Riding Tips

Diamond in the Rough, or Bad Apple? Horse Auctions 101

Montana Horse Auction
Written by Natalie Gasper

A Beginner’s Guide to Horse Auctions

Horse auctions can be an excellent way to get a great deal. On the other hand, many people associate auctions with the slaughter pipeline.

In-person and online auctions can be a good way to find your next horse. If you’ve never been, take a friend or a trainer with you and know what you can afford. Arrive early and look at any horse you’re considering bidding on. Set your budget before you bid and stick with it (but have a little wiggle room). Most horses are sold “as-is,” so you may not know what you have until well after you get the horse home.

Auctions: The Basics

Auctions are a way for owners to sell without the hassle of meeting lots of potential buyers and a way for buyers to look at lots of potential prospects in one place.

Auction Terminology

While you can pick up on most terms from watching, here are a few terms you’ll want to know before you go.

  • Live Auction (takes place in-person)
  • Lot (either a single item or a group of items)
  • Reserve (the minimum price a seller will accept. This amount is usually not made public)

How do horse auctions work?

At a live auction, a horse is led or ridden (or sometimes let loose) into a ring. The auctioneer will start the bidding.

Buyers will raise their hands to place a bid. This process continues until the horse is sold.

Horse Auctions

Horse auctions are popular places because so many horses are available for consideration in one location.

What are typical horse auction prices?

Horses can sell for as little as $150 or as much as $15 million.

The price will depend on the type of auction and the quality of horses being sold.

What are some of the biggest horse auctions?

Auctions are hard work to put together, so many are small and more local, but there are a few sizeable ones.

The Super Sale at the Quarter Horse Congress and Keeneland Thoroughbred Auctions are two of the largest horse auctions in the United States.

Ten Tips for Buying at Auction

Keep these tips in mind if you decide to purchase a horse at auction.

#1 Attend an auction before buying to learn about the environment

If you’ve never been before, don’t buy the first time you go. Become familiar with the setup and get a feel for how it all works.

#2 Arrive early

Arriving early, sometimes even the day before, gives you a chance to get registered as a bidder and to look at all of the horses.

#3 Set a budget in advance

Auction environments are designed to be high-energy to drive-up prices. Don’t be pressured into bidding more than you can comfortably afford.

#4 Go look at the horses

Look for signs of previous injuries. Check out their ears, eyes, teeth, and feet. Ask for someone to ride or lunge the horse for you.

#5 Stick to your budget

To avoid being pressured into bidding more than you can afford, set your budget in advance. Regardless, be willing to bid a few hundred extra if the horse checks all your metaphorical boxes.

#6 Have a backup plan

If you plan to buy one horse, have at least three choices picked out. You don’t know who else will be interested or how much their budget is.

#7 Register before you bid

Bidding will get you nowhere if you don’t have a bidding number.

#8 Have transportation plans in place

As soon as you sign the papers, the horse is yours. Plan to move him as soon as possible.

#9 Have cash-in-hand

Most auctions only accept cash, so bring some just in case you meet your perfect match. You can also call ahead and see if any other forms of payment are accepted.

#10 Bring a friend

Unless you’re an experienced horse buyer, it’s a good idea to have a second set of eyes.

BONUS TIP: Buyer Beware

Very few guarantees are made of horses at auctions and some may even be drugged. Assume all horses are “as-is” and be prepared for anything.

Horse Slaughter

Yes, it’s illegal in the US… but…

Unfortunately, horse slaughter is still legal in many countries, including Canada and Mexico. This means many kill-buyers will purchase horses for cheap at US auctions and ship them over the borders.

Slaughter Buyers

It’s all about the price. After all, they have to be able to turn a profit. Most won’t pay above $700-$800 for a horse, but it all depends on the horse’s size and the current market.

Horses shown “loose” are typical slaughter buyer targets.

What to Bring to a Horse Auction

Check out this list of items to bring so you can be prepared.

  • Checkbook (or cash or credit card, if applicable)
  • I.D. (usually a driver’s license)
  • Trailer
  • Halter
  • Lead rope
  • Hay
  • Water
  • Water buckets
  • Hard brush and hoof pick

Even calm horses can get worked up in an auction environment. If you’re concerned about hauling an overly anxious horse home, talk to your vet about possible safe sedative options.

Who Should Buy a Horse at Auction

Only buy a horse at auction if you’re prepared for the risk that the horse may be lame or difficult to work with.

There’s no such thing as a guaranteed horse at auction. There are, however, a lot of gems out there.

Who should not buy a horse at auction?

Beginners and anyone picky about soundness or current levels of training should steer clear of auctions. Horses may look one way on sale day and turn out to be something else entirely once you get them home.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How much do slaughter horses sell for?

The price changes from year to year based on the price per pound. A safe rule is anything less than $1,000 could be a slaughter sale. Beware…

Q: Are there online horse auctions?

Absolutely! Online horse auctions tend to offer wide selections, more protections for buyers and sellers, accept credit cards, and allow buyers to do a vet check before the auction goes “live.”

Q: Are donkeys sold at auction?

They are, though most likely you’ll find donkeys at general auctions (you won’t find one for sale at an AQHA auction).

Q: Are mini horses sold at auction?

Sure! All ages, sizes, colors, and types of horses can be found at most auctions.

Q: What horses cannot be sold at auction?

Any horse can be sold at auction. If you see something like “as-is,” know the horse has some health, lameness, or behavioral issues.

Some auctions may not accept horses that are severely lame or in very poor body condition.

Blind horses cannot legally be shipped across the borders for slaughter.

Rita Crundwell Auction

Photo Cred: Google Images Reuse

Parting Thoughts

Auctions, live or online, can be hit or miss, but also a wonderful place to find your next partner. Keep in mind that while some auctions are credible and the horses are of good quality, other sellers use auctions as a place to dump lame or difficult horses.

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About the author


With a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Central Florida and an editing certificate from the University of Washington, my decade-long writing journey has been a kaleidoscope of diverse experiences. I've had the privilege of contributing to a spectrum of platforms, including newspapers, print and online magazines, literary journals, and individual clients on subjects spanning from horse care, gardening, motorcycles, to exploring East Asia.