will usually state the warranty status of the animal and briefly show the passport. Here it pays off to listen as some change in the warranty might have occurred since you last checked.

Don’t worry if you can’t understand the auctioneer at first. Check with a neighbour if you’re unsure about something. After a while, the auctioneer’s chant will start to make sense to you too.

The vendors will usually have a reserve on their animal, and the auctioneer will start the bidding where they see fit. The minimum price for any animal is often around £30–50. The increments in the price will depend on the lot.

Sold by the pound

Sold by the pound is actually sold by the hundredweight. If a horse sells for £100, it actually sells for £1 per pound of live weight.

So, if the hammer lands on your bid and the auctioneer calls out “sold for 36 pounds” you have to multiply the cost with the weight of the animal.

If a horse weighs 850 pounds it will cost you £306 (805 x 0,36 = 306). Some auctions have a weighbridge built into the ring while others will run the animal over the scales after the hammer.

Often animals sold by the pound are considered only fit for the kill-buyers. Sometimes a group of horses can be run into the ring at once, and big buyers (not small fry like you and me) are offered the chance to buy several horses or the whole group.

When an animal comes up for auction by the pound, be wary of bidding on it. If you do bid on it, you will need to estimate what the animal weighs so you can decide how high you can go. 

Also, remember that you (sadly) can’t save all the horses from the kill-buyers.

Sold by the head

Usually, the horses that are ridden and lead into the ring are sold by the head. Now, keep in mind that just because someone is riding the horse doesn’t mean that he’s been started or even trained to be a riding horse.

Now is the time to think back to what you saw earlier in the day and consult your notes — is this the same horse that was bucking and jumping in the pen that now seems so docile?

He might have been tired out by the handlers before going into the ring or drugged to seem calmer than he is. A tell-tale sign of exhaustion or sedation is that the rider isn’t really riding the horse, more likely just sitting on top to give an impression of the horse being rideable.

Sweating, foaming at the mouth, being skittish, tossing the head, dilated pupils and rolling the eyes can also be signs of stress in the horse. Keep in mind that the environment at an auction can stress a horse out and make even a gentle horse irritable.

Horses being led in the ring by volunteers at the Amish Spring Auction in Pennsylvania. This annual event is locally known as the Amish Mud Sale. The auction numbers are on the rumps of the horses, and the horses most likely sold by the head since they each have a number. Photo: DelmasLehman /

Sold in pairs

Mares with foals may be sold in pairs. The starting price is usually a bit higher than for single animals because you can, in theory, sell the foal in some months’ time when it is old enough, and recoup your initial investment along with some profit.

You can, of course, also train the foal and sell it a few years later, hopefully making an even better profit.

If a pair is not selling together, the auctioneer may split them up. This is a chance for the same bidder to get the pair but pay less for the individual animals.

However, once the pair is split up, they might also go to separate buyers. So, if you want the pair it’s best to buy them when you have a better chance to get them together.

Being successful at an auction is as much abour “reading the room” – looking at what other buyers are doing and thinking – as it is about observing the animals.

An auctioneer’s chant is designed to tap into your FOMO (fear of missing out) with the intention of getting you to act, i.e. bid.

The pace of an auction, especially one with many bidders, can be very quick and it can get hectic. Learning to see what’s happening with the people bidding against you will help you to determine how much interest there is in the lot.

Next: When the hammer falls

You may also like...