Thursday 14 November 2019

Caitriona Murphy: Art of the haggle at heart of traditional day's trade

Caitriona Murphy

HEMMED in by the Luas line and overlooked by sleek, modern architecture, the horse fair at Smithfield might appear to be a forgotten relic of days gone by.

But Smithfield is just one of dozens of horse fairs that regularly take place all over the country.

While the Dublin fair certainly has more of an urban patron than most other fairs, the core business -- the buying and selling of horses -- remains at the heart of it all.

A large proportion of fair buyers and sellers are from the Travelling community and their interest generally lies in two types of horses: the heavy breeding stock and lighter types used for racing in harness.

Traditional gypsy or vanner cobs are prized for their individual colours and distinctive markings, as well as the abundance of hair, known as feathers, on their legs. The heaviest and hairiest horses make the best prices, while unusually marked horses are also prized.

The racing animals are divided into two groups: trotters and pacers, depending on their way of moving in trot. Speed is of the essence for these horses and most of the animals will have been 'clocked', or raced beside a moving vehicle, to verify their top speed. At fairs, trotters and pacers will be 'flashed' or raced under gigs on the road to show off their speed.

However, horse fairs are far from exclusively Traveller events and they attract buyers and sellers of all types of horses, from a child's pony to hunter and even showjumping horses.

Fairs at Ballinasloe, Tallow, Spancil Hill, Cahirmee, Banagher and Puck Fair have quite a rural feel to them as farmers bring breeding mares and youngstock for sale, while some incorporate competitions to allow breeders to show off their jumping animals.

The fair day begins early as sellers try to secure a good spot to catch the eye of a potential buyer. Broken or trained horses will be ridden, while unbroken animals will be held by a headcollar and rope. Excitable animals will often be exercised before the fair to quieten them, and docile horses are sometimes ridden by children to demonstrate their obedience.

Buyers assess the temperament and conformation of each horse from a distance before moving in closer to ask the seller for more in-depth information such as age and experience.

Unlike horses sold at organised sales venues such as those at Cavan and Goresbridge, a horse bought at a fair will not come with any guarantee or veterinary certificate and, more often that not, the seller will never be seen again.

The upside of this uncertainty is that prices are generally lower at fairs than organised sales and there are no entry fees to be paid so buyers willing to take a chance can secure a cheaper horse.

After much haggling, which is often watched by a growing audience, the deal is traditionally closed on a spit and a handshake before money and horse are exchanged.

Irish Independent

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