May 09, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


The Matchmaker 

With a passion for horses, one Varina woman is helping a tiny auction ring make a comeback.

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Everyone wants a Cinderella horse: The bony one that needs some hay. The rough-ridden one that needs a soft touch. The wild one that needs a firm hand. The beat-down one that just needs some sweetness.

No two people see a horse the same way. The nervous, sour animal one person wants to sell may be a precious prize for another. This is the principle upon which horse auctions are founded. This is what Mary McKann does.

She too has fallen for a few Cinderellas, like the sweet-tempered "bag of bones" she bought for $50. "She never got any prettier," McKann says. "But so many kids learned on her."

Sometimes you get an ugly stepsister, like the beautiful little pony that reared up when a girl tried to give it an apple. The "attack pony," McKann calls it.

But what can you do? Everyone wants a Cinderella horse.

Lindsay Varnadore just found hers.

The tall bay Thoroughbred is pacing in his pen, eyeing the curious two-legs around him. He's refined, muscular, shining. Lindsay can't look away.

"What does he do?" she asks. "Does he jump?

"He could jump," Meg McKann answers. Meg, one of Mary McKann's eight children, is registering all the horses on a silver clipboard. This one could be a show horse. Could be anything.

Truth is, he's one of those horses that "never found an occupation," as McKann says.  She's brought the Thoroughbred here today to sell on behalf of a friend.

He's young yet, just 6 years old. Gelding. Seventeen hands — or 5 feet, 8 inches to the top of his shoulders. Has all his papers. Was a real racehorse, raced in Maryland. But he was slow. Has a bad habit of cribbing, which means he likes to suck and chew on wooden fences. But boy, is he beautiful.

Lindsay, 17, has a soft spot for racehorses. She points to two circular scars on the horse's leg. This is evidence, she says, that his trainer once deliberately burned him — out of kindness, to force him off the track for a while. "Owners don't care," she says. "They'll race them till they get hurt." (McKann thinks the marks may be from hot liniments, or an old injury.)

Lindsay has been riding since she was 3, completely at ease around a thousand pounds of nervous horse. She wants to be a trainer one day, although her mother thinks veterinary school would be a better idea.

"I'm gonna go in there," she decides. "If he kills me, pull me out."

She slides through the pen door and warily approaches. The horse, jittery in such close quarters, rolls his eyes and tosses his head. Madison Crow, 10, hangs on the fence. "You'd be a good trainer 'cause you're very brave," she says.

Lindsay gently takes the halter and presses a hand to the horse's rippling shoulder, discouraging him from making any sudden moves. They move in a strange circular dance, the red-haired girl and this tall Prince Charming of a horse.

"God, he's gorgeous," Lindsay says. "Oh my God. I want him."

Everyone wants a Cinderella horse. And this is the place to find one, here at the Victoria Livestock Market.

You've probably never heard of Victoria. It's a tiny town near Blackstone and Crewe, about an hour and a half southwest of Richmond. In the seven minutes it takes to drive through Victoria, you see streets of pretty, tired bungalows; Vaughan's Grocery, est. 1961, where the sign in the window says "Fried Chicken" in red neon; antiques stores; the Southside Baptist Association; The Victoria Station, "home of fine fast food"; and finally, standing by the road, a statue of a black horse rampant.

Turn right at the black horse and find yourself in a lively jumble of trailers, horses, children, bits, bridles and a hot-dog-and-hamburger stand. This is the Victoria Livestock Market. It's one of just a dozen such institutions left in Virginia. On the second Saturday of each month at 5 p.m., people from a hundred miles around come to try their luck with tack and horses.

Mary McKann, a Varina native, bought the place a year ago. A wiry,  smiling figure,  she trots briskly through the gathering crowd.  She has something to say to everyone.

"I got a Thoroughbred for you."

"We got goats tonight. Baby goats!"

"That's a nice-looking pony. Everybody wants a pony."

"The goat is the new cow around here."

"This could be your horse, sir."

