We've all heard a story or two about someone getting bamboozled at a livestock auction. Whether or not you purchase a horse that is worthy of the money that you paid can appear to be a total crapshoot. Don't let the horror stories scare you away from horse auctions because there are many good deals to be had. Here are a few things you should keep in mind the next time you are looking to purchase a horse at an auction.
The first thing you should do to give yourself a leg-up is arrive early to the auction, ideally 2-3 hours early so tha t you can watch the horses arrive. Watching how they walk to their pens will give you a first impression as to the health of the horse (we'll talk more about that a little later). Take mental notes of who is selling what horse, how many horses are they selling, etc. There isn't really a good or bad seller per se, but do not discount one's "spidey sense". For example, if you see a horse trader arrive with many trailers full of horses, this may mean that you want to pay special attention to the horse's health. Another benefit of watching who the horses arrive with, is that you will know who to approach with questions.
When you talk to the person who arrived with the horse, find out if they are the owner? If they are not the owner of the horse - who is he and why are you selling it for him? If you get a story about the horse being a neighbor's horse or something that sounds fishy, go with your instincts. Beware of the possibility that you are being fed a story and that you are actually speaking with the true owner. He just doesn't want to be on the hook for any lies that he is telling you. I know this sounds cynical, but if someone is trying to bamboozle you they will try to distant themselves from the horse for legal reasons.
The most important thing to determine is the overall health of the horse. Obviously an auction setting imposes limitations on your ability to measure a horses health, but do your best. The first thing to take note of is if the horse is tied up in his pen. If so, this could be an indication that the seller is intentionally trying to hide a health problem by restricting the horse's movement.
Pay special attention to the horses legs as this is the most common place for injuries. Look for any signs of limping or lameness. Do the horse's hooves appear to be well-kept and clean? Poorly kept hooves, and general cleanliness for that matter, could also point to improper treatment of past injuries (thereby increasing the likelihood of future ones).
Note any scars, bumps, or divots on the head or neck of the horse. This could mean that the horse is prone to panic. This type of thing can be very hard to determine at an auction, but looking for past wounds and noting their location can give you a few clues.
Examine the prospective horse by running your hand over him/her from head to toe. You are looking for spots that are noticeably warmer than surrounding areas or areas that appear to be swollen. When looking at the legs, compare the left one to the right one, and vice versa. This will help you identify a problem. Flex many of the horses joints as you can in order to check for arthritis.
If you are not comfortable with your ability to assess the health of a horse, consider bringing a veterinarian with you. Heck, even if you "think" you are able to examine a horse, a veterinarian is never a bad idea. This may be a tough thing to arrange, but if you are serious about buying a horse it will pay dividends.
When the horse is introduced to the sale ring, look for any head bobbing, head tossing, rearing, or skittishness. Does the horse appear to be uncomfortable, are his ear's pinned back, tail twitching? All of these signs could indicate a potential injury or point to the horse as being a tough ride. The sale ring is generally too small to get in any real work, but you will get a little glimpse into how the horse reacts under some pressure. The seller will generally try to push the horse a bit to get a good showing. Sometimes this actually makes a defect all the more clear.
I hope these tips allow you to purchase your next horse at an auction with confidence. Do your due diligence and it will make your buying experience all the more enjoyable.