Sold! The Evolution of Horse Auctions

The Evolution of Horse Auctions

Photo: Pam MacKenzie

By Karen Robinson

There was a time not so long ago, when, if you were looking for a horse but didn’t have a lot of cash, an auction was the place to go. Horses and ponies of all sizes, breeds, and ages could be found, often at true bargain prices. You could even pick up tack for that horse at a tack auction held the same day. Few riders have not at one time owned or ridden a horse that has gone through an auction at some point. For many years, eventing prospects were as likely to be off-the-track Thoroughbreds picked up at auction as from any other source. But as equestrian sport in Canada has developed into an industry that supports the full range of ambitions – from Pony Club to the Olympics – the marketplace has kept pace through developments of its own.

The European influence has reached well beyond the breeds of horses most commonly found in the dressage ring or on a show jumping course. The very nature of horse auctions in North America has been transformed to resemble their counterparts in Germany and Holland, where auctions have long been a source of well-bred horses with top sport potential. Gone are the days of finding a diamond in the rough for next to nothing, but also gone is much of the risk of buying a horse with no guarantees or veterinary records. In the past, auctions have always been “buyer beware” adventures, with the risk that what went home in the horse trailer might not be quite what it seemed to be at first glance. Now, with rigorous soundness exams and health guarantees, as well as opportunities for buyers to ride the horses before they go on sale, the horse auction is a totally different animal, so to speak.

Try out arenaPhoto courtesy of the Fall Classic Sale

At the Fall Classic Sale in Olds, Alberta, horses are shown in-hand, under saddle, and in the jumping chute.

Auctions today are no longer places where people expect to spend as little as possible on a horse; in fact, just the opposite can be the case when buyers get into bidding wars that push prices to stratospheric levels. At one of the world’s most prestigious sport horse auctions, Paul Schockemöhle’s PSI Auction in Germany, a six-year-old mare named Poetin sold in 2003 for 2.5 million Euros (over $3.5 million CAD today), which was double the previous auction record price for a European Warmblood. The huge prices seen at auctions are not limited to Warmbloods. In 2008 the Arabian stallion Baske Afire sold for $2.8 million at an auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The Fall Classic Warmblood Sale in Olds, Alberta provides a more realistic picture of what an average Canadian buyer can expect to pay for a horse at auction. The Fall Classic publishes detailed statistics of all its sales on its website. In 2010, the average price paid for one of the 69 horses offered for sale was $8,442. The highest priced horse sold for $26,000 and the lowest went for $3,000. The highest price ever fetched at the Fall Classic was $51,000 for a mare in 2007.

The European Experience: Equine Elite
Some auctions in Europe are spectacular affairs that attract more than just buyers. They are also destination events around which North American horse lovers build an entire European trip – often to buy, but sometimes just to enjoy the experience. It’s an opportunity to get a whiff of the sport horse world at its source, to see the stars of tomorrow and what they sell for. It’s total immersion in a culture where horses and equestrian sport have broken the magical barrier with the general public. The Equine Elite Auction, which takes place each year in late October in southeastern Holland, has even attracted Dutch television to its Vegas-like extravaganza. The auction was launched by Diederik Wigmans and his business partner, Craig Rawlins, in 2006.

“Our thoughts behind it when we first started were to make sure that everybody who came to the auction had a super evening, whether they bought a horse or not,” says Wigmans. The auction itself is a gala affair, with a fully catered multi-course meal and entertainment throughout the evening. At the 2007 Elite Auction, Lou Bega of Mambo No. 5 fame provided musical entertainment during the intermissions between horse presentations. “It’s really like a Vegas show with music, dance, light and fireworks show, as well as top horses,” Wigmans says.

Equine Elite specializes in dressage horses; the selectors, which include FEI judges and veterinarians, select around 35 horses each year, with the addition of up to five wild card horses which are added as the auction date approaches. “What is important to us is to get horses of the right quality, age, and price range so that we have a realistic chance to see them sold,” says Wigmans. The horses are sought out and registered with Equine Elite months ahead of time, and are thoroughly vetted before being accepted. They move into Wigmans’s stable for preparation almost two months before the auction. Wigmans has a group of riders who work with the horses through September and October to prepare them for the auction. “Most of our riders have been with us since the start,” says Wigmans. “We try to match the horses to the right riders.”

