A Horse Tradin' Tale
October 6, 2001
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A true story from the old days, heard on my summer travels:
This fellow Art lived in central Minnesota, owned a big junkyard where he'd keep smaller stuff inside the cars out there: plumbing fixtures, shelf brackets, hinges, cream cans, typewriters, wire fencing, et cetera; he had a heck of a memory and if you were looking for, say, a medium-sized anvil for your workbench he'd say, "Yah, check that black 4-door DeSoto out there -- down the main driveway there and left at the third row, probably about halfway down. On your right. Check the trunk. And I think there might be one on the floor of the back seat too."
He went to auctions, sometimes buying everything that was left at the end, stuff nobody bid on, for a small lump sum. He did okay at this, had a good eye for a bargain and a good sense of who he might be able to sell it to. But for all of that, his real profession, his métier, was that of a horse trader. To him it was the ultimate test of nerve and skill, and every horse was different.
He telephoned a fellow he knew up near Grand Rapids about a trade and drove up there one fine fall Sunday with a sorrel gelding, half Belgian and half quarter horse, in the trailer, skirting the east side of Mille Lacs Lake on State Highway 47, past Malmo and then on county 53 past Long Lake and Dam Lake and north on county 5; then at Palisade picking up county 10, which follows the upper Mississippi River to Grand Rapids. The Scenic Route. Northeast of Palisade he was taking his time and enjoying the day when he saw a beautiful black Morgan mare standing in a small pasture next to the road. He was struck by her grace and burnished color, the sheer perfection of her stance, and he stopped the pickup. She stood patiently, watching him, and he slipped through the wire fence and walked up to her. A young farmer, early-to-mid twenties, was standing in a gap in the trees.
"Fine looking horse you have here, sir," Art said, as he approached.
"Well, she seems like a good horse.... She stands real calm."
"Yes indeed." They made small talk for a while, "Nice part of the country, here along the river," that sort of thing, and finally Art said, "You wouldn't consider selling this horse, would you?"
"Well, I hadn't planned on selling her, no sir, but I suppose if the price was right I'd have to think about it. Might sell the whole farm if the price was fair."
"Yes sir. If I was short a farm, I might be interested... But what do you think you'd need for just the horse?"
"Oh, I don't know that much about horses, really. Can't say for sure what a horse like this would go for these days. I'm kinda new to the farming trade."
"Suppose a fellow was to offer to buy it right now, what would it take, do you think? Just off the top of your head."
"Oh, I guess about 300 dollars. Maybe a little less, maybe two and a half, 'bout the least I could take."
"Mmm-hm. How about a trade? Might you be interested in trading her?"
"Well, I might do that. I'd consider it. But like I say, I don't know that much about horses."
"I've got a real fine grade gelding out there in that trailer. Half Belgian; a real solid work horse, if that's what you need."
"Let's take a look at him."
The farmer seemed to like the sorrel. "I don't know if I could trade even up," he said, "I don't mean to insult your horse because he looks like a real fine animal. I'm sure he's a good horse. He's got good size to him. But an even trade, I'm just not sure I'd want to do that... I believe this here Morgan could be a purebred. They say she looks like it."
Art said, "How about I give you 25 dollars to boot. Horse for horse, and 25 dollars besides."
"All right. Seems fair to me." So Art didn't go to Grand Rapids. Drove back home and unloaded the perfect black Morgan mare in his yard. She took the bridle easily, a very even-tempered mare, and he was thinking about what a great deal she was, worth $600 at least. He hitched her to his light carriage and with a little "Klk-klk" she pulled nicely out of the yard. It was a great feeling for about four hundred yards and then she came to a stop.
He said, "Giddup. C'mon, horse. Giddup. HYUP! HYUP now! HYUP!" He cracked the whip sharply by her ear. KRACK! KRACK! Nothing. He climbed down and took the bridle and tried to pull her forward. She braced herself back. He pulled to the side; she kept her feet planted. He sat on the seat and fumed for a while. And after 10 minutes or so she began moving forward with the same graceful gait as before.
This is more like it, he thought, I wonder what it was that spooked her. And a quarter mile later she stopped again. Dead still. He went through the whole routine again and gave up. In ten minutes she began moving and he turned her around, thinking she might at least be more anxious to get back to the barn than to leave it, but she stopped twice more on the way home, the last time just outside the yard.
Next day she took the saddle calmly but it was the same story; ride for a few hundred yards, sit and wait. Ride; sit and wait. Apples, sugar cubes, oats, none of it would move her. He wasn't one to beat a horse but he wasn't above intimidation and no amount of hollering and whip cracking fazed her. She'd twitch her tail a certain funny way when she was moving, the sign she was about to take a break, and nothing could change her mind.
He'd never seen a horse behave like this and he'd never been taken so badly in a horse trade. Gave up a good Belgian and 25 dollars for this useless prima donna. Looked great standing in the pasture and she wasn't worth a dime. Couldn't sell her to any of his neighbors, or anyone else with whom he wanted to keep his good standing. He'd take her across the state and try to cut his loss.
He took her to an auction three counties to the west and as he was unloading her he was approached by a man who introduced himself as Mr. Prebish. He was a spotter, a person who finds horses for professional traders. He was working for his nephew, who lived some distance away.
Prebish asked what he wanted for the Morgan. Art said he was looking for about 450 but he might go lower, if he could make a deal right away. Prebish asked if he'd take 400 cash money and deliver the horse to his nephew the next day, since he himself had no way to transport it. His heart leapt but he pretended to think hard about it, and finally agreed. They would meet at the local cafe in the morning and ride to the nephew's together.
At breakfast Prebish gave him an envelope holding eight of the nephew's 50-dollar bills and they headed east, pulling the trailer. "I'll give you directions as we go," he said, "It's about a four hour drive."
At 169 they turned north to Mille Lacs Lake. East to Isle and then north on 47. When they took the turn on county 53 Art said, "Isn't this the way up to Palisade?"
"Yep. You know that part of the country?"
"Uh. Well, a little... I've been up that way once before."
He thought this was a hell of a coincidence. At Palisade they turned onto county road 10 along the Mississippi River. "It's not much farther," Prebish said.
"Nice country," Art said. He was thinking there was no way that kid looked like a horse trader; he looked like a rube farmer if he ever saw one. Well, the youngster was about to learn a lesson about the horse trading business.
"Yeh, it's real pretty here along the river."
And sure enough, he had him pull in at the same place. The young man came out and greeted his uncle and then saw Art. A quick moment of recognition and then the uncle's introduction. He said, "Glad to meet you."
"My pleasure, sir."
"Well, let's have a look at the horse," the young man said, dreading what he was about to find.
"She's a real beauty," his uncle beamed, quite pleased with himself, "One of the finest Morgans I've ever seen."
She backed easily out of the trailer and stood there, knowing how good she looked.
"She stands real calm," said the uncle.
"She does," said the nephew. His face betrayed nothing. He pretended to be pleased. Art thought he'd probably do okay as a trader.
Mr. Prebish would be staying there for a day or two and then riding back with the nephew, who had other business out that way. They shook hands and as Art turned to leave the kid said, "Maybe we can do business again sometime."
Art said, "Maybe so," and then added, low enough that the uncle couldn't hear: "But not with this damn horse we won't."