HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Amish men lead muscular horses across a concrete threshold, their straw hats only as high as the beasts' shoulders, the clip-clop of huge hooves echoing loudly.
Nearby, a black stallion glistens as a boy in suspenders washes it with a garden hose. An auctioneer holds court in a sea of bridles, bits and buckets. Bay doors open and snow blows in as harness horses clamber into holding stalls.
At the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, at the nation's first major horse auction of the year, the activity bustles along like a well-oiled buggy.
Amish from all over the country come here to buy and sell their massive draft horses and magnificent harness horses. It also draws non-Amish horse fans, lured by the "Cadillac" quality of the animals, and vendors of everything from saddles to buggies to custom-made harnesses.
The public auction was held this year Jan. 16 and 17. It's actually three sales rolled into one, offering draft horses for use in the fields, harness horses and a separate Morgan horse sale.
The first day is all about presentation, with sellers hitching up their animals and taking them for a spin around the dirt-floored arena. It gives potential buyers a sense of how the horse moves and its demeanor as the announcer describes its family heritage.
About 85 percent of the buyers and sellers are Amish, said Dale Stoltzfus, an organizer of the sale.
On the first day, potential buyers in traditional straw hats chatted in Pennsylvania Dutch as they took notes in the 200-page guide that listed horses. Buyers could sleep on it and come back for the auction the next day ready to bid.
About 500 horses were up for sale this year, Stoltzfus said, and the crowd was estimated at about 10,000 people. On one side of the complex was a live auction of farm and horse equipment; in the center were vendor stalls selling everything an Amish farmer could need: wagons and buggies; barn construction; blacksmithing and horseshoeing services; handcrafted harnesses, saddles, bits and blankets; and whoopie pies, cream-filled doughnuts, milkshakes and soft pretzels.
Included in the audience at the draft horse presentation was Shelley Thorne-Le Blanc, the co-owner of Butternut Ridge Belgians in New Brunswick, Canada.
She drove over 13 hours to Harrisburg with a group of Canadians who show Belgians at fairs around Canada and in the U.S.
"It's worth the drive for us," she says. "The quality of horses is good."
She was filming horses that sparked her interest and said she would compare her thoughts with her husband's later that night.
"We look for the diamonds in the rough," she said "We don't mind something that takes a little bit of work. We enjoy the challenge of getting a horse going."
There was a lot of audience excitement about No. 95, named Eastview Thunder, but in the end the horse was a no-sale because the bids were too low and the owner refused.
The highest price paid at the sale was for a draft horse by the name of Watersedge Flash Impressive, which sold for $25,000 to a family in Maine, Stoltzfus said. They'll use him as a show horse, rather than plowing fields or pulling farm equipment.
Stolzfus said he has learned you can never predict which horses will bring the big money.
"It's the whims of the buyers that determine what happens," he said.
Shannon Crabb, co-owner of Maple Creek Belgians, in Ottawa, Ontario, agreed.
"It only takes two people to fall in love with the same horse to make the price go up," she said.