Buying a horse at auction is tempting for one key reason: the horses are cheap.
But you must ask yourself: why is this horse here?
If you are a first-time buyer, an auction purchase is not recommended; if you haven’t the money to buy a horse privately, then loaning one may be your next best option.
You take more of a risk buying at auction
You have to know exactly what you want from the horse before entering the auction and be prepared to take a risk.
You also need to know which type of auction you are going to: some are local and have no affiliation to particular breeds, others will predominantly sell a certain type of native breed or type.
Most auctions do not allow a horse through sale without a passport (it is illegal to sell a horse without one), but some still do. Always ask to see the passport of the horse you wish to buy before it enters the ring.
Check the passport really matches the horse, as some are sold with ‘false’ passports. There should be a section that specifies the horse’s colouring and markings.
Why are horses sold at auction rather than privately?
There are five key reasons why a horse may end up in market rather than sold privately:
The horse is lame or has a serious ailment
Some owners do not mask that the horse is unsound. They will be open with you, and let you consider whether to take on that horse.
However, it is not uncommon for horses to be doped to mask lameness. In some cases, such as severe laminitis, you can see the problem in their hooves.
It is therefore essential that you learn about common problems and how to identify them before an auction. In other cases, like a ligament injury, the owner may give the horse a pain-numbing drug, such asbute, to make the horse walk without restriction.
Detecting bute is difficult, but you can watch how the horse stands. If the horse stands with one hind leg tucked far in, or the weight distributed unevenly across the front legs, this could be a sign of long-standing lameness. A horse that stands square is less likely to have an injury, although this is not the case for all.
The horse has a conformation error
This can be anything from a sway back to being pigeon-toed. Before going to a sale, make sure you know the conformational points of a horse. Assess the horse you wish to buy when it is stood in its pen. If possible, ask the owner to trot it for you so that you can see that it moves straight. Some conformational errors – especially those connected to the legs – are harder to see when the horse is in motion, so you must watch the horse before it reaches the auction ring!
The horse has behavioural issues
This is most common in ex-racehorses that end up in market, but other horses can reach the sales for this reason just as easily. Talk to the owner, watch a horse in its pen, ask for someone to ride it if possible. Touch its ears and ask the owner to pick up its back legs.
Most horses are ‘twitchy’ at the sales because they are scary places. This is good - you want a horse that is alert to its surroundings. Some will be evidently out of hand, kicking the pen, pawing the ground, throwing their head about, and generally showing signs of distress. This could be a sign of mistreatment in the past or a natural disposition toward anxiety. If a horse is entirely ‘numb’ to the experience, beware also. It might have been doped or have seen the horse sales so many times it is used to the atmosphere. Ask yourself if you want a horse that is so ‘zoned out’.
The owner must sell in a hurry
This is far more common in autumn than spring because stabling costs increase. It has also become an increasing issue during the recession, as more people are unable to financially commit to keeping a horse. If this is the case, you may pick up an absolute bargain. However, many will use this as an excuse to hide any of the above issues!
The seller is a stud farm relieving this year’s stock or selling up
Many stud farms have either sold up or had to sell most of their stock at market. Most likely, their stock will be broodmares or youngsters, none of which will be anything more than halter broken. A horse from a stud farm can be good opportunity if you want a particular breed and you know the ‘good bloodlines’ of that breed. For example, each October there is a sale in Wales for all of the Welsh pony breeds.
Less risky choices
There are two types of horses you can buy that are relatively ‘risk free’ at an auction.
Firstly, a retired horse that you wish as a companion. You must be willing to pay extra in feed supplements as many suffer from arthritis, but since a companion is not going to be worked, its joints will not be further strained and so it takes less to keep them comfortable. Ensure you have checked it has no severe behavioural issues, as even older horses can bite and kick.
Secondly, you could buy an untrained youngster (aged 9 months to 3 years) that is unlikely to have had chance to sustain an injury through exercise. Unbroken or halter broken youngsters usually have sound joints. They also provide a ‘clean slate’ to mould as you want, and any behavioural issues they display can be ironed out through correct nurture. You should check that they have no conformational errors then speak to the owner about a purchase outside the auction ring. The ring is a terrifying place for any horse, but most so for a youngster. If handled roughly, they could lose their natural instinct to trust humans – something that is not easily ratified.
Should you use a horse sale contract?
Some horse buyers at market will purchase without care for a legitimate contract. You shouldn't be one of them! You will probably have to be persistent in asking for one, as a horse sale agreement should contain warranties (promises) by the seller that the horse has no undisclosed vice or ailment, and most sellers are reluctant to make such promises unless not doing so loses the sale.
However, at auction you cannot have the horse vet checked, so it is up to the owner’s good will to disclose any problems. We suggest you take a version of our horse sale agreement for buyers with room for hand writing in the contract details with you, and insist on the seller signing the agreement.
Some honest horse dealers will provide you with a three-month trial period, whereby you can return the horse if you find it has not matched the contract’s description. During this time, be sure to get the horse vetted.
However, bear in mind that if you are looking to buy a horse for only a few hundred pounds, an owner will be far less agreeable to any kind of contract. They will say that the low price reflects the risk involved. At this point, you must decide whether to proceed.
Buying at a horse market is a risky business and many experienced buyers still keep a distance. Markets do offer the occasional gem for the experienced purchaser, so ensure you take someone with you who knows the markets and horse trade.
Further information and useful documents
This article is part of a series that offers advice on purchasing a horse. You might be interested in reading about buying a horse privately as many of the tips apply to auctions.
We cannot overemphasise the importance of recording a sale with a good contract. You should look at our collection of sale agreements for horses and ponies, which provide an inexpensive way of obtaining some protection from buying an animal with undisclosed problems.