Historical Report #6
Old age, the heaves, bone spavin, ring bone, moon blindness, balkiness--there wasn't much that could happen to a horse that didn't have a cosmetic cure for the few hours needed by an owner attempting to unload the animal onto someone else. So when work was done by horsepower and people traveled in the saddle, trading for horses meant keeping all senses on red alert. To be skinned in a horse trade in the decades around the turn of the century was something that happened to almost everyone. But in an era when every man fancied himself an expert on horse flesh, as the farmer seems to fancy himself in the picture to the left, the trick was to keep the score even.
"I'll never forget this horse that Clayt Hogan traded for back in 1929," says Lewiston's Edis Taggart. "Clayt was a horse trader here in Lewiston at the time and I worked for him. The owners didn't lead the horse up here, they hauled him up on a sledge when Clayt wasn't around. They unloaded him and drove off. Well, here I was with this horse who looked okay, so I put a bridle on him–I was told to lead him up to a farmer a couple miles north of here. But the horse was so broken-winded he could hardly stand the bridle, and leading him for those couple of miles nearly killed him, let me tell you. Now, the farmer got a bad bargain for a while. But what he'd do in a case like that is just pass him off in the next horse trade. An animal like that, he'd just keep moving around in a wide circle until he died of old age."
What we've got to understand before we go any further on the subject of horse trading, is that two people engaged in a trade might keep certain things to themselves, but would never come right out and lie. Painting on youth spots, dying the white hair of an aging mare, throwing a blanket over a sway back, even dosing an old, exhausted nag back to temporary life with cocaine–these were things that could be detected by the wary and were therefore considered fair. Outright lying was not fair.
"You know what a balky horse is, don't you?" asked Vern Krebs of North Logan, pictured at the right. "A horse that won't budge once he gets a harness on? My dad had a nice-looking horse, but he was balky, and my dad couldn't stand a balky horse. So here came a horse trader with a pretty good horse except it was a little thin. And he asked my dad, 'You got a horse to trade?' And my dad said, 'Yeah, I've got one,' and as it happened, the subject of balkiness never came up. So Dad traded him horses, and Dad could see he'd made himself a pretty good trade. Well, the next time my dad saw this trader, the guy said, 'Hey, Jack, you didn't tell me that horse was balky.' And Dad said, 'The guy I got him from didn't tell me, either, so I figured it was a secret.'"
Stories like those of Edis Taggart and Vern Krebs get told over and over–by both the skinned and the ones who skinned them, with plenty of laughs on both sides. In fact the more outrageous the deception the funnier and more enduring the story. Many of them have a moral to them; for instance, a farmer should keep his team groomed well enough to at least recognize them after they'd been given a haircut.
Edis tells of Clayt Hogan hauling a load of hay to a farmer who was really taken with the team Clayt had on the wagon that morning. After a bit of talk, the farmer ended up trading his own bedraggled team for Clayt's sleek one along with $50 boot. "Boot" was the cash added by the owner of the less valuable trade.
"Clayt brought this bedraggled team back home," Edis said, "gave the two of them a haircut, trimmed their tails, and curried them until they looked pretty good. He had them about two weeks when he hauled another load of hay up to this farmer, using this new team in a nice harness. Well, the farmer looked at Clayt's new team and decided they were even better looking than the ones he'd traded Clayt for two weeks previous. Naturally, Clayt didn't say anything, and they exchanged teams again with another $50 boot to Clayt.
"Now when the farmer unhitched this team and turned them into the barn, the first thing the horses did was head right into their old stalls, and the farmer said, 'Well, I'll be danged!' Because he'd recognized them, once he'd got hit over the head with it like that." Concluded Edis, "Now, for that particular farmer, I'd say that was one expensive haircut."
Often, even men who dealt in horses all their lives couldn't see beneath the matted manes, shaggy coats, and untrimmed hooves. Howard Shuldberg, former mayor of Lewiston and a horse trader for many years, pictured at right, has a favorite story illustrating this point.
"I'd shipped saddle horses for many years to this man in New York named Geiss," he said. "Now, this man had got too old to come out West very often, but I went to Idaho Falls this particular day and there he was. We went down in the ring together so we could look at the horses close when they came out. Now one of the horses I bought while I was down there was a big brown saddle horse, and this old fellow said, 'I hope you didn't buy that horse for me, Howard, he's a mess.'
