End of the Trail

Sean Smuda

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.

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."

He'll bid on the mare if she goes for $400, he says. At that amount, the meat buyers will likely pass on her. The going price for horses on the hoof--horse meat--is 55 to 60 cents a pound. By the looks of them, the mare and her baby, to be sold as a unit, would bring $300 tops. The cowboy notes her 800 number, then ambles through the barn and lays hold of a spare slab of alfalfa hay to give to the starving mare. She tears into it.

While about a third of the kill horses are underfed or visibly injured, most seem fine. It's anybody's guess why they're in the kill pen. A fly-speck Arab stallion occupies a kill stall down the row. He's show quality, with the deep-dish face, big nostrils, elegant bones, and arching tail that typify his royal blood. He, too, looks fine. But get close and he pins his ears and bares teeth--giveaway signs of a nasty temperament. Nearby, a woman discusses with her friend the merits of a red roan Appaloosa gelding. He's sociable with whoever comes near--an attitude that might suit a backyard horse for a kid. His ears prick forward when the woman pokes her fingers through the bars to stroke his nose.

"Why's he kill?" she asks, and answers herself with a quick diagnosis: "Maybe he's navicular"--a condition that cripples an animal's feet and can only be confirmed by X-ray.

Even when the auctioning starts up, bidders after kill horses linger behind. These animals go on the block last, hours from now and after the crowd's thinned. Out in the arena, sound horses trot, lope, and gallop close to the bleachers while the auctioneer climbs the numbers with his rapid singsong patter. Many sell for more than $1,000, with the best bringing up to $2,500.

One spectator pops his first beer of the night. A toddler drops a milk bottle on the grimy floor, scoops it up, and resumes sucking. Bid-takers toting long white sticks work the crowd. A middle-aged rider skitters into the ring on a chestnut quarter-horse mare and fills a few seconds of dead air with her pitch--"Clips good, loads great, shown 4-H"--before the canting begins again.

"She's a 1995 model," yodels the auctioneer, pointing out the mare's fine white stockings. "Look at all that chrome. All she needs is a good home and a friend."

The kill horses go last. No owner rides or leads them. They're herded out onto the barn's concrete aisle and into the arena. Horses seeking sanctuary in a corner are pushed back by spectators. The auctioneer spends a minute or less on each creature. The friendly red roan Appaloosa walks in slowly and stands. He doesn't want to move, but the white sticks hit him and he goes in fits and starts. He's dead lame.

"He's kill," a woman's voice mumbles in the stands. And she's right.

A gaunt, geriatric pony--hide bare in spots--fetches $50 for meat. The starved mare and her tiny filly take their turn. The black-hatted cowboy and another bidder volley the price until it reaches $500, and he takes her.

It's past midnight when the showy Arab stallion is run in. His gaits are flowing and regal, but he's wild. Maybe never even been ridden. For an instant he contemplates scrambling over the 5-foot stock fence that separates him from the crowd. He bangs his head over the rail. The white sticks slap, and slap again to get him moving. No one but the meat buyers bids.

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