Better bring your horse sense to this auction
Though I doubt many of the 200 or so people sitting on the tiered seats could understand a word of Latin, they all knew what “caveat emptor” means: Let the buyer beware.
I got to the auction in Delta just as the first horse was going through the ring. I cocked my ear and listened to the auctioneer’s patter. As I learned that the horse was a mare, in which I am not interested, I relaxed and went out to the corrals to inspect the offerings.
There was a little bit of everything ” miniature horses, donkeys, old mules, yearling colts and fillies, well-broke ranch horses, broken-down, spavined old cayuses, mustangs, paints, registered quarter horses, dude string horses, and a lot of lame horses that would go to the killer. Two horses in particular caught my eye, both young paint geldings. I wrote down their tag numbers, glued onto their croups where the tail joins the rump.
At a horse sale, a buyer can expect to get rooked. It’s not uncommon at all to buy a nice-looking horse, get him home, and two days later, after the bute wears off, he’ll be so lame he can’t walk. It’s happened to me. Commonly, out of every five horses purchased at a sale, two or three will work out. They’re at a sale for a reason ” maybe it’s a knobby knee indicating lameness, maybe he’s a bronc that will buck you off when you least expect it, maybe he’s hard to catch and saddle.
Then again, maybe his owner is going through a divorce and needs the cash, or he’s an old rancher who isn’t riding anymore. Or it could be that he just hasn’t found the right home, the right combination of patience, understanding and firmness.
I ended up sitting next to my friend, Steve Tenold, a keen evaluator of horseflesh. Steve is a true horseman and attends many auctions a year. His insights are invaluable. “That one there is built out of a bunch of spare parts,” he commented. “What a poor conformation.”
I looked around at the buyers. I recognized four or five other outfitters who were looking to add to their herds for the summer season. There were ranchers looking for broke geldings for a summer of cowboying in the high country; families trying to buy a gentle old horse for their kids; breeders seeking registered broodmares that could squeeze out one or two more colts; trainers looking for candidates to train and sell. The air was close in the low building and cowboy hats were everywhere.
The killer buyers all stood together at one corner of the ring. “One of them has a contract to supply meat for the lions and eagles at this zoo over by Monte Vista,” Steve informed me. “They buy these old horses and grind ’em up for the cats.”
I had noticed a sign painted on a truck and trailer outside, a horse rescue outfit. There’s a constant tension between the rescuers and the killers. Not many good horses go to the killers, who ship them down to a plant in Texas for dog food in the United States and steaks in France. But some do. Someone ran three little yearling fillies through the ring, scared and bunched together. They brought $75 apiece. They might make someone a good horse in three years, but that’s a long time to wait for uncertain breeding to grow up.
“That’s a horse you oughta buy,” said Steve, knowing that I need a couple of gentle horses. It was a big bay gelding, “smooth-mouthed,” according to the auctioneer, meaning he was more than 12 years old. “He’ll make you a good horse, added Steve. “If you don’t like him, I’ll take him off your hands for the same money.”
With that guarantee, I couldn’t afford not to bid. When the auctioneer said “Sold!” the horse was mine for $675.
One of the paint geldings came through, a 4-year-old tri-color ridden by the son of one of the killer buyers. “Justin’s a good horseman,” Steve said. “He has quiet hands and he knows horses. This gelding will bring a lot of money.” True enough, Justin showed the horse well and the bidding was spirited. It was over my budget at $1,400, and despite Justin’s good horsemanship, I knew the colt wasn’t really that well-broke. If he went to an inexperienced rider, he’d have his hands full.
Then a horse came through that intrigued me. I have a soft spot for Arabians, because my own personal horse is an Arabian, and he’s awesome. This horse looked a lot like Slick, older at age 18, but spirited and looked well-broke. At $270, the only bidder was the killer. I put my hand up and stopped the bidding. “Can I ride him?” I asked the auctioneer. This was an unusual request. “Well, sure,” the auctioneer said. I clambered over the rails, climbed in the saddle, and liked his feel. The gelding was quick, responsive, and eager. I was on his back for perhaps 10 seconds, but knew all I needed to know. “Let’s sell the horse!” the auctioneer said. Another 10 seconds later, he was mine for $320.
When I got them home, I learned that the big bay had come from a sheep rancher, used to clambering up and down mountains in the dark, often with lambs slung over the saddle. He was very gentle and beautifully trained, but there was a knot on one knee. We’ll see how it goes. He might go lame. The Arabian, once I saddled him, pranced up the mountain eagerly, his tail aloft, showing me how much spirit he still had left in him.
The lions and the Frenchmen could go hungry.
Gary Hubbell lives in Marble, where he and his wife, Doris, operate OutWest Guides. They offer summer horseback rides, fly-fishing trips and autumn big-game hunts.
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The CMC Aspen Gallery will open the show with a reception Thursday evening and it will be open through Saturday, Dec. 11.