Unravelling the Mysteries of the Pre-Purchase Exam
By Lauren MacLeod, BSc., DVM
The pre-purchase examination, or “vetting” of a horse, can be a stressful time for buyer and seller alike. On one hand, the seller may be anxious that something undesirable will be discovered, leading to the end of the sale. On the other hand, the potential buyer fears the heartbreak that will result if their new dream horse fails the dreaded vet check. However, a clear understanding of the purpose of this essential veterinary service will help alleviate tensions leading up to the big day.
Before discussing what exactly comprises a pre-purchase exam, it is very important to know what it is not. On a pre-purchase exam, the veterinarian is not looking to “pass” or “fail” a horse but rather, to make informed observations about the health and soundness of the horse on a particular day. It is up to the potential buyer to use this information to make their own informed decision about the purchase of the particular horse. In addition, a pre-purchase exam is not a guarantee of the present or future health of the horse. As most horse owners know, horses are adept at becoming injured or ill, and just because the horse appeared sound and healthy at the time of examination does not guarantee that the animal will be in a similar state in the future. This is an unfortunate reality of owning horses and potential buyers must remember that buying animals can be a risky business!
With this in mind, many potential buyers may wonder why they should bother having a veterinary assessment of a horse prior to purchase. After all, if the horse seems sound and healthy enough to buy, and if there are no guarantees that come with a pre-purchase exam, it may seem a pointless exercise on the surface. However, the benefits of having a horse vetted far outweigh the potential costs of buying a horse with a (sometimes expensive) problem. It is a well-known fact that the least expensive part of owning a horse is the purchase price. The real expenses come after the horse is brought home. If your new equine partner has a chronic health or lameness issue, there will be expenses associated with future veterinary care and/or medications in addition to the costs that come with owning a horse that must be fed and housed but cannot be ridden. Therefore, even the $500 pony advertised in the local paper may end up costing much more than the new owner had bargained for. For this reason, any new prospect is a candidate for a pre-purchase exam, regardless of the purchase price.
Although often a hard decision, sometimes it is best for both horse and rider to seek a different partnership. Photo: iStock/Fotokostic
Before the Exam
Once the decision has been made to move forward with a pre-purchase exam, there are a few points to consider prior to booking the appointment with a veterinarian. First, it is necessary to obtain permission from the seller to have the horse examined. Most of the pre-purchase exam is non-invasive and is simply a thorough examination by the veterinarian. However, if the horse should require sedation for any reason, or if his shoes must be removed for radiographs, will the current owner allow this? It is always easier for all parties to determine this ahead of time. Another topic to discuss with the current owner is the quality of the facilities at which the horse is located. Is there hard, flat ground and an arena with good footing to use for the moving portion of the exam? Is there a barn with adequate lighting for examining the horse, and electrical outlets if radiograph or ultrasound equipment must be set up? If the facility does not meet these requirements, it may be necessary to haul the horse to another stable or a vet clinic in order to get the most out of the vet check.
Choosing the veterinarian to conduct the examination is usually the most important consideration. This decision is often straightforward if the horse is located in your area, as your regular veterinarian can perform the exam. However, complications arise if your veterinarian also does work for the seller, as this may be seen as a conflict of interest. By having an open discussion with the seller and the veterinarian, you will avoid putting your veterinarian in an awkward position on the day of the exam – one in which he or she must strive to remain objective while evaluating another client’s animal. Furthermore, if you are buying a horse in a distant location, you will need to hire a veterinarian who works in that area. In this situation, it often helps to speak with your regular veterinarian who may be able to provide you with a list of equine veterinary practices in that area.
The pre-purchase examination can be as basic or as extensive as needed to fulfill the buyer’s needs. Most veterinarians offer a standard exam, which includes taking a full history from the person currently responsible for the care of the horse, a complete physical examination, and a soundness evaluation. Further diagnostics can be discussed at the completion of the standard portion of the visit, and will be further explored later in this article.
During the soundness exam the horse will be observed on the longe line on both hard and soft ground. Photo: Dreamstime/Manon Ringuette
The history given by the current caretaker is very important information and helps put the clinical exam in context. For example, while mild soundness issues requiring management may be expected in a seasoned show horse in his teens, the same finding in a young horse in training may raise a red flag. It is also helpful to know if the horse has been kept up-to-date on veterinary and farrier care, and a seller should be able to provide these records for review.