Wigmans receives visits starting in early September from trainers and horse dealers who want to have an early look at the horses to assess potential prospects for their students and clients. In the week leading up to the auction, after all the horses have passed a second vet check, the horses are available for tryout. The results of the vetting and x-rays are published in the catalogue.

At the 2010 Equine Elite sale, the average price of a horse sold was between 35,000 and 39,000 Euros. The highest priced horse was an eight-year-old gelding by Sandro Hit, who sold for 325,000 Euros, and the lowest priced horse sold for 11,000 Euros. Wigmans says that although most of the horses are sold within Europe, buyers from all over the world have purchased Equine Elite horses. Approximately 800 people attend the event each fall. Phone bidding is also available, and Wigmans is planning to offer live streaming and online bidding in the future.

Bringing the European Experience to Canada: Fall Classic Sale
“Warmblood Horses presented in the European Tradition” is the motto across the top of the Fall Classic Sale’s website. The format is certainly much more similar to the Equine Elite auction than to the traditional livestock auction, though there is a clearly Canadian theme at this event. “Our goal is to promote Canadian breeders and the Canadian Warmblood Horse,” says Teresa van Bryce, the Fall Classic’s Sale Administrator.

Sale AudiencePhoto courtesy of the Fall Classic Sale

Buyers attend the Fall Classic Sale in Olds, Alberta from all over Canada and the US.

The auction, which takes place at the Cow Palace in Olds, Alberta, has specific requirements for acceptance into the catalogue of its annual October event. “We have a lot of criteria,” says van Bryce. The horses must be Canadian-born, with the exception of broodmares which can be imported. Each horse’s dam and sire must have been inspected and recognized by a Warmblood registry, and have Warmblood breeding. Arabians and Thoroughbreds are the only non-Warmblood breeds accepted, and then only if they are approved by a Warmblood registry and in foal to a Warmblood stallion.

“The maximum age in the performance category is eight. Broodmares can be up to 15 years old,” says van Bryce, who has been involved with the Fall Classic for six years. The horses must have x-rays, a health report, and a signed guarantee that the sellers have disclosed everything. “We have high expectations of the consigners.” The deadline for nominations is in late July and the catalogue is printed in time for the Spruce Meadows Masters in early September. Around 80 horses from all over Western Canada are accepted each year, with about 70 making it to the auction ring.

Horses arrive at the sale yard on the Thursday evening or Friday morning before the auction, where they undergo soundness and health checks. The handlers are given the opportunity to practice chute jumping before the horses are publicly presented for the first time on the Saturday with demonstrations in hand, under saddle, and in the jumping chute. At that time, the horses are available for tryouts, with the owner having discretionary control over the trials.

Gala Three-BarPhoto courtesy of the Fall Classic Sale

The Fall Classic Sale in Olds, Alberta features a gala event with horse demonstrations. The highlight of the evening is the Three Bar Challenge. Entertainment has become an important feature of the modern horse auction.

A gala event on Saturday evening has always drawn at least 300 attendees. Demonstrations range from scurry driving to dressage, with the highlight of the evening being the Three Bar Challenge. “A lot of the horses in the Challenge belong to breeders who have other horses in the sale, but sometimes sale horses also compete in it,” says van Bryce. There is no admission fee for the gala evening, which has a cash bar. This year for the first time there will be an after-party at the end of the evening.

More sale horse demonstrations on Sunday morning precede the Sunday afternoon auction. “People can make appointments with the vets at any time over the weekend,” says van Bryce. The Fall Classic has always offered phone bidding and it now has online bidding as well. “People do still prefer to be there to see the horses in person. It’s a whole experience to attend the Fall Classic Sale,” says van Bryce. “The vast majority of sales are in person, but online buying has increased since we introduced it.”