The Victoria Livestock Market defies any notion of the equestrian world as an aristocratic, rarefied realm. Bleating goats share the rambling paddock space with purebred horses. People wear jeans and T-shirts, big belts and cowboy hats. The proceedings begin when someone bellows, "E'rbody! Sale's started!"

People file into the tiny auction ring. There are no seats, only wooden risers and an upper deck. The smart ones have brought pillows to sit on.

Auctioneer Matt English, a 22-year-old in a crisp blue shirt and a Virginia Tech cap, sits high in a fluorescent-lighted booth. The first item on the block is a rope halter.  The horses come later. Much later.

"How about five dollars?" he says.  "And let's get started."

Budabubudadom, he goes in his own version of the auctioneer's rhythmic chant. After the halter goes a lead rope, some horse electrolytes, a stack of old magazines, a set of pillows, a frilly Western dress worn at the Quarter Horse Congress. "Ten now ten now ten now anybody?"

People wander in and out of the small ring. Four children are engrossed in popping a sheet of bubble wrap. Lindsay is in with the Thoroughbred.

"You would like him," says McKann, who in customary style has appeared out of nowhere.

"He's gonna bite me, I can tell," says Lindsay, lifting the horse's upper lip to check for a racer's tattoo. She says it not with fear but with relish.

"He's gonna sell tonight," Mary says. Even if he fetches $200, he's gone. Owner has no more room for him, she explains.

Lindsay brightens. "I just made $200," she says, from teaching riding lessons.

But she did not come here to buy. Her mother said she had to sell her "project horses" — those she bought rough and trained smooth — before going to college in a year. Today, they drove to the Victoria auction from Warrenton, N.C., to sell a sweet chubby pony. Not to go home with a Thoroughbred.

"Watch this, Mom — have you ever seen a horse pick up his feet like that?" Lindsay asks.

Diane Varnadore frowns a little. "I'm not so interested in how he picks up his feet as how he rides," she says. She sees the spark in Lindsay's eyes, but cautions, "I'm not sure we're going to buy that horse now."

Lindsay gives her a pleading look, and she relents. A little.

"Lindsay, if we're gonna try to bid on him, you better ride him," she says.

This is how the horse auction works.

The seller rides the horse or pony around the ring. "If you don't ride it, people are really suspicious," McKann says. An Arabian mare sold for just $45 in December, she says, because the man wouldn't get on her.  Said she hadn't been ridden in a couple of years. Mary's son Patrick bought her, rode her a while and sold her again for $450.

At the last sale, a 23-year-old mare — far past its prime — sold for $600. Seller Beth Bailey simply put her young daughter on its back to demonstrate how gentle it was.

People bid by holding up their numbers. If the winning bid is unacceptable to the seller, the deal's off. Anyone who brings a horse into the ring and doesn't sell it owes McKann $25. McKann makes 7 percent on horse and goat sales, 15 percent on tack.

A big sign says "No penhooking."  This refers to surreptitious pre-sale negotiating between a buyer and seller, McKann explains, when "they go on down the street to the Italian restaurant and make a deal and I don't see anything."

She's always on the lookout for shady horse traders. She calls them "characters." Underhanded dealings can be as simple as misrepresenting a horse's personality or as calculated as drugging them. Thirty days of doped feed and you have a horse that's preternaturally calm — at least until you get it home.

At a small auction like Victoria, people know the crooked dealers. "Mary won't let 'em stick you," says Melvin Walsh, a longtime raiser of horses. Trust is the glue holding the auction together: "If you come to a place and you can trust somebody, that's half the game."

Back at the Thoroughbred gelding's pen, Lindsay has heard some bad news from an auction regular. The racehorse may have bad stifles — problems with the kneelike joint in the hind legs.

And that's not all. "They said he was brain-fried on the track," the woman confides. "Brain-fried on the track."

That's what happens when a young horse is made to run and run and run, and then is shut up in a stall. But Lindsay, confident of her ability to reach an understanding with this horse, is more concerned about the stifles. If that's true, he won't make a jumper. And what will his occupation be then?

