Going to a horse auction will change your life and theirs.
Contributed by ERN founder, Dr. Janine Jacques
First find a local auction. ERN provides a list at www.EquineRescueNetwork.com. There are auctions in every state that feed into the slaughter pipeline. These auctions are essentially an outlet for owners to relieve themselves of the financial burden of an unwanted horse. Typically owners will sell the horse to a local dealer who will then take the horse to auction. Horse dealers create a buffer for horse owners so that they don’t have to be exposed to the ugly horrors of the slaughter pipeline.
Time to pack up your trailer and get on your way. Before you go, here is a list of basics to consider:
Leadropes and Halters. Many years ago, I bought a horse at the Kneeneland Thoroughbred Racing sale. He came with a leather halter with his racing name engraved on a polished halter plate and a well-oiled leather shank. There are high end auctions, and low end (meat) auctions. If you are at a low end auction, expect to be handed a horse with a tattered halter and a leadrope made of hay string.
Hay and grain. I usually bring two full hay bags and a bucket of grain to help horses load or to make fast friends with a new donkey.
Lunge Line. It’s amazing to me that most of the horses from auctions seem to jump willingly onto the trailer with a “GET ME OUT OF HERE” attitude. But just in case, I carry a lunge line to help load. Plus sometimes it’s helpful to see a horse move on a lunge before you bid. The bidding areas are so small, and it all happens so fast. At some auctions you may be lucky and find an area to quickly see a horse on a lunge. It will tell you a lot about their training and soundness.
Buckets and a water container. I bring several SMALL buckets that hold 2 gallons. In addition, I bring a 10 gallon container for each horse. If you fill a big bucket (8 QT) and your horse drinks only a sip, it’s not easy to pour the remaining back into the 10 gallon container. If you leave it in the trailer stall, it will just spill once the trailer begins moving. Using a small bucket is less waste. If your horse is super thirsty, you may have to fill it more than once.
Bridle. The “catch riders” use the same bridle on every horse they ride into the auction ring. While it may not be possible to intercept them before they bridle a horse you are interested in bidding on, if you have asked them to ride a ‘loose horse’ or a ‘buyback horse’ from the killbuyer, have them use your bridle. It could prevent the spread of illness.
First Aid. If you are not confident in your own veterinary expertise, note that every auction will have a licensed veterinarian in attendance. Most will give you quick medical advice on a horse before you bid. Eye injuries are common so I travel with a tube of ophthalmic antibiotic ointment. When you go to your vet and ask for the eye ointment – grab a bottle of Bute and a tube of Banamine. You may not need that on the trip, but it may come in handy later. I also carry a bottle of Ace and a syringe. I have only used Ace once on a trip to auction when a tire on my trailer blew just before the George Washington Bridge. I had a nervous Thoroughbred on the trailer that got increasingly nervous as large tractor trailer trucks zoomed by. Traveling alone with three horses and broken down on a busy expressway was making me nervous too, so I opted to give the Thoroughbred one CC of Ace which seemed to calm us both down while AAA changed my tire.
Pack up your truck with the essentials for vehicle emergencies and food consumption. Once the horses are loaded you will want to keep moving and your only stop will be for gas and to water horses. I bring plenty of caffeinated options (unless you like bad gas station coffee), fruit and healthy snacks. The best kept secret to my long drives is Audible available on Amazon. You can listen to books on your phone which makes the drive far more pleasant.
When you arrive:
I suggest getting to the auction one hour early. Go to the main office and get a bid number. Then take a trip around and look at the horses. Take a note card with you to jot down horse hip tag numbers and notes about each horse.
Unfortunately horses are not run through the ring in numerical order of hip tag. So keep an eye on each horse you want to bid on as you never know when they will appear in the ring.
It is chaos. Keep reminding yourself that YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE for horses being at the auction – save what you can save, but try not to get reeled into an emotional bid to save a horse that is not worth saving. Remember: you have to feed and care for the horse you bring home.
If a horse appears in the ring with “Signed Paperwork” it means their previous owner has signed-off on the paperwork that confirms the horse has not received carcinogens (ivermectin/wormers or bute/banamine) for at least six months. When the auctioneer announces “Signed Papers” the killbuyers in the audience take notice.
There is often a group of “Loose Horses” – the wild-card horses. These loose horses are a mixture of ages and training. These horses are so unwanted that no one even bothered to see if they were halter broke or broke to ride. They are chased into a ring (loose); all have have signed papers and will sell immediately to the killbuyers.
