Tricks of the Trade: Unscrupulous Horse Traders of the Old West


We all know to be on our guard when buying a used car. But a clever Old West horse dealer could make even the slickest car dealer look like Honest Abe.

Those early cowboys in the market for a horse didn’t have to worry about odometer fraud or hidden accident damage, but there were plenty of other ways they could be duped.

smileyMany an old mare was made to appear young again by a method called bishoping.  The horse traders of yesteryear often filed the teeth of elderly horses and stained them with silver nitrate. This little trick could shave years off a horse’s age. A story in a 1910 newspaper reported that one man paid dearly for a seventeen-year-old horse thinking it was but seven.

Horses with sore muscles were temporarily cured by the gasoline trick. Gasoline was rubbed into a horse’s back and withers.  Supposedly, this allowed horses to move pain-free long enough to allow an unscrupulous horse trainer to pocket his money and leave town.

Another trick involved removing a shoe to disguise a lame horse.  The horse trader would convince a prospective buyer that once the shoe was replaced, the horse would be fine.

It wasn’t just old age and limps that could be concealed. Sponges shoved up a horse’s nostrils would hide the ihorsesound of labored breathing or a runny nose.  Irritants hidden in other parts of the body made a sickly horse hold its tail high and appear active.  This was called gingering.

Droopy ears could be easily fixed by running a thread under the forelock.

A Pennsylvania newspaper dated 1897 reported that when a prospective buyer voiced concern over a horse’s slow speed, the horse trader took him for a ride. Unbeknownst to the buyer, the horse trader had arranged to be arrested for “speeding” and willingly paid the five dollar fine.  The duped buyer was so impressed, he immediately bought the horse.

White horses were often made to look more attractive by the addition of black spots. This was accomplished by a combination of powdered lime and litharge.  A handsome star was often added to a black horse’s forehead by spreading warm pitch to a spot shaved in the shape of a star.  The pitch was left on for three days and then washed away with elixir of vitriol.  The hair grew back white.

One horse trader received a complaint that the horse he sold the day before must be blind as it kept walking into things. “Well, he ain’t blind,” the trader explained.  “He just don’t care.”

Anyone ever come across an unscrupulous dealer or pushy salesman?


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24 thoughts on “Tricks of the Trade: Unscrupulous Horse Traders of the Old West”

  1. Loved this topic, yes old horse traders were a dime a dozen, due to the fact that they certainly caused havoc whereever they roamed. I’ve met my share of horse trading fools in my lifetime.

  2. It sounds like sellers were as shady back then as they are now. It seems we always get the pushy salesperson who will say anything to make a sale.

  3. Great post, Margaret. I’m going to have to come up with a way to use some of those sad facts in a book someday. It’s sad the length some people will go with dishonesty in order to make money. That part of human nature has changed much in 100 years.

  4. Yup, I have met my share of bad horse traders in my lifetime. It’s amazing the lengths they would go through to cheat people!

  5. Great post, Margaret! And enlightening. Those horse traders could be as low-down and dirty as these car salesmen today. The poor horse though. To add suffering on top of what was already wrong…I just hope the good Lord had some justice waiting on the other side. For these today also who’ll take your last cent and deliver nothing. I hope they get what’s coming to them. I got taken for almost $500 last year and learned a very valuable lesson–not to trust anyone.

    Congratulations on that great cover! I don’t know if you saw my reply to you on my blog day but at Dawn Adams’ cover workshop in Vegas in April, she used your cover as one of the examples of her cover design techniques. It was so interesting. Dawn and her team puts so much thought and work into giving Sourcebooks authors the very best. She’s such a sweet person and always a delight to talk to. I’m glad you’re with them and it’s awesome having you. I just love Mary. She’s a top-notch editor and her vision for my stories astounds me sometimes. Just amazing.

  6. Sad but true, Margaret. My sister worked for a company that insured race horses. The stories she would tell, (many were classified information) make these seem so benign. It was never about the horses but always about the money. Due to her love of horses and the extreme danger she faced, she didn’t last long at that job.

    We did have a horse dealer near us who was fairly reputable. Once my father called him on a shady tactic and after that they had an understanding. We bought a number of horses from him but the best was a 28 year old thoroughbred named Spottswood who had won countless awards and ribbons. He was going to auction for dog food. My father asked how much a horse brought for dog food prices. $50. He paid the $50 and we got the BEST horse we ever owned. He died at 36. I sure do miss the old guy.

  7. Hi Karen, yes, it is sad what some people will do to make money. It never ceases to amaze me. Unfortunately, technology has made it easier for some shysters to operate. At least those old cowboys didn’t have to contend with the Nigerian prince.

  8. Hi Linda, yes, I did see your post about my cover and meant to reply. I love working with Sourcebooks. I’ve never had a publisher put so much thought behind a book package and launch. No wonder you love them! I love them, too. Will I see you at RWA?

    • Margaret, no, I’m not going to get to make it to RWA. I’m on deadline and besides, it’s too costly. I did RT and I can’t do both.

      I’m glad you like Sourcebooks. They put a lot of thought into every single thing. Nothing is left to chance. I just love Dominique, the owner of the company. I think her brain much whirl a hundred miles an hour. She’s always thinking of new ideas and ways to make things better.

  9. Rosie, I have heard some things about race horses that make me cringe. As you say, it’s all about money. I hope your sister got a better job.

    Thank you for sharing your story about Spottswood!

  10. What a terrific post, Margaret! I know horse thieves had ways to disguise horses they’d nabbed, but these tricks are new and fascinating to me! I’ve gotten pretty good at buying cars…just get up and pretend to leave lol. Hugs to you and thanks for the great info.

  11. Car dealers and timeshare sales associates seem to be in the same category. We sat through many a sales pitch from both. One guy tried to sell us a truck. It didn’t run, but he was sure he could get us a good price on it. Really? One time share sales person, an older woman who was sweet, homey, and pushed her good christian self. When we declined to buy, she stood up and started screaming at us and calling us names. Once when we did have a weak moment and bought, the salesman sealed the paperwork and told us the sales were final. I unsealed the envelope and the forms clearly stated we had 7 days to change our minds, which we did.

    Thanks for a fun posit.

  12. We came across a bad salesman when looking for my engagement ring. I told him exactly what I wanted (something simple and 1/2 carat or less-I don’t like flashy for me). He comes back with a diamond that was well over 1 1/2 carats and a setting that was nothing like I described and when I told him that wasn’t what I asked for, he argued with me and said “it is what you want”. I told him no it is not what I want and he continued to say it was what i wanted. This was a very busy jewelry mart and I said loud enough for people around me to hear, “I told you what I wanted and you insist on trying to sell me something I don’t want. I want simple. Simple. So you can keep your diamond and we will go elsewhere”. He yelled at me as we were leaving that I would be sorry. It was a nightmare but also a blessing because we went elsewhere and were treated with respect and when I told the salesman what I wanted he came out with EXACTLY what I wanted and for a little under the amount my husband’s amount to spend. I love my ring. It is a floating 1/2 carat diamond in a simple gold band.

    Cindy W.

  13. Hi Cindy, what a shame that someone would turn a special moment into something so unpleasant. I’m so glad you walked away and found what you wanted. I like simple, too.

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