End of the Trail

Inside the kill pens at the horse auction house

You're getting close once you've passed the Black Stallion Supper Club and Greg's Meat Processing plant that advertises championship jerky. Half an hour's drive south of the metro along Highway 52 is the Jim Simon Arena, two miles outside Cannon Falls. Simon's is the biggest horse auction barn around, and tonight--at the outfit's mid-May offering--it's an all-breed sale. Built at the crown of a gently rising hill, the low-slung sale barns sit on acres of emerald pasture where horses graze in the late-afternoon sun.

The trailers--most wearing Minnesota plates, but Wisconsin, too, and South Dakota and Colorado--pull into the gravel drive and park alongside the arena. Some horses unload quietly, but others come off white-eyed, high-headed, and flecked with foam. They skitter once they touch ground, several sporting fresh cuts on their foreheads--a common hauling injury. It's hard not to notice the flashy, clean-as-morning palomino with pink leg wraps as she steps down onto the gravel. You can't miss the crow-footed Arab mare either, with conformation so skewed she practically stands on her hocks.

In the hours before auction time, sellers lead their horses into the alley between barns for check-in. A man holding a thick tube of glue dabs the animals' hindquarters and sticks a sales number to their hides. Though a sign nearby warns against alley trading, it happens anyway. Something for everybody passes by: a dappled gray Shetland pony, a raggedy blond mule, a procession of American quarter horses. Low-key onlookers mill around, stealing a first glimpse at the sales stock; deals are made on the spot.

Sean Smuda

Inside, sellers park their horses in stalls, supplying food and water before tacking up registration papers, veterinary reports, and fliers. "Easy to catch... need college $," one sign reads. Some have names posted: Cody, Kochese, Babe. Kids wearing Wranglers shine silver-plated halters and slip them around their horses' necks. Even though Simon's hosts these sales once every month or two, as do a couple of smaller houses outside the metro area, the stands this evening promise to be packed. Already people wander from stall to stall sizing up animals, or line up for kraut dogs and sloppy joes at the food counter. The sweet reek of greasy eats mingles with cigarette smoke and hay dust. Sellers stick close to their horses. To anyone betraying a hint of interest, they talk their horses up.

"He's sweet. Trail rides. Follows me around like a dog," a young woman says about her polished bay gelding.

"Why are you selling?" the passer-by asks.

"He's 15. I like a younger horse."

Test drives take place in a large ring where at any given time before the bidding starts a half-dozen horses are under saddle. Some are green broke--a lack of seasoning that shows when they pirouette or rear at the approach of an oncoming horse. Spectators push for elbow room. Two fresh horses crowd each other at the ring's gate. One of them rears. The other backs off. Word is more than 200 horses will change hands before the night's over.

Animals with 800 numbers glued to their rumps are the kill horses. Located in the most utilitarian barn in the compound, they're quartered in a row of steel-bar stalls. Like the others up for auction, the horses here--almost every breed and age among them--have been hauled in by their owners. But unlike the rest, many of these are damaged goods--sick, injured, or starved. Often their owners simply don't want to spend time fattening or cleaning them up before unloading them. Some stand passively. Some look anxiously around their close quarters as if they've never seen the inside of a barn.

Few of the nearly 50 kill horses have food, water, or bedding in their stalls, which house up to three animals at a time. No fliers, no registration papers decorate these enclosures, and owners don't hover to encourage sales. These horses may once have had names, but their histories have been erased in the kill pen and rewritten as #818, #854, #803. It's up to the trickle of curious bidders wandering by to fill in the blanks.

That's what a man with a purple shirt, black cowboy hat, and worn jeans is doing as he looks through the steel bars at a starved mare. Ribs and hip bones poke through.

"Look, she's got ticks all over her," he says, gesturing at her belly.

The ticks are gray and as big as raisins. The mare has pretty paint markings but her flanks are crisscrossed with small bite marks. Something's been chewing on her. At her side is a 3-week-old filly--a tiny thing, but well put-together and not as frightened as she should be.

"She's so hungry, she's eating shavings," the cowboy says, watching the mare. He moseys into her stall and starts plucking off ticks. Soon he's clutching a fistful, and there are plenty more. He runs her hindquarters and right hock with his palm. The mare's front left leg is swollen and patterned with dried blood. The cowboy checks her mouth.

"She's only 3," he says. "There are lots of bargains in the kill pen, and she may be the bargain of the night."

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