The chief fairs for purchasing hunters are as follows: - Preston, Lancashire, first whole week in January; Northallerton, Yorkshire, first whole week in February; Lincoln, last whole week in April; Northallerton, Yorkshire, 1st to 5th of May; Rugeley, Staffordshire, 1st to 6th of June; Borobridge, Yorkshire, 14th to 21st of June; Horncastle, Lincolnshire, whole week nearest the 10th of August; Howden, the week after Doncaster races; Rugby, 16th to 22nd of November; York, the last whole week before Christmas. A full list will be given, at the end of this chapter, of the dates of all the principal fairs in England; but the above mentioned fairs are by far the best for hunters. As a rule it might be asserted that for the better class of hunters, and also for hacks and match horses, the fair really commences about two days before the above dates. For instance, for a fair lasting a week, a large number of horses come in on the Friday and Saturday, and up to Monday a large number change hands. Therefore, to any one looking out for a hunter, it is necessary to be there a day or two before, not after, the fair commences; later in the week - say the second, third, and fourth days - is generally given up to inferior classes of horses.
Confining our attention to hunters, the market is generally confined to Irish and country dealers; the former bring over a very large number, which they purchase at most of the large fairs in Ireland. In that country they keep them for a short time, give them plenty of food, take a little off the tail to add to their beauty, etc., and then ship them over to England. The English country dealers, as a rule, scour the country in their different localities, in addition to having agents in different parts of the district; they also bring a large number of horses together. The English, however, go in more for high-stepping match horses, park hacks, etc., than the Irish horse-dealers do.
Now for the two or three days before the advertised time of the fair, the show of horses is entirely confined to the different inn yards; a few people may be seen walking across the streets, yet there is nothing in the appearance of the place to lead one to suppose there is anything more going on than usual. But if you turn down the different stable yards and look into the stables, you will find scarcely a stall unoccupied. The day before the fair the yards are pretty well crowded with people.
The business transacted during this time is principally with dealers; very few horses are bought "privately" - that is, not for sale again. Most of the horses pass into the hands of London dealers, who attend all these fairs; in fact, most of the horses they obtain are bought at these fairs from the Irish and country dealers. In most of the large fairs in England there are very few local hunters shown; take Lincoln, for instance, one of the best fairs in England for almost every class of horse. It may be said that there are not ten hunters shown there annually that come within ten miles of the city. The trade in hunters, therefore, at this fair is between country and London dealers, and the fair is the recognised centre where they meet.
In searching for a horse, the first thing to do is to walk through the different inn-yards and look into the stables, and having seen an animal suited to your requirements, as far as can be ascertained in the stable, request the dealer to bring him out, which he is only too pleased to do. It is well at this time to inform the dealer that if he allows the horse to be "fidded" (a most pernicious practice), you will not look at him. He will then take care the groom does not commit this offence, which, it may be observed, improves some horses, especially those with short drooping quarters, as it makes the horses carry their tails well up in the air. What a purchaser wishes to see, however, is the tail carried in its natural position. Watch the horse carefully as he walks out of the stable; any slight stiffness or difficulty in flexing the hocks is best seen at that time. The groom will then place him close to a wall, the side of the stable, or in any situation close by where the horse can be seen at his best; this is the time to decide as to the animal's age, conformation, and general suitability as regards the weight he will have to carry, etc. He must have a sloping shoulder, be well ribbed-up, and have strong muscular loins well united to the back. Some Irish horses have sloping or drooping quarters, and the tail set on low; but if there is plenty of width about the hips, if the quarters are muscular, with well-developed "gaskins" or thighs, and hocks well let down, he is well shaped for jumping.
All hunters, as already mentioned, should have good, sound, flat legs, and the body not too heavy for them to carry; a big body and want of substance in the legs, is a conformation often seen, and due to cart mares being mated with thoroughbred horses. There are two things often taken exception to in English horses, and which are often seen in Irish horses, viz.: - rough bony hocks, and rings or ridges round the hoofs. The hocks if they are square, wide, well let down, and both alike, often are the best and strongest hocks: big hocks with plenty of room for insertion of ligaments and tendons are safest and most durable. With regard to the ringy or ridged hoofs - if the foot is of a good shape they should not be objected to; the ridges are called "grass rings," and are due to the animal being pastured in damp fields, bogs, etc.
A favourite description of the dealers, if they have a good-looking horse, but one a little flat in the sides, and light behind the saddle, is to say "the horse has been off his feed for some days owing to a change of stable, but he will fill out afterwards." But if the horse is to be purchased he should be taken as he is; at the same time it must be remembered that the conformation is a bad one for any horse that has to gallop and carry weight.