"So it's like, absolutely his legs will give out?" she asks. Lindsay looks over at the Thoroughbred, who has turned his back. She rushes off to call her trainer.

The auction regular looks at the horse. "I like him," she says.

"All my life, I wanted horses. Like many girls do," says McKann, who's 58.

Most girls settle for posters of mustangs on their bedroom walls. McKann kept begging until her uncle bought her a former racehorse named Dango. "They thought that if they got me a horse," she says, "I would get over it." She never was horseless after that.

McKann married, moved onto a farm in Varina, had five children. She wanted to be a full-time mother, but she needed work — "a cottage industry,"  she says — to support the family.  She was a fan of horse shows and observed that demand for good English-made saddles and horse equipment was suddenly high. But in the early 1980s, few people were selling used tack.

She bought a cheap saddle and took a razor blade to it, carefully inspecting all the layers of leather, wood and metal. She saw how the saddle was made and thought of ways to repair it. She picked up thousand-dollar saddles people thought were useless and found a welder who could fix the saddle trees. Every week she was among the first to pick up the Trading Post, the local classifieds magazine, and rushed to buy the advertised tack.

Then she sold at big auctions, such as The Eyler Stables sale in Thurmont, Md.   You couldn't miss McKann, says friend Bruce Warner, owner of Champion Saddlery in Doswell and Midlothian.  "She's not big as a minute," he says, but she always had a passel of kids trailing behind her. It was like when "you see the mama duck and you see all the little ducks behind her."

A small-time dealer compared with others, McKann was often the last to hold up her wares while the crowd clamored for them to bring on the horses. Yet her business grew, bit by bit. She just found "her own little niche,"  Warner says.

She never really intended to start selling horses. People just started calling her, saying "Hey,  I got this horse." McKann's adoptive brother in Wakefield had a penchant for rescuing neglected horses. Often she'd come home to find a super-skinny horse standing in the yard, much to the delight of the kids.

She'd feed them. The kids would ride them, "give them an occupation." And then they'd sell them.

It was no hobby, though. McKann sold horses "because I was poor," she says. "Believe me, I was poor. Everything I made went to the kids."

Once, she recalls, Meg asked to go on a glee club trip to New York City. There was no money for it. So McKann told her daughter to hurry and sell a pony to a local family that was interested. "She took the check and went to New York," McKann says. Another pony helped pay for a semester of daughter Connie's college costs.

McKann now had eight children, each two years apart, who rode horses and helped their mother buy and sell. "They never watched a parade," McKann says. "They were always in it."

Things were good. Until the day when, after 32 years, McKann's marriage ended.

She doesn't talk about it much. The way it felt, she says, was "Boom! You're out of work."

The children had already grown. The farm was sold. McKann moved into a small house in Varina that had no room for horses. It was a bad time.

She had lost her occupation.

Then in November 2005, she saw the ad in the paper for a livestock market. "The price was laughable," she says: $78,000. She drove out to Victoria and found a rambling building with wooden stalls and an auction ring. It had housed a cattle market until it had gone out of business two years before.

"It was as if that place was waiting for me," she says. The 1950s barn was a charming "Charlotte's Web" warren of wooden gates and pens, with a small indoor ring. The grass was high. The wood was stained. The little trailer around back was a shambles. McKann thought it was beautiful.

"I must have had on what you call rosy glasses," she says. A Realtor told her not to buy it. Her friend Warner advised her to rent. "I said, 'Mary,'" he recalls with a sigh, "it's way out there in Victoria." Running a stockyard wasn't easy, he warned her. What would happen if she got a few bad checks?

McKann listened but bought it anyway.

"How much could I lose?" she asked herself. "And what could I gain?"

The first sale was in June 2006. McKann decided at first to run it as "a big trade meet" rather than an auction. But people didn't get it, she says. They kept asking, "When's the auction?" She obliged and got Matt English to run it. That first day, one disgruntled seller got a lower price than he wanted for his horses. "He just said, 'Here's your horse.' Dropped the rope. Mare and foal took off."

