Going once, going twice. . .

by Vicki Schmidt
April 1999

Place names like Gordyville, Columbus, and Topeka are known to draft horse enthusiasts all over the United States and Canada. These auctions draw the nations top selling draft horses, with prices for teams of potential champion hitch horses or pulling horses often climbing over $30,000.

If you're at all adventurous and you'd like a rapid-fire class on draft horses, the auction grounds at Topeka, Indiana are a great place to start. Arrive a day early just to watch the equipment arrive. It's the best learning place one can imagine. The local farmers, mostly Amish, are happy to point out features on the items. Plows, harrows, hay rakes, wagons and buggies of every sort fill acres of fields. There is new and used of almost anything that can be pulled behind a horse. Some are antiques or collector items, but many are useable and just waiting for a team of horses to hitch to them. A few flatbeds will be filled with eveners, new ash poles for wagons and plows, and piles of stall mats. Used horse trailers line one side of the main auction barn. When the outside equipment auction begins, three auctioneers take to the fields in specialized trucks. It's hard to go to an auction as just one person, as the best deals are usually being sold at the same time in different areas.

The tack auction at Topeka is its own array of new and used. Five flatbed wagons will be overflowing with draft horse related items. From tack boxes and blankets to womers and harness oil by the gallon. Almost anything you could ever need is somewhere on one of the wagons. As many as 200 sets of harness and over 400 collars will sell in less than two hours. It's definitely advisable to thoroughly check out any harness and collars during the preview. And don't forget your tape measure if you're serious about buying. Knowing what measurements you require for harness, collars, and hames will save you an unwanted sale.

When the tack and equipment is all sold, it time to bring on the horses. The sale starts with Haflinger ponies, then moves on to mules and spotted drafts, then on to Shires, Clydes, Percherons, and Belgians. Each horse or team sells in an average of three minutes. Except for selling by breed and by order of their number, there is little to tell you what's coming up for sale next. A team of hitch geldings may be followed by a yearling, followed by a breeders culled stallion, then a pair of 1/2 brother weanlings or a bred team of "chunk style" mares.

Inside the auction barn the stalls, halls and alleyways are crowded with draft horses of every size, shape and color. The loudspeaker calls in the next horse for sale almost as soon as the hammer is down and the previous one is sold. The sensory receptors of the horses are over loaded with stimuli from the sounds and actions of the auction barn. The scent of strange horses and handlers mingles with the diesel fumes. Dozens of trucks and tractors idle their engines while they wait for their turn at the gates. The sounds of horses being unloaded from stock trailers echoes through the narrow passageways. Two horses and handlers brush shoulders as they pass in opposite directions. One is just arriving and on the way to his temporary stall, the other is braided and polished and headed to the sales arena. There is rarely any panic or misbehaving from the horses. They stay alert, and never stray from the security of their handler and their personal space.

Buying a horse at an auction is a gamble much more risky than a private sale. With over 1,300 draft horses going through the sale at Topeka, having paper and pen in hand will save you lots of frustration. All horses are given a number as they arrive at the auction house. Some are cataloged, but most are not. Some number tags will be different colors depending on if the horse is tested for sale to Canada. All horses advertised as trained to drive must be driven either in the sale ring or in a preview area. Previewing is important as it' about the only chance you'll get to see a horse close up. Checking hoof and legs are all important as its hard to confirm their quality once they are in the sales ring. The preview is also a good time to talk to the owner or consignor and try to get any information on the horse. Unlike a private sale, you usually only have a few minutes to decide how much is true and which statements you want to believe. The term "well broke" can mean well broke to field work, the show circuit, or city traffic, but rarely all three. A mare "in foal" may be in foal but she may be bred to a donkey, or a horse, or she may have never delivered a healthy foal.

Once the horse enters the sales ring three main items determine how quickly bidding will start: the style of the horse, the breeder, and the consignor. Those buyers looking for top hitch horses will go for action first. A "heads up" horse with "all the right angles" is sure to get the bidding going. Pedigrees are all important to some buyers, as is the consignor. Some buyers know just from the name of the consignor that the horse will be of the reputation and quality they desire.

The top prices for draft horses for most auctions are perfectly matched teams of hitch geldings. A few of the nations top hitch companies are switching to mares and this is beginning to be reflected in the prices paid for mares. Top selling single horses usually sell for around $13,000 with the majority selling around $3000. Prices tend to be higher in the spring as farmers are looking for horses to work in the fields and other buyers are looking to replace broodmares, hitch stock or working carriage horses for the summer season. The fall sales will be full of weanlings. Many of these will be purchased by feed lot companies, with the best foals returning to the auctions in the spring as yearlings. Also ironically, many of the same field teams that were bought in the spring are returned for sale in the fall, thus saving the farmer the cost of feeding the horses all winter.

Like playing the slot machines at a casino, you have to be willing to loose whatever you bid. If a horse purchased is not what you wanted, there is little recourse. There is also the cost of transporting the horse home if you didn't arrive in your own truck and trailer. The sense of gamble and the acceptance of chance, combined with the excitement of the auction isn't for everyone. For others the unknowns offer a potential element of reward. Many good horses have been bought at auctions. Its all in knowing from the start exactly what you want and what your looking for, being in the right place at the right time, and not spending more than your willing to loose.

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