The next part of the exam is the physical examination. This is a thorough exam of the horse’s general body condition as well as all of his organ systems. Because most potential buyers are mainly concerned with lameness as a reason for a deal-breaker, the importance of the physical exam is sometimes overlooked. However, causes of unsoundness extend beyond the limbs. In this part of the visit, the veterinarian will listen to the horse’s heart, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract, perform an oral and ophthalmic examination, inspect his skin for tumours or other lesions, and search for scars that may hint at a previous surgery. The musculoskeletal system including the neck, back, pelvis, and all four limbs will be palpated for abnormalities or pain on manipulation. Similarly, the feet will be assessed for hoof quality and any sensitivity to hoof testers, which may indicate subtle foot pain. This is also a good opportunity to critically analyze the conformation of the horse, particularly in context of theintended use of the buyer. Certain conformational faults, even in a sound horse, may predispose the horse to the development of lameness in the future, and should be taken into consideration prior to purchase.
Flexion tests are done to detect subtle soundness problems, or to further investigate a lameness seen during the moving exam. Photo: iStock/Frogman1484
Hoof testers are used to detect subtle foot pain. Photo: Shutterstock/Osetrik
The final stage of the pre-purchase exam is the soundness evaluation. This is often the longest phase, and assesses the horse for any lameness or neurological deficits that may affect his gait. Most veterinarians will first watch the horse walk and trot in-hand on a straight line on hard, flat ground. Over the course of the exam, the horse will also be observed on the straight line on soft footing (such as in an arena) and then on the longe line on hard and soft ground. The horse should also be asked to back up and turn in tight circles, which can help reveal subtle neurologic dysfunction. Flexion tests, in which each limb or parts of each limb are held in flexion prior to immediately observing the horse at the trot, are performed at the discretion of the veterinarian to detect subtle soundness problems or to further characterize a lameness that was seen during the moving exam. A flexion test is deemed “positive” if a lameness appears after flexion or if a lameness that is already present is worsened by flexion.
Flexion tests are often the most dreaded part of the exam for both buyer and seller, as many sales fall through based on a positive flexion test. However, while a positive flexion test is certainly an abnormal finding, it is not always the end of the line for a potential purchase. It is vital to put this finding into context with respect to the severity of the positive result, the age and previous use of the horse, and the intended future use. For some, a well-trained, experienced horse with a mildly positive flexion test may be more desirable than one that is hot-tempered and green but perfectly sound.
A complete physical examination and soundness evaluation is part of the standard pre-purchase exam. Photo: Shutterstock/Osetrik
After the standard pre-purchase exam has been completed, it is up to the buyer to decide if he or she would like to pursue further diagnostics. The list of options is extensive, and may include medical imaging such as radiographs, ultrasound, endoscopy, and even magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); blood work such as a complete blood cell count, serum biochemistry screen, ACTH assay, Coggins’ test, or drug screening; or a full breeding soundness examination on a mare or stallion. The choice to pursue any of these options depends largely on the balance between a buyer’s desire to gather more information and his or her budget, as each additional test will add to the cost of the pre-purchase exam. It is mostly a matter of personal preference on the part of the buyer, as some people are more risk-averse than others and would prefer to spend the money to gather more information prior to buying, while others would rather save their money and are willing to take a reasonable risk on a horse. To help in this decision process, a veterinarian will make recommendations for further diagnostics based on the findings of the standard exam. For example, if a horse was positive to flexion of a particular joint, the veterinarian may advise radiographs of that joint to rule out osteoarthritis. Another example would be running an ACTH assay on a middle-aged or older horse where pars pituitary intermedia dysfunction (PPID or Cushing’s disease) may be suspected. The veterinarian should work with the buyer to choose the most pertinent diagnostics to maximize their budget. By the end of the exam, the buyer should be satisfied with the amount of information acquired about the horse to either be comfortable moving forward with the decision to buy, or continue their search elsewhere.
After the standard pre-purchase exam is complete, the potential buyer may decide to do further diagnostic tests such as ultrasound. Photo: Shutterstock/Osetrik
Though it may seem overwhelming at the start, the pre-purchase exam is a worthwhile investment for any prospective buyer. An understanding of the different aspects of the exam and why they are included makes the whole process much smoother and more enjoyable.
Happy horse shopping!
This article was originally published in the September/October 2017 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Main article photo: Dreamstime/Wavebreakmedia Ltd