By Monika von Windheim
My husband and daughters ride dressage and wanted to find a young horse they could train together. Through Dr. Astrid von Velsen-Zwerck, we had learned of the Haupt und Landgestuet Marbach. It is a state-run stud farm in southern Germany. We had visited there before, but this time we were going with the purpose of buying a horse at the annual March auction.
The stud farm’s history goes back 500 years, but the technology is current. We had preselected several horses, from the live-stream we had watched a few weeks earlier. In the comfort of our living room, in North Carolina, we saw the horses being presented to the public for the first time. The horses were shown free-jumping, in the arena in Marbach. One daughter served as secretary and made notes in order to rank our favorite horses.
It was an easy flight via London to Stuttgart, the closest international airport. At the airport, we rented a car to take us the rest of the way. The car trip went as smoothly as possible, considering a late season snow fall on the winding country roads. A hearty German dinner, accompanied by a local beer, completed our day. We looked forward to going to bed, as in the morning we would have a chance to meet the horses.
After breakfast, we headed straight to the arena. Test rides were booked for the horses we were most interested in. Not to let on which were our favorites, my daughters made sure to test ride a few other horses. We had three days to watch, ride, examine, and ask questions about the 22 horses. Every morning, the horses would be lightly ridden, in groups of three. After the grooms completed the warm ups, the horses were ready for their test rides. Under the guidance of the grooms, prospective buyers would be allowed to ride. It was amazing how well the process went. My daughters were thrilled, and compared notes about each ride. Thankfully, we had time to test ride, as it was a new list of horses at the end of each day. I was becoming concerned, as I noticed that they were not agreeing about which horse was the one for our family.
The evening before the auction, we joined some other participants for a dinner with the director and staff in charge of the auction. It was a small group of those who had travelled the furthest; a young woman looking for a fox hunting horse who had driven two hours, a man and his daughter who came regularly from their farm in Canada, and my family and a friend from North Carolina. It was a pleasant evening with conversations switching between English and German; however, no mention was made of which horse was most desired.
The next morning was the day of the auction! For the first time, we had to join a line to enter the arena. A crowd had arrived to purchase their tickets, with assigned seats. The annual auction also serves as entertainment for the local horse lovers. For the formal presentation, the horses entered the arena, again in groups of three. While the announcer commented on each horse, we watched the groom present the best walk, trot, and canter. The first group would leave and the next three would enter. The grooms made all the horses look great. We admitted to ourselves that we were fortunate to have had the opportunity to test ride. Not all the horses were as easy to ride as the grooms made it look.
After the presentation, we had a well-deserved break for lunch. It was a festive atmosphere, with food not far away. Kiosks offering the local fare and drink were situated outside the arena. Conversations were about the horses, just as much as they were about the beautiful day. During this break, my family strategized on how we would bid. We all agreed on the maximum price that would be paid for the horses we were interested in.
As we returned to our seats, we received the order of the auction and saw our selected horses were spread throughout. To begin the auction, the local sponsors and officials were recognized in the crowd. Then the auctioneer was brought to his station, in a horse drawn carriage. I had never been to an auction before and wanted to get on with the show. Later, I learned these presentations were like the warm-up for a concert. Finally, we heard the rules of the auction and the first horse entered.
The horses were ridden into the arena on their own. For some horses, this was their first time not having another horse in sight. The groom knew that all eyes were watching, and that the ride could well determine the selling price of the horse. Then the numbers started. The auctioneer kept finding bids, and the price increased. A shriek of delight came from the winner of the bid, soon after the bang of the gavel. As exciting as it was to hear how high the price went for a horse, I knew that was not in our best interests. We had agreed that my husband would do the bidding. Pleading looks and nudges were used to encourage him on, but he was dealing with some determined buyers. Horses that we had hoped to bring to North Carolina were going to stay in Germany. We had one more chance as our last choice entered, the third horse from the end of the auction.
First Love was three months shy of her third birthday. She was definitely young enough for my family. We didn’t pay her much attention when we first saw her from our living room, weeks before the auction. However, we learned more about her during our stay. Perhaps it was the extra weeks of training, or that seeing her in person was much different than seeing her on the TV, but something made us notice her. She was added to our list while others had been crossed off. Now was the chance to make her ours! I was nervously waiting for the hammer to fall, but the auctioneer always managed to drag out one last bid. After 3 attempts, our bid won! My husband was thrilled to be done with the ordeal, and we were all thrilled to have the winning bid on such a wonderful mare.
Young horses learn a lot from hanging out with their peers. We decided that First Love would benefit by staying another year with her herd. Now we are looking forward to returning to next year’s auction. We will reintroduce ourselves to First Love before we bring her home, maybe with a friend.