Loose horses before the auction at Sugarcreek (Photo credit: Animals' Angels)
The start of the auction was still hours away, but the horses had arrived in the dank, cavernous barn attached to the back of the auction hall. It was divided into two dozen or so pens: some were empty, some held a single horse and some were crowded with 15. The water troughs were grimy and cluttered with debris. Visitors strode a catwalk, observing the horses from above. In the alleys between the pens, potential buyers pulled out individual horses and chased them to see if their legs were sound. Walking through the alleys, we got close to the animals. Some were clearly used to contact with humans, rubbing their faces against our hands. The so-called "loose horses," who hadn't been ridden or otherwise tamed, were fearful of humans and huddled at the back of their pens. The wooden slats on the doors were rough and worn down. According to Sonja, the horses gnaw on them out of frustration and to calm themselves in the stressful environment.
Some horses looked fit and proud. Others were thin, with protruding bones and bulging eyes. Several tall horses looked like the ones used in the area by the Amish to plow their fields. One of these draft horses had a terribly swollen back leg. We saw a quarter horse and even a Thoroughbred.
We walked back to the parking lot, where Sonja pointed out an enormous white trailer the size of a rail car. It appeared to have been built for transporting cattle, and was ready for loading. But there were no cattle for sale. This, she explained, was a trailer headed for the slaughterhouse. Normally, horses are transported in trailers fitted with individual stalls. But not when they are going for slaughter; individual transport would cut too deeply into the buyers' profit margins. Packing horses together in close quarters can damage them physically and mentally, as the terrified animals butt and bite each other throughout the drive. (The USDA provides only minimal standards for the transport of equines to slaughter and enforcement is notoriously lax.)
The auction was about to start, and spectators gathered in a rough, wooden 10-row amphitheater that was attached to the barn so the horses could be shoved into the tiny auction ring through one door and prodded back into the barn through another. During their few seconds in the ring, the frightened horses were pushed around so buyers could see them from all angles. Two buyers-who regularly supply Canadian slaughterhouses, according to investigations by Animals' Angels- were purchasing most of the horses, at prices ranging from $35 to as high as about $300. The auctioneer repeated "sold to Baker" and "sold to Double Ought," but where were these buyers? It took some time before we detected their minute hand signals, and they seemed to have a tacit understanding to not bid against one another. If one of them wanted a horse, no novice could compete.
The buyers for the slaughterhouses did most of the buying, but not all. A miniature pony was bought for a child, and the Thoroughbred was apparently too expensive for them, although Thoroughbreds have been caught in the slaughter pipeline. And even though everyone surely knew that most of the horses sold were going to slaughter, the auction had a festive, carnival atmosphere. A small cafeteria sold the kind of food you would expect at a high school basketball game -- colorless hotdogs, popcorn and candy. A row of buggies out front corresponded with Amish families inside; apparently, this was the week's entertainment. A man sold puppies out of a crate, and a group of women hung around for the main event after buying the saddles, blankets and harnesses sold in a pre-auction. The owner of the hall offered children candy from a plastic bucket as they headed out the door.
After the auction ended, a kill buyer loaded the waiting cattle trailer. We couldn't get close enough to see the loading, but from across the parking lot, we heard men shouting and slapping; dozens of horses whinnying as they were forced up the loading ramp; horses' hooves clanking on the truck's metal floor.
We attended the Shipshewana, Indiana, horse auction on Good Friday, one of the two largest auction days of the year there, and experienced a day-long production in which hundreds of horses were sold. The vast Shipshewana Auction and Flea Market is in the village's core business district, next to the Auction Restaurant and across the street from the Farmstead Inn. The parking lot between the Market and the Restaurant was far more festive than Sugarcreek, becoming an impromptu fairground, where visitors purchased Auntie Anne's pretzels, kettle corn made on the spot, puppies and kittens, saddles and other riding accoutrements, and Shipshewana mugs and T-shirts.