I bought one of these “Loose Horses” once at the auction in Billings, Montana. “Wallace” was a bit scared and ornery at first, but two years later, he sold for $25,000 as a field hunter. He just needed someone to give him a chance.
Because of Wallace, I am always careful to consider the “Loose Horse” Pen.
If a horse has a red mark drawn through his hip tag that means he has already sold. The office will not give information on horses sold at auction.
If you are intent on saving a particular horse that has already run through auction, my advice is to stick around. Don’t give up, eventually someone will show up to move that horse either onto a trailer or to a killbuyer’s pen. When that someone appears ask questions. If it is a killbuyer, often he will sell you that horse for a small profit, other times he will sell you that horse for a large profit. I once paid $160 over the auction price for a horse that had sold to a killbuyer. She was worth every penny.
Another thing to consider is that any of the “catch riders” will jump on a horse for you for $20. If you are considering a loose horse or a buy-back from a killbuyer, flag down one of the riders who ride horses in the ring during the auction. They will give you a full assessment of a horse while you watch safely from the sidelines. If you brought a bridle, ask the rider to use your bridle. As noted previously, they use the same bridle on every horse they ride so be safe and use yours.
I had a catch rider jump on two horses that I was considering buying back from a killbuyer – one turned out to be VERY broke, the other not-so-much. The catch rider explained that the ‘not-so-much’ horse was probably a driving horse and with time would be a nice riding horse. She was exactly correct and now I have a nice young horse that rides and drives!
Remember any horse that sells for less than $700 is at risk for slaughter (although prices vary with supply and demand). Blind horses and weanlings under six months old do not ship to slaughter. Stallions that ship to slaughter must be in their own stall during transport, so they rarely ship. Some killbuyers simply ‘discard’ young weanlings. Older grey horses do not ship to slaughter, yet younger greys do. Mini horses do ship to slaughter, and donkeys ship to slaughter.
In fact, donkeys are a precious commodity in China. Donkey hide is an ingredient used in popular Chinese tonics and medicines. ‘Ejiao’ is made of donkey hide. It is sold as a remedy to enrich the blood and is marketed to women a means to stay youthful and healthy.
Amazon sells Ejiao online….I assume that Amazon is unware of the ingredients of this product or the devastating impact product of Ejiao has on the population of donkeys in the world.
China consumes so many donkeys per year that Africa has banned the export of donkeys to China. This causes China to look for Donkeys in the U.S. Therefore, if you are hoping to rescue a donkey, expect to bid against killbuyers who are looking to get top dollar for donkey hides.
My final advice is to communicate with others at the auction. It is easy to identify the killbuyers from the individuals who are at the auction to purchase or save horses. If you are at auction in January, you will notice the audience is mostly killbuyers. In June it will be a 50-50 mix.
Killbuyers don’t go to auction early and walk around looking at horses. They don’t have to know anything about the horse other than its age and size. They sit by the ring and wait for horses to enter.
On the other hand, individuals and rescuers wander the aisle looking at horses. Make sure to note who is looking at the same horses that you are looking at. Introduce yourself and plan to collaborate so you don’t bid against each other. It is frustrating when rescuers are not properly orchestrated and end up bidding against each other.
At auction the battle is against the killbuyers – not each other!
ed how much it would cost to lance and treat. He explained, “Less than $100.” I tied him back to the concrete wall. Twenty minutes later, he hobbled into the ring. I outbid the killbuyers and waited for the vet to lance the abscess after the sale. Two days later he trotted off sound.
When the auction starts, your physical positioning is critical. It is stressful & chaotic when bidding on a horse and often difficult to see who you are bidding against. I usually find a seat high on the bleachers so I can (hopefully) see who else is bidding. If it is a killbuyer, I keep bidding. If it’s an individual, I drop out. (As mentioned earlier, killbuyers are easy to spot in the crowd). If you have friends, coordinate around the bleachers and have hand signals to say when to drop out. Below are some examples of how to ‘work an auction’.
A 4 year old, Standardbred Stallion was tied to a concrete wall at the New Holland Auction. ERN volunteers ran his Freeze brand through Standardbred Association and learned he had last raced on Jan. 12th. During this race, he must have bowed a tendon, because 18 days later, he was dropped off at the auction.