The Fall Classic Sale offers an opportunity for buyers to see a large number of well managed, quality horses in one place. Although occasionally a horse will sell overseas, most of the horses sell within North America. “We have had people fly out here from Quebec, Ontario and the US,” says van Bryce.

The Mobile Auction: Lusitano Collection
Two features of the Lusitano Collection International Horse Auction make it unique in the world of auctions: the horses travel to Wellington, Florida from their homes in Brazil, and the sale is promoted exclusively by a breeder, rather than an auction dealer who brings in horses from multiple sellers. Pia Aragão is the head trainer of Interagro Lusitanos, one of the two breeders represented at the 2011 sale.

Lusitano 3077Photo courtesy of the Lusitano Collection International Horse Auction

Buyers come from all over North America to the Lusitano Collection International Horse Auction which prides itself on its glamorous and elegant atmosphere.

Interagro is the largest breeder and exporter of Lusitano horses in the world. At the 2011 Auction, which took place the last weekend of February, 20 of the 30 horses came from Interagro, while the remaining 10 came from partner breeder, Rocas do Vouga. The Lusitano Collection event is every bit as glamorous and entertaining as any horse auction in the world, with two evenings of horse demonstrations and Brazilian flavoured entertainment.

In preparation for the auction, “the horses come in from the field, where they have been since they were born, in the autumn when they are three years old,” says Aragão. The young horses are vetted and x-rayed, and then they begin their assessment for rideability with Aragão and her team of ten riders. “After a year of training, we will start to select the horses. Normally we have a group of 30, which is later reduced to 20 with two or three reserves,” she explains. An online catalogue is available each year several months ahead, and a printed catalogue is distributed six weeks before the sale. The horses arrive in Miami in mid-January, where they must be quarantined for a week before they can be prepared for trials with potential buyers. Aragão says that some potential buyers even fly to Brazil in the fall to try out the horses far in advance of the actual auction. On the week of the auction, the horses are moved to the auction venue, the Jim Brandon Equestrian Center in West Palm Beach. They are available for tryout on the Wednesday and Thursday before the sale, and they receive a final vet check on the Friday.

Lusitano demonstrationPhoto courtesy of the Lusitano Collection International Horse Auction

The Lusitano Collection International Horse Auction offers two evenings of horse performances, such as this demonstration.

The Lusitano Collection Auction is always a sold out affair, with more than 300 guests paying $275 each to attend the Friday and Saturday evening events. Most of the horses sold at the auction remain in North America. In 2010, a four-year-old Interagro stallion was bought for a record price of $145,000, and the average price paid was $41,700. The mission of the Lusitano Collection is not only to sell more Lusitano horses to North Americans, but to raise awareness and appreciation for the breed outside of the parts of the world where it is already well known. Interagro has held private auctions since 1992, and has participated in the Lusitano Collection from its first year in 2004. Originally held at Interagro’s farm in the countryside outside São Paulo, the auction moved to the US in 2008 and has remained there for four years. The next Lusitano Collection Auction will take place in Brazil in 2012, but in 2013 it will return to American soil once more.

Livestock Auction Yards
Across Canada, one is never too far from a livestock auction yard that sells horses. The horse auctions at these yards have changed little over the years, except perhaps to shrink a little as the way people shop for horses continues to evolve. It is difficult to compare old style horse auctions with the new wave of auctions such as Equine Elite or the Lusitano Collection, because the two types of sales are as different as proverbial apples and oranges.

The Fraser Valley Auction in Langley, British Columbia has three horse auctions every year, each one preceded by a tack auction. Ken Pearson, owner and auctioneer of Fraser Valley Auctions which holds weekly livestock sales, started the yard in 1983.

“In our first sale this year there were around 40 horses of mixed breeds registered,” says Pearson. “Ninety-five percent of all the horses sell at our auctions, and they bring prices from $100 to $1000.” Horses sold at the Fraser Valley Auction have no guarantee of health or soundness, and there is no facility for riding. “Most of our buyers are local, with a few coming down from the BC interior,” says Pearson, who does not offer phone or internet sales and has no plans to do so in the future.

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

Main Article Photo: Pam MacKenzie

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