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It is early in the morning, Saturday to be exact. Both of our sons will soon be awakening to an exciting day. We are on a mission. Our faithful buggy horse of 13 years needs to be replaced. The second Saturday of every month, hundreds of horses and people converge upon the little hamlet of Mt. Hope, Ohio. Drive through this sleepy little town on a regular weekday and you will think it is a small farm town. A grocery store, two feed mills, a restaurant, hardware store, fabric and shoe stores, and two banks are all that it appears to be. Ahh, behind the mainstreet buildings lies the main attraction. The Mt. Hope Auction Barn. This monthly auction draws people from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, and many other states for the sole purpose of horse trading.
On our way to Mt. Hope, we have a few small errands to take care of, so we take the tractor and trailer. We stop at the lawn mower repair shop to pick up our newly rebuilt mower. We also need to start the day off right, so we stop at Kauffman's Country Bakery in Bunker Hill to get coffee and donuts. The fresh, crisp air is truly invigorating and it is a beautiful morning. On the way we pass many horses and buggies. We could say all roads lead to Mt. Hope.
The excitement mounts as we find a parking spot several hundred yards from the action. We near the main barn that blocks the view of all the activity that we can hear. The familiar sounds of pounding hoofbeats, the heavy snorting of horses, the smell of sweaty horses, and the excited drone of the spectators quickens my heartbeat with anticipation of what I know we will see. The beauty of horses in full stride racing around the track. The thrill of seeing a dozen or more horses and jockeys breezing around the track. Truly a bright sight. The question is always, what will the horse market be today? Will they be affordable?
As I round the corner, here comes the first horse! Wow! What a horse! He's big, black, and "chromed out" with white trim. His mane and tail are streaming out in the wind. His breath is coming in sharp snorts. The jockey is pulling hard on the lines to keep this horse in check. With multiple other horses running, this horse is fired up and putting up a show!
Almost everybody greets us with a smile and a hearty "Good Morning." We are truly a part of the community.
"Good morning. Isn't this a nice day?" I turn to see who addressed me and find a boyhood friend from three hours away. We stop to chat a bit. After a few pleasantries and a few minutes small talk, he says, "Looks like the horse prices might be up a bit today." Not good for me.
Here comes another horse flying around the corner at a blazing trot. This is a smaller bay colored horse. His flanks are speckled with flecks of sweaty foam. What a sight. The jockey, evidently knowing my friend, with straining arms and line so taut you could almost strum a tune, drives up and says, "Hold him a bit while I rest my arms."
Behind the barn the dust is billowing as the dealers and jockeys test drive the horses around the track. The beating of dozens of hooves resonated through the air and you can almost feel the pulse in your head. Here is where we watch for any prospects that might catch our eye. On a paper we note any number tags that are glued to the horse's rump. These are the numbers that we will look for in the auction arena.
Next step is to go to the main office. We cannot bid on a horse unless we register for a buyer's ID number. I am registered #365. We also pick up a dealer listing of consigned horses. After a quick glance over it, I see a horse that I want to see. I am attracted to his pedigree. My sons and I head for the barns to take a closer look at the options available. This is a horseman' s pleasure. Rows of horses all tied to face the aisles. Hours have been put in getting these ready for this day. They are gleaming with the scent and sheen of "Show Shine", a spray that is brushed into their coat to bring out the lustrous color and make the dust brush off with no effort.
Here we are, at the stalls represented by Duane Hershberger. He is truly a master of the trade. He grew up in the horse world, can handle about any horse, and knows quality when he sees it. His lot might not be as extensive as some dealers, but he makes up for it with quality! Presenting a stunning dozen or couple more consignments, I have found the one I am looking for. There he is, Neely Lane! I have driven a half-brother of his and so am attracted to him.
My boys and I begin the initial scrutinization. He is big enough for us. How is his temperament? As we approach him, he watches us with a calm look. I run my hands down his neck, across his back and rump and end up walking behind him with a gentle pull on the tail. Don't do this unless you are accustomed to horses. Next I lift his feet and handle his legs. Everything looks good except for the left front knee. It is swollen a bit, no heat or puffiness, just a large hard knee. I inquire about it and am reassured, "You buy him with that. It doesn't bother him. Appears to have been a racetrack injury. If he turns out lame, bring him back. I carry my 30 day soundness guarantee on him."
I ask about his history. "I have him here for someone else. He was too much horse for his wife. He has been in the buggy. He is traffic safe and just had too much speed."
Just what I need. Now the big question, how many other people want him too? I ask one more question, "Is he ready to drive to town or church tomorrow morning?"
"Ahh, once you get used to each other, yeah." answers Hershberger. I should have asked more questions about that response, but didn't.
Next stop, the hub of it all, the auction arena! As we near it, I hear that we have Dean Beachy as auctioneer. This is one to respect. Master of equine auctioneers. Sellers love to have him sell their horses and buyers cringe to bid for him. Mr. Beachy is one of the smoothest auctioneers in the business. Just having Dean sell can raise the horse prices $1,000 or more. Mr. Beachy is truly an artist. He grew up as the son of best horse trader in Holmes County, Bert Beachy. He learned his lesson well. A glance at the horse, a quick rustle and Dean has looked at the registration papers and he knows what to do.
"Five year old. Mr. Laveck by Lindy Lane goes back to Balanced Image. A record of 1:45 at a trot as a two year old!"