ERN began working on securing funds and a home offer for this horse. If raising money is hard; finding a home is harder, especially for a young Stallion with an active bowed tendon. ERN has a strict policy, WE DO NOT BID ON ANY HORSE UNTIL WE HAVE A PRE-APPROVED HOME LINED UP. This way I don’t end up with a herd of horses in my backyard. Unfortunately for the stallion, a home offer did not surface until 11:35 and the stallion was sold at auction at 10:45 for $375. We were told he was sold to “the Racers.”
In the chaos of auctions, this scenario has happened many times before. Typically, we approach the killbuyer with a generous cash incentive, usually between $50-100. I hate, hate, hate giving the killbuyers anything, but recognize this is the only way to save a horse. It usually is a seamless transaction.
However, today was different. It turned out that the “The Racers” were a group that illegally races horses on streets and backyard racetracks. Illegal gambling that involves animals is never aligned with the welfare of the animal. Whether its dog fighting, cock fighting, dog racing or horse racing, animals suffer when an industry is not regulated or is illegal.
Our volunteers worked the crowd at the auction to find the “The Racers.” The auction was crowded with killbuyers, Amish buyers and several rescuers so they were hard to find. They were headed to the parking lot leading the stallion. His head hung low as he limped along behind The Racers.
ERN tried our best to purchase the Stallion. We offered up to $775 in cash. They refused. They seemed to think that this Stallion was their lottery ticket to cash winnings in the illegal racing circuit. They would nurse him back to health, and he would race again.
Not an ideal ending for the stallion, but for now he will get good care. I suspect we will see him again at New Holland when his illegal racing career ends. Next time we hope to deliver a much happier ending for him.
At the same time we were working the stallion, we had a Momma and Baby donkey to worry about. They were tagged separately which means they would be auctioned off separately. Since the baby appeared too young to be separated from his mother, our goal was to purchase both.
If the killbuyer were to purchase them, he would try to resell them to rescuers online at a much higher price. If they did not sell at the higher price, he would haul them off to another auction, then another and eventually they might land in a horrible place like the Bowie or Bastrop killpens. And trust me, if you are a donkey, you don’t want to ship to Mexico. Remember – the Chinese would love to get their hands on any donkey in the U.S.
Momma was unwanted. She was unhandled and clearly terrified. It was a cold day in January so the audience was mostly killbuyers. Given the sparse crowd, the momma donkey was a good candidate for the ‘Zoo Guy’ who needs to feed lions & tigers at a private estate in Ohio.
The baby, on the other hand, was cute and manageable. Therefore, he would go for more (perhaps as high as $250). However, his cuteness would wane soon and being shuffled from auction to auction would make him untrusting and hard to handle. Plus soon his value for resale would be limited because people would start to compare the value of a cute baby donkey against the expense to castrate the donkey (which can be up to $600 in some places). SO it was only a matter of time until he too would be unwanted.
ERN’s strategy: PLAN A was to play by the rules. Our ERN volunteer contacted the auction veterinarian to have him assess the pair. If the baby met the legal criteria, he must be sold with his mother. There is very little oversight at these auctions so sometimes rescuers need to step in and ensure everyone is playing by the rules.
If PLAN A failed, PLAN B was to bid on both if they were to sell separate. If the baby went for more than we could afford, we would take note of who won the bid. We would stay in the bidding war, watching the crowd closely. Once the killbuyers dropped out, so would we. At that point the baby would be bought by an individual in the crowd, not a killbuyer.
Next, we would track down whoever bought the baby and offer mother to them. This way we would keep them together. Of course, we would have them sign our contract and contact us if they choose to rehome the mother once the baby is weaned.
If that failed, our last hope would be to buy back the baby. This is the least attractive option as it would cost ERN the most….In this example – Plan A worked and ERN purchased both. They came home with us. They were scared and untouchable. We were patient. They eventually gave in and joined us every morning for coffee:
Every time you visit the auction it’s a balance. On one side you want to maximize the number of horses you save keeping in mind the cost to win the bid, vet costs, space in your trailer, and the likelihood that the horse rescued will be useful & sound. On the other side are funds. Before you arrive, decide how much you are willing to spend that day. Then stick to your planned spending limits.
The last piece of the balanced equation is your sanity. It is best to keep reminding yourself all morning that you are there to save what you can and it’s not your fault other humans have failed each and every horse at the auction.