The Sales Barn

by Leo Doucet

Horse buying and trading was as common in the twenties and thirties as truck and auto buying and trading is today for there is much in common between the two. Back then all of the farm and woods work, and almost all deliveries of goods and the supply of services was done with horses. No aspect of this commerce attracted more attention than when a carload of new western horses arrived.

The local raising of horses was not then (and is not now) a viable economic enterprise in Eastern Canada. Raising a colt is a long and expensive venture, what with the loss of the dam as a work animal for six months or more and in the feeding and housing of the offspring for a further two years before it became useful detered most. The only alternative was to import work animals from the US. west and midwestern States.

Notwithstanding, in N.B., the Dept. Of Agriculture did what it could to encourage the local raising of workhorses by providing stud services free of charge to farmers, usually having two or three stallions at the Experimental Station in Fredericton and one in each of the other fourteen Counties. They used only quality animals to improve the breed of workhorses in the Province. Another breeding program, although more limited was also offered free of charge by Blackhorse Breweries Ltd., of Montreal. As late as 1949 they still had two of the finest black Shire stallions available anywhere. They were also located at the Experimental Farm.

Imported horses would arrived loose and without halters crowded 24 to 26 into a livestock boxcar. It took about 5 days to get to N.B., during witch the animals were given few chances to drink and virtually no feed. It was not unusual to find one or more of the animals dead or severely injured, trampled, bitten or diseased upon arrival. Like other animals, horses quickly establish a hierarchy or seniority within their group. In the close confines of a boxcar those at the bottom of the order suffered horribly. There were no laws requiring the proper care of animals in transit. Once the horses were loaded in the boxcar the shipperís responsibilities ended. The importer was in N.B., and the railhands were concerned only with the routing of the railcars to their destination.

Much advertising was done in the weeks preceding the arrival with posters tacked on telegraph poles and trees within a forty mile radius. The exact date of arrival however was rarely indicated. The importer preferred to have the carload arrive in the evening since this gave him a chance to unload and cull the animals before any potential buyer could see the stock. Dead animals were carted away or if they did not smell too bad were usually sold to fox ranches. Injured animals who were likely to recover were quickly put out to pasture at some local farm and the remainder watered, fed and placed in the sales barn.

Shortly thereafter new posters were put up advertising the number of horses for sale and sometimes the range of prices the owner expected. The news travelled fast and in a few hours potential buyers, who were always outnumbered by the curious, (tire kickers?) showed up at the barn. Of course many had horses they wanted to trade and in general were no more honest in their dealings than the importer. They wanted to trade up for the same reason the modern car/truck buyer has today. A sick horse was often drugged in the most horrible way to make him look good at the sales barn. One method (common even today at horse auctions) was to "ginger" the horse i.e., to inject a solution of ginger extract into the animals rectum. This guarantees a perky horse. An overly nervous horse would be given a sedative. This drug effect is equally effective for both sexes but is more easily detected in geldings. There were as many ways to deceive an honest but naive buyer as there is today in the buying and selling of automotive products. Buyers beware.

The sales barn took on a carnival atmosphere as as many farmers as could take time to attend arrived. There was a considerable amount of drinking going on and all of the conversation was about horses. I donít recall ever seeing a female around at these events. As usual, there was much speculation concerning horse markings and colour. Few farmers would consider buying a pinto no mater how good it looked. There was and still is a bias against this colour. The feeling is that it is not an honest horse and one never knows if the animal is giving its all, so its best not to take a chance. Then there is the bias against a horse with an all white face or one with a roman nose. They always brought a lower price as did those whose front legs were close together at the chest. The two legs look as if they came out of the same hole, some said. Nobody wanted a "ewe" necked horse (one with the bend in the neck upside down).

And then the most famous one of all "Donít buy a horse with four white feet" This one is so deeply entrenched in Canada and the US that there is a short ditty about it that goes like this. One white foot, buy em Two white feet, try em Three white feet, leave em Four white feet, shoot em >p> I have run across this ditty in books written well over a hundred years ago and there may be some justification for it. It is a fact that a black hoof is harder and will take more wear and punishment than a white hoof. Of course a horse can have a white sock or stocking and still have a black hoof.

While I have owned many horses over the years, none, by choice, have ever had more than two white feet.

There was always someone looking into the mouth of the horses in order to determine their ages. There is an almost foolproof way to tell the age of a horse, that is, up to about age 15 by looking at one specific tooth that has a groove in it. The groove begins at age 7 and extends the full length of the tooth by age 14, but in the twenties and thirties each man had his own method and swore by it. About ten of us young teenagers hung around the barns hoping to trot a horse back and forth in front of a buyer. If the sale was successful we could expect a nickel for our efforts. I think we would have done it for the prestige of being one of the first to handle the big young western horses.

In all fairness it must be said that the majority of the imported horses were of excellent quality. Almost all were range bred and many had never seen an automobile (or anything else) until rounded up. In the corrals they had been sized and placed in the age group the importer had requested. They then had been harnessed to a well broken horse and worked for supposedly a few months (read days) until they were gentle and docile (read until they could be handled).

It is no wonder that upon unloading the horses were wild eyed, unruly and hyperactive until at least they had been watered, fed and rested. Once I watched as a barnhand, singly haltered and led five of these horses from the unloading ramp at the station to the sales barn. The horses continually tried to bolt, each in a different direction but he had tied all of the lead shanks together. His main concern was to stay out of the way and not get tangled in the ropes. I have never seen a busier man.

The horses weighed around 1400 lb. and none were fat. My father bought one big raw-boned fellow that had an Idaho brand on his shoulder. He stood over 18 hands and a week later when I could handle him led him down to the railway scales. He weighed 1735 lb. Brought up to about 1900 lb. with good feed he became the biggest and most powerful horse ever to come to Dalhousie. At first shy of automobiles and deadly afraid of the railway steam engine it was not long before he settled down and became a dependable hard working animal that was easily handled. Dad had paid $235.00 for Gerry.

The End

This page was designed by Irene Doyle Feb. 1998