"In the meantime, a friend of mine came up to me and said he'd got some people visiting from Salt Lake. If I had a horse or two for them to use for a trip into the mountains, he said, he'd be responsible for them. I said that would be fine and when he came for the horses, one of them he took was this big brown horse. When this friend came back, he said, 'Howard I used that horse myself, and that's as nice a horse as I have ever rode.' I'd known he was a good horse, but that was nice to hear.
"I'd cut his mane off, he had a big, heavy mane, and he had a lot of hair around his feet and I trimmed all that off, and then I trimmed his tail up, and it really made him look like a different horse. So I included him in the shipment to this man who didn't want him when he saw him up in Idaho Falls. Now when we ship horses, we put a little metal tag in the tail, and wrap a bit of hair around it, and I can remember clearly that the tag I put on the tail of this big brown horse was number 44.
"In about ten days I got a call from Mr. Geiss, and he said, 'Hey, there was a big brown horse in that load you sent me, and I'm not going to tell you how much I got for him, but it was tag number 44.' He said, 'Buy all the horses like that you can! I sold him to the New York City Police Department and they loved him.' "
Vern Krebs would call that a good trade–where each of the parties thinks he's beat the other one. There are other times when both parties are satisfied all right, one of them for all the wrong reasons–the party who was begging to be skinned. And Howard has another story to illustrate it.
"There was a fellow over in Cornish," Howard said, "who married money, and he decided he wanted to buy a matched team. That was back in the early 1940s when they were trading horses in on tractors, and there was an International dealer in Preston that'd taken three colts in on some implements. I was working partners then with a man named Harold Johnson who lived west of Lewiston, and these horses were cheap at the time. I gave $75 a piece for two and $50 for a sorrel baldy (white face) with white feet.
"So this fellow in Cornish came to me and said he had a brown baldy horse he'd just bought and he was looking for a match. And I said, 'I have a sorrel baldy horse that will really match him.' And they matched really well, except one was sorrel and one was brown. I hadn't put much feed into the horse, so I said I'd take $65 for him.
"Well, the fellow liked the horse right up until I priced him, and then he said, 'Oh, Gosh, I don't know. I believe I want a better horse than that. I gave $125 for the horse I've already got, and I want another horse just as good.'
"Now mind you, this was on a Monday. And so I told my partner, Harold, 'The only problem was, I didn't ask enough money. Let's take the horse from my place over to your place, and we'll just do what we have to do to disguise him.'
"So on the following Saturday I met this Cornish fellow in Lewiston waiting for his wife to get some groceries and I said, 'Hey, Harold's got a horse over there that's a perfect match for your horse.' And he said, 'He has? What does he want for him?' And I said, 'I think he said a hundred and a half.' (Which is what Harold said – we had this figured out between us.)
"Well, the fellow was pretty excited and said, 'As soon as my wife gets her groceries I'll stop over there and take a look.' So he did–and he traded Harold Johnson two horses and $105 for an animal that I'd offered him on Monday for sixty-five!"
Edis Taggart--pictured at left, looking through one of his journals--calls horse trading like this a game of wits, a challenge men couldn't resist. It was a "winter pastime," Edis said, when farmers in the valley would go off in groups, after chores were over, looking over the crop of trading horses. And in the summer, it was watching for "snides" among the strings of horses following itinerant traders working their way through the valley. Snides, explained Edis, were always good looking horses, but "weren't worth a dime." They'd have problems that were easy, sometimes not so easy, to spot–cataracts or an attitude. A sharp eye could see the capped hocks or scarred hind legs that indicated a kicker. Gypsies in a buggy pulled by shetlands would have at least one snide in the string of horses they led behind them, and a trader called Deafey Lee who came up here from central Utah – he'd always have a snide. "Clayt would trade with Deafey," Edis said. "Clayt could trade with anybody. If he ever got took, no one ever heard about it."
Photo of farmer with
horse, courtesy USU Special Collections
Photo of North Logan's Vern Krebs with his quarter horse, Sugar Boy, Vern Krebs collection
Photo of Howard Shuldberg at the Smithfield Auction by Joan Shaw
Photo of Edis Taggart by Joan Shaw
All photos by Joan Shaw
Sketches of corner joints by Melanie Shaw
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