Everyone helped run those horses down, McKann says. And despite the bumps, that first sale paid for her first mortgage payment on the auction house. People kept coming, month after month. Her neighbors started cooking for the crowds.

Then in December, the auction fell on an 18-degree day. The solitary toilet in the trailer was a bowl of ice. The neighbors were ill and couldn't cook.

Undeterred, McKann ran out and bought cocoa, coffee and cookies to give away. One lonely heater was enlisted to warm the ring; McKann passed out horse blankets to the chilly crowd. They stayed until 9 p.m. "We had the biggest sale," she says.

That day, and the ones afterward, made McKann believe the auction could work.

In the horses, and in the community of buyers and sellers, she found her occupation. "It's not so much the money," she says. "It's the adrenaline that's addictive."

Her dream is to buy a better trailer. One with a tile floor when you walk in. A counter for check-in. A clean bathroom with hot water. "I dream big," she says wryly.

Truth is, her dream is a bit bigger than hot water. McKann wants the Victoria Livestock Market to grow into a big sale, with special demonstrations and seminars. With more horses than tack and bric-a-brac. Like the one in Thurmont, which draws 200 horses twice a month.

There, buyers have the option of purchasing horses "in the sawdust" — as-is — or with a complete vet check, with a three-day return guarantee. McKann likes this idea.

What it comes down to is this, she says: "I want it to be a sale where people bring good horses."

Tonight's crew is a mixed bag. Besides the bleating goats, there are chubby ponies, papered purebreds and a few unknowns. Melvin Walsh watches from the upper deck with his wife, Margaret.

You can't miss Walsh. He's 6-feet-4, 67 years old. He wears a feathered cowboy hat and breaks out in a gentle chuckle after every other sentence. A Hanover County native, he still remembers the first day he rode. His daddy took him down the road to buy a horse. "He put me on the horse and said, 'Take her home.' I was 7 years old."

The bay Thoroughbred has caught his eye. "I expect he'll bring a thousand dollars," Walsh says. "He should."

The first horse, a 9-year-old Standard mare the auctioneer declares "sound as a dollar," sells for $500.

The second, a Welsh Thoroughbred, is guided expertly around the ring by 13-year-old Teal Adamczyk. "That little girl ain't scared of nothin'," Walsh says. It sells for a little more than $400.

Then comes Lindsay's Haflinger, a stout brown pony whose blond bangs sweep his eyes. Lindsay demonstrates how well she has trained him by standing on his hindquarters a few times and slowly sliding off.

The auctioneer starts the bidding at a thousand. Nothing.

$800. Still no flickers.

"$200. Let's go," says Johnny Crow, an auction regular and longtime trader.

Lindsay looks solemn as the bidding slowly rises to $490.

"I'm done," one bidder says. Lindsay's mom motions that she'll take $490 — just half what she expected. Crow gets the pony.

"He got a nice horse for that money," Walsh says.

A few more sell. A gelding with papers goes in the ring, one the seller describes as "a great big ol' dog out there in the yard." The high bid is $2,000 — not enough for the seller, who wants no less than $2,850. He takes the horse out again.

The auctioneer calls horse No. 370 — the bay racehorse. Lindsay is sitting in the stands. Her leg is shaking. She looks at her mother.

"Looking for an offer," McKann says to the crowd. "This horse will go home with you."

Lindsay pleads quietly.  Her mother's face is set. Then she relents, and bids $200.

A man in a green jacket bids $225. Diane Varnadore hesitates, then inches up to $230.

"She was ready to cry, and mama bid again," observes Walsh, amused.

Green jacket bids $240.  Varnadore won't budge. Lindsay rushes from the ring.

"That's a lot of horse, guys!" McKann calls.

"Sold. $240," the auctioneer calls.

Lindsay stands outside, illuminated faintly by the yellow glow of the ring. "Yeah, I'm sad," she says. She has no more words than that. She walks out into the night.

Madison Crow, 10, is beaming. "I got the horse I wanted!" she says.

It's the little Haflinger pony Lindsay sold. S

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