Elaine Eggink knew exactly which horse she wanted. She had spent about eight hours Friday looking over a herd of 117 wild horses being put up for adoption by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management. And she arrived at the auction in Lorton bright and early yesterday to make sure she got it.
The auction didn't begin until 11 a.m., but perspective buyers were there three or four hours early going from pen to pen, eyeballing the mustangs that had been brought in from California, Wyoming, Oregon, Nevada and other western states where the horses run wild and feed on public land. The bureau culls the herd each year and auctions the horses across the country.
The horses range in age from under a year to 7 or 8 years old and are sold only to buyers who are approved by the Bureau of Land Management, having met specific criteria ranging from having the appropriate trailer to the height of the fence that surrounds an approved corral. The bureau has held auctions in Northern Virginia the past three years. It hopes to hold one again next year if this year's event, which continues today, is successful, according to Bill Davenport, a bureau spokesman. Unsold horses will go to a bureau regional center in Illinois, where they will rest for a few weeks and then be sent to another auction in the eastern United States.
Eggink, of Frederick, had dreamed of owning horses all her life and achieved that dream when she bought a farm about a year ago with her husband, Ted. She was at the auction with her son, Josh, 16, while her husband was home with their daughter, Morgan, 12, watching over the eight miniature horses, and other animals, that had come with the farm.
The opening bid for each horse is $125. Most are sold for that or not sold at all. Once a horse is bought for at least $125, the winner can get an unsold "buddy horse" for $25.
The price is a bargain, cheaper than what many cats and dogs sell for at pet stores.
Eggink had picked a male appaloosa, recently weaned from its mother. It was the color of chocolate chip ice cream with a fine appaloosa blanket on its rump. It was the first horse she had looked at Friday. She looked at about 40 others but kept coming back to that one because its looks were unique.
A minute or two before 11 a.m., Frank E. Bolton climbed up in the bed of a red Dodge Dakota pickup truck and began auctioning the first of the horses. Wearing numbered tags around their necks, they were brought into the pen in pairs.
Once the horses are adopted, it takes plenty of work to "gentle" them. The old method made famous in television westerns and movies of plopping a saddle on them and riding them until they break is no longer used.
Steve Mantle, a nationally known horse trainer who works for the bureau and held a morning seminar yesterday, said that the aim is to use methods based on how behavior is controlled in the wild by the herd.
Typically, a young horse, usually a male, that misbehaves is driven outside the herd by the most dominating female and is not allowed back until it displays acceptable behavior. In captivity, that usually means running a horse in circles around a round corral until it decides for itself that it wants to move to the middle.
Mantle, of Wheatland, Wy., said that with care and a lot of attention, the wild horses can be trained. "The horse is a flight animal, not a fight animal," he said. "But if you take the flight away from them, that fight will be brought up to the surface." The way to avoid turning the horse into an angry animal is to train it gently, not with force or intimidation, he said.
The bidding for the appaloosa was heated from the start. The first bid was $200. As the appaloosa ran in the pen, three or four people continually raised their hands to bid. In less than 30 seconds, the top bid was $1,000.
Eggink sat on a bale of hay off to the side of the pen. She held her card, No. 9, up in her right hand without ever bringing it down, signaling her intent not to be outbid. Others raised and lowered theirs, driving the price to $1,200, $1,350, $1,500 and finally to $1,675.
Eggink, card still raised in the air, had won.
"Truly," she said laughing, "I prepared for this baby more than I did for my own two children when they were born."