The dealer chimes in, "Got this horse six weeks ago fresh from the track. Drove him to town. My wife and 16 year old daughter have driven him, traffic safe and sound! Drives with style and snap! A real driving machine!"
"Twooooo thousand," interupts Dean, and the sale is on. "Two thousand, thousand dollars, fifteen hundred, fifteen now two thousand..." The bid takers start yelling with bids all over the place and so it goes until at $3,000 we're stalled. Mr. Beachy kicks in with a pep talk. "Listen guys, we're way under the money here. We're in the first 20 horses, you think they'll be cheaper, they won't! We still have a couple hundred to go and tonight at 3 o'clock this horse will be $5,000. Thirty-five hundred, do I have $4,000...SOLD. Fifty-two fifty. Buyer 295."
So it goes as the horses parade through the arena. Most find a new home, others are no-saled, "takes more money." After six dealers, we arrive at the one I am looking for, Mr. Hershberger. The crowd shifts a little in their seats. A fellow beside me leans over a bit and says, "If you want a horse, here is what everyone is waiting for. Duane's are always good horses. They are usually the highlight of the sale."
My heart drops a bit. He also told me that they are usually at the top of the money in auction. I am limited on how much I can go and clearly know my limits. The first one comes in and sells for a quick $7,400. The next six to seven all range from $4,500-$7,500! Not good. My hopes are quickly diminishing for a reasonable price.
My son looks at me and asks, "Dad, when is our horse coming?" My answer, "The next one."
Here he comes. My heart rates raises a little in anticipation of the upcoming battle.
The auctioneer announces, "Neely Lane, a five year old trotter."
Mr. Hershberger recommends, "5 years old, been in the buggy. I am selling him for someone else. He is traffic safe and sound. You buy him with a swollen knee, it doesn't hurt him but it's there. The reason for selling is he had too much pull for women. He's here to sell!"
My heart hammers in my throat when I start the bidding at $1,750. At $2,500 we are stalled. I hold the bid! The tension is rising! Is it possible? Not a chance, I think. Not with Dean at the block. He knows what this horse is worth and it will bring more. Both the auctioneer and the dealer give a pep talk on the qualities of this horse and the auction resumes. Oh no, a new bidder entered the fray. I slowly nod my head at each new bid request. We are at my maximum bid. I give a slow, pensive nod in trepidation. Will someone raise my final bid? My heart is hammering. Please let me have him at this price, Dean. Drop that gavel in sale. Dean eyes Duane Hershberger as he asks for another bid. Duane makes a slight cutting action with his hand. Ah, thank you, the gavel drops! SOLD! Your buyer number sir? 365. Mission accomplished! My boys are elated and I am relieved. It is over.
After paying my dues, arranging trucking, and a final look at our horse, we head home.
Before we leave the hamlet of Mt. Hope, we stop at the Country Mart and buy ice cream cones. A must before going home.
At home, we eagerly await the arrival of Neely Lane. Here he comes! The whole family comes out to assess the new addition. We all, including Mom, hitch him to the lightweight open buggy and go for a test drive. WOW, what a driver. He is all fire and spirit! This one is sure to keep me on my toes! I see why I was told, once you two get used to each other.
On the final stretch home, he is almost unmanageable. We do arrive home safely. Just a couple of drives and he will be alright, we console ourselves. Next morning we hitch him up to go to church five miles away. We get a late start and breathtakingly are among the first ones there. Unfortunately, most of our fellow church members started on time and we passed them on the way to church. What an adventure. An Amishman in his Sunday best driving a runaway. I told my wife, "Grab my hat before I lose it." And so it was, hatless we cruised around most of our church folks. Part of the time I was actually standing upright in the buggy, pulling back with my whole body.
Monday evening we drove him again. Same story. What in the world did we get ourselves into? Neely Lane is totally traffic-safe but completely unmanageable. Finally my wife grabs ahold also and we are both hauling in as hard as we can. Please Lord, we ask that the stitches don't break on our lines! If they do, we are done for. Just as we thought all control was lost, he started whistling for breath and staggering. I found a driveway to pull into and forced him to stop. We stood a few minutes to gather our wits together and rest my weary arms. I asked Star (Neely Lane renamed Star by our five year old Jayden) to start off again, what a change of heart! We got through to him. His respect for us was gained. His attitude changed completely. I can now feel the communication flowing between us through the lines.
We have a mode of transportation that is alive and a part of our family. My wife and eight year old son can drive and control this 1,300 pound animal with no problem. Never would I allow an eight year old to drive without someone by his side, but Star obeys his slight cues. My sons can pet and brush him as a pet. When we come into the barn, he stands at his gate waiting for us.
You have just walked with me through our process of choosing a new mode of transportation. This is very much a personal experience, more so than going to a car dealership and dealing with a salesman. Our transportation is a part of our family.
What did I do with my faithful horse, Mack, of 13 years? I could not sell him through the auction barn. He was and still is a friend to me. An answer showed up unexpectedly. A family friend has struggled to own a good horse for a long time. Nothing worked out. He requested that I sell Mack to him. I was happy to give Mack to him. Mack will be used lightly once a week. He will be well fed and now enjoys a leisure retirement. Mack still loves to pull a buggy and run when on the road but just could not handle the regular trips of a family.
I still see him regularly out at pasture, enjoying his retirement. If I bike past, all I have to do is whistle or call his name and he instantly looks around for me. How many cars or trucks will do that?
A horse is more than a mode of transportation. To us, they are a companion, business partner (farmers), and friend.
owner of Bunker Hill Hardware