She's a doll baby, boys!" bellowed auctioneer Gary Vance, snapping the crowd's attention toward the boney pinto that sauntered into the ring at the Front Royal Livestock Exchange. "She's got a shoe on every foot. She's in good sound order."
The bidding, however, proved as slow as the old mare's gait, and when it was over the meat man got her. She's destined to be shipped to Europe packaged as steak.
"I'm not too enthusiastic about selling to the meat packers," drawled Billy Staples, who is ringmaster for the monthly parade of horses, ponies and mules at the Front Royal Horse Auction 70 miles west of Washington. "But it gives your riding horse market a good solid base. If it wasn't for the meat prices, horses would be going for $25 or $40 a head."
The fast-trading, wise-cracking team of Vance and Staples runs the second largest horse auction on the East Coast in a tiny half-moon arena packed with meat exporters, horse traders and weekend horsemen. On the first Saturday of each month an average of 250 to 700 horses lope or plod through the arena under the scrutiny of buyers who stand shoulder to shoulder in the choking dust, dodging flying hooves and swishing tails.
"Step right up and look at this rascal's mouth," booms Staples, prying open the muzzle of a hulking brown mule. And that start's the bidding, with the auctioneer calling the numbers while Staples cajoles the crowd.
"$670, $670, gimme $680, gimme $680," rattles Vance, to no avail. Staples stalks over to one recalcitrant bidder and barks, "Hell, I'll loan you the damn $10!" The bidder gives in. "Sold, for $680," shouts Vance.
The pace is swift. Before the mule has lumbered out one side of the arena, the next horse is led in from the other. Staples, a stout man of 41 with a round, boyish face, never breaks stride with his hard sell.
"This one'll go anywhere you put him," he advertises a frisky gray colt. "Through swamps, across fish ponds, anywhere you want to go."
And if the bidding lags, Staples will invite the owner to shout more accolades to the doubting crowd. "Tell us about your horse," he yells to a cowboy trying to sell a chestnut gelding.
"He's good and gentle and if he ain't sound you can bring him back," drawls the eager owner.
Staples, who was raised with horses and now raises them on his nearby Stephens City ranch, knows most of the customers who turn out for the sales each month. He considers them almost family.
"There are some people who haven't missed a sale since we've been open," said Staples. "That's what keeps the doors open."
The doors of the Front Royal Livestock Exchange have been open since 1972 when the town's original auction barn burned down and Staples joined in with other local horsemen to build a new one. Staples and his associates owned the exchange until last year when they sold out to a farm co-op. But Staples maintains his prominence in the ring.
Beyond the cluster of serious buyers who stand on the sawdust floor through most of the five-hour sale are the occasional visitors and sellers who pack the approximately 250 seats that circle the arena.
It doesn't take too many trips to the auction barn for those folks, especially the youngsters who gather on the first rows, to recognize the meat man, the buyers who bid on the bony, unkempt ponies and horses that no one else will pay to own.
Staples tries valiantly to attract potential pet owners: "There's nothing wrong with her that a little time and groceries won't cure," he says wistfully, prodding an aging horse with hip bones that poke through a scraggly brown coat.
About one of every three horses sold on auction day will go to the half dozen meat packing companies in Virginia, New England and Canada that send representatives to Front Royal each month.
In recent years the growing European appetite for horse meat has dramatically affected horse prices at the auction, according to Staples. Older nags would have brought $35 to $40 each from dog food companies in the early 1960s, he said. Today the same horse would sell for $550 to $700, or about 52 cents a pound to export companies that ship the horse meat to France and Italy. Horse steaks there retail for about $4.50 to $4.75 per pound and "horseburger" retails for $3.12 to $3.35 a pound. As a result the prices have pushed upward the costs of American riding stock, Staples said.
"I have people who'll come in with a horse and tell me 'I don't care what he brings, but sell him to somebody other than the Meat Man,' " Staples said. And he can sympathize with that.
Last week one of Staples' own horses went to the meat packers. Seven years ago the horse was a world champion roping horse with winnings that averaged $50,000 a year. Staples bought the horse for his 16-year-old son, an accomplished roper. Two months ago the prized horse broke a bone in its foot.
"He'll never be any better," lamented Staples before the sale. "I don't want to see him go to the meat packers. But what else are you gonna do with him?"
Although most of the horses put on the auction block tend to be older or untrained horses, Staples said observant buyers can pick out good bargains. A prize-winning Appaloosa mare that sold for $4,000 eight years ago, brought $1,150 at last weekend's sale.
"Why in the world would you pass her up?" Staples asked the crowd of buyers.
While Staples and his auctioneer run the sale at a frantic pace, the actual bidding is subtle and artful--a raised eyebrow, the tip of a hat, the movement of a thumb. Staples watches the eyebrows, the hats and thumbs, relaying the responses to the auctioneer.
To the first-time bidder who waves his arms wildly and trains his eyes on the auctioneer, Staples admonishes, "Watch me, watch me, not him."
And when it's all over, about $175,000 will have changed hands, leaving a 5 percent commission with the livestock exchange. Some horse dealers will have spent several thousand dollars each and leave with a van load of horses to be fattened and trained and resold a few months later.
"Horse tradin' is like liquor," says blond-haired Staples with a smile. "It gets in your blood."