In the mid ’80s, one of my first jobs was at a very well known hunter/jumper barn. This was a show barn; big jumpers, fancy hunters, all going to the Indoors for winter. Remember when Madison Square Garden was bigger than Florida? Well, it was then.
They, of course, dabbled in horse sales. I was a groom, I also hacked sale horses, and I occasionally showed sale horses for interested parties. Though I was still young, I was an experienced rider already, and an experience horse handler. But the secrets of horse trainers were still foreign to me – above my head. I knew of nothing else than transparency.
Then, one of the more lively Thoroughbred jumpers was sold. I remember the horse, he was not REALLY all that broke, but he could jump around a 4′ course. It was just a bit scary. Tons of heart and totally honest. A little high though, at ALL times.
A few days after he left, the woman who bought the horse called. I answered the phone.
“What is wrong with this fu*%#@^ horse?! He is bouncing off the walls and totally unridable!”
“Oh, yeah, you just have to give him a shot before you ride him. Then he is really good!”
I was fired.
And I learned a very valuable lesson from that experience.
This truth could never be more necessary than when dealing with a sale barn. I’m not talking about a trainer who has sale horses, competes, gives lessons, and has boarders. I’m talking about a full, sale only barn.
How many people have been to a true sale barn?
Not many. You’re not supposed to go. Sale barns function like the back lot at dealer-only car auctions; the general public isn’t supposed to see what the cars look like before detailing, or the original price (and subsequent inflation) of what is very likely to have been, a damaged good. Everyone from the horse owner, to the sale barn dealer, and even (and sometimes, especially) the trainer are in on the fix.
Which is precisely why they’re not public.
I’ve been to a few sale barns, and I always find a horse to buy, though not because they were cool – just simply because their fate was questionable. I’m not talking about slaughter. I’m talking about real prospects selling for more than they were worth and then getting pounded into the ground after being unable to perform at a level that justified the sell price.
A sale barn may have up to 100 horses on the property. Some nice, some average, and many dumpy and on their last chance for redemption. The horses come and go (I knew a sale barn that would fluctuate between 40 and 80 horses in a matter of weeks), and sale barn owners make money by cycling through horses as fast as possible.
Sale barns and trainers work together by figuring out “types” of horses a potential customer is looking for. Sometimes the horses will be sent to the trainer, other times, the trainer will go to the sale barn and try out the “types” and then take a few back. Horse prices are entirely dependent on spenders. Most horses are consignment. If there is a buyer with $80,000 to spend, you bet your ass the trainer is going to find a handful of $80,000-$90,000 horses for sale.
Once at a sale barn, I met a gorgeous warmblood – Hanovarian. He was chestnut, 18 hands, and big in every way. The barn was dark with no turnout. This guy looked like he hadn’t been out his stall in three weeks.
There was virtually no history on this horse. Oh, aside from the HUGE SCAR his back leg. And no details about that. Just full of proud flesh. But I believed it when I heard 4’9″ jumpers, injury, then layup. And no one knew how long he had been out of work.
When I showed interest (“Hey, he’s cool.”), immediately, an exercise rider hoped on and pointed him at a 4’9″ fence. No warmup.
He jumped it. And five others. It wasn’t pretty, and it didn’t look easy for him. And it was very sad.
I wanted to buy him. Though as much as I liked him, and felt bad for him, and thought he would be fun, I’m not in the business of buying a horse that I can’t afford to care for. Knowing he had a severe injury and NOT knowing details of ANYTHING, I didn’t want to set myself up for a horse with tens of thousands of dollars in vet bills over a few short years.
They wanted $65,000. By the time I walked out the door, it was $7,500.
Is the sale barn at fault for the business practices in which they partake? Not entirely. One section of the industry shouldn’t take blame for all the unethical dealings. That said, sale barns, are shady. I would question any transaction that happens with a sale barn. I’m not saying they always have bad horses or horses with issues, but most often every horse is sold under the guise of something it’s not.
And everyone wants a piece of the cut.
Going back to my experience in the 80’s, the eye opening part was the woman who purchased the crazy jumper also brought her own trainer with her – who was well aware of the horse’s drug habit.
But that’s just all part of the game. Everyone is looking out for #1, and the ones getting hurt are the horses and innocent buyers.
But even veteran buyers can get caught up in a purchasing game. The reality is, even long-time horse people may not be aware of all the dirty little secrets hiding behind every corner of every barn.
So if a bad deal goes down, is it the buyer’s fault?
At many points in my life, I thought it was. I assumed ignorance was not a defense for unwittingly getting screwed. But should all people assume they are getting screwed at all times?
In the horse world, realistically, yes, I think so.
In part three, we’ll talk about horse pricing issues and more predating trainers.