The pre-purchase veterinary exam is the last step and deciding factor in purchasing a horse. Whether the horse is intended for pleasure or performance, the exam is an important indicator of the animal’s health and soundness and a predictor of future soundness and a nutritional program going forward. Despite popular belief, pre-purchase exams are optional. However, in this professional’s opinion they should not be. You never know what lurks beneath the surface, and I like for my clients to be well informed considering the scope of the investment they are about to make.
A standard pre-purchase exam identifies any problems or potential for problems with the horse. Keep in mind that the exam presents a snapshot of the horse on one particular day. Things happen and horses can become sick or injured the next. It’s important that buyers remain realistic in their expectations. Not all horses are perfect and almost always have some sort of problem or flaw. For instance, older horses will have more wear and tear than a young horse. Buyers must be mindful of what they are willing to deal with and what they can afford to work with.
So, who is involved in the process?
The veterinarian performs the entire exam. It is common practice to use a veterinarian for the exam that is not the primary veterinarian for the horse on a regular basis. How does one find a veterinarian if the horse is not in your area? Ask the seller who the primary vet is, and ask them for a recommendation. The buyer or buyer’s trainer can also refer to AAEP.org’s (American Association of Equine Practitioners) Get-A-DVM tool.
The seller sometimes acts as the handler for the exam unless they have a groom available. Regardless, the seller is present to provide the veterinarian with a quick rundown of the horse’s medical history (vaccinations, deworming, current nutritional protocol, current medications, previous medical issues, lamenesses, or surgeries).
The Buyer’s Trainer
The trainer is usually the person facilitating the sale on behalf of the buyer. At this point in the buying process, the trainer has typically already ”tried” or ridden the horse (usually over the course of a few days depending on time constraints) in order to evaluate the horse’s previous training, abilities, possibilities, soundness, movement, and temperament.
Often times the trainer cannot always be present for pre-purchase exams, usually due to time/travel constraints. However, the veterinarian performing the exam is usually in close talks with the trainer during the process. Modern technological advancements such as FaceTime and Skype/Zoom have made this much more accessible and in real-time. Part of the trainer’s job is to act as liaison between the veterinarian and the seller to the buyer, answers any questions about the exam, and offers advice on any findings.
Involving the farrier is optional, but is something I always recommend. I often take photographs of the feet and send them along with the radiographs to the farrier the buyer will be using if the horse is purchased. This way, the farrier can tell whether there are any problems, if they are fixable, how long of a process it may or may not be, and form a plan for when/if the horse reaches it’s
Buyer’s Primary Veterinarian (optional/not customary)
This is also optional, but one I also highly recommend. I like to present radiographs and the findings of the exam to the buyer’s primary veterinarian that would be attending to the horse in the future as a second opinion. Be aware that this usually comes at an extra cost to the buyer at their vet’s discretion.
What Does The Exam Entail?
The veterinarian will ask the seller if the horse has had any injuries, lamenesses, surgeries or illnesses. They will also ask when the horse was last de-wormed, if his vaccinations are up-to-date, and when his teeth were last floated.
Listening to heart, lungs, and gut, taking temperature, checking eyes, mouth, teeth, looking over the general conformation, muscle symmetry, and palpating for any surgical scars. Next, the vet will begin palpating the neck, whithers, back and limbs for any heat, tenderness or abnormalities. Hoof testers are used to check for sensitivity/reaction that may indicate bruising, heel pain, or inflammation.
Watching for obvious signs of lameness, asymmetries or shortness in stride or body movement, abnormalities in limb motion or footfalls. Usually it begins with a handler walking and trotting the horse in-hand on a hard surface in a straight line. Then the vet will often asks the handler to lunge the horse at a walk, trot and canter on a sand surface or arena. Very seldom have I had a veterinarian ask to watch a horse go under saddle. However, that does not mean that you cannot or should not request it. If a problem should present itself before the riding phase, the exam generally ends there. One issue I’ve found with having a riding phase is whether any lameness found is organic or possibly caused by the rider.
Checking reflexes, response to stimuli, sense of balance and coordination as well as any abnormalities in posture/gait, tremors, difficulty chewing/swallowing, etc.
Major joints on all 4 limbs are flexed and held in place by the veterinarian for 30-90 seconds. The joint is then released and a handler immediately trots the horse off in a straight line away from the vet so he can watch for discomfort or lameness. Questions of the flexion tests usually call for that particular joint to be radiographed for further examination.
Additional Diagnostic Tests
(elective, or at the suggestion of the veterinarian based on findings
in the physical exam)
Additional tests can be requested such as a CBC (complete blood count), or Fibrinogen and Chemistry – to assess health and organ function. At this time they can also pull blood for a Coggins test (this will be needed for transport and change of ownership) and also drug tests (typically held/kept frozen to be run if new owner feels it’s necessary later on).
Digital radiographs are not required but are something that I, countless veterinarians, and trainers highly recommend. If there is a question about a joint/limb from the previous exam, radiographs should be done as a follow-up. I always recommend radiographs be done when purchasing a horse for sport or competition. These films can identify any arthritic changes present, anything that may present a problem in the future, any evidence of past injuries. Standard radiographs taken may vary by veterinarian. Typical shots are feet, hocks, fetlocks, knees, and stifles. The buyer always has the option to add on any additional radiographs they would like to be taken. Other additional diagnostic tests include upper airway endoscopic exam, fecal, egg count, and breeding soundness (if applicable).
The cost of pre-purchase exams vary by veterinarian, by how many additional tests the buyer may choose to include, and the time it takes the veterinarian to perform them. For example, on a recent purchase I made for a client, the most standard exam was about $1200. On the higher end of the spectrum (additional radiographs and blood tests) it was about $3500…and that did not include all of the options. When deciding your budget for a horse it should include this expense as well as transport and a few other factors.
As with all things, how far you choose to go with the pre-purchase is your choice. There’s no right or wrong decision. If you’re unsure as to what to order up, it’s always best to speak with your personal veterinarian about your concerns and go from there. But don’t forget to listen to your gut. If something doesn’t sit right with you, it doesn’t have to. As I’ve told many clients before, do not ever be afraid to say no. There are so many horses in the United States and abroad. Something will come up that is perfect for you, and that’s what I’m here to help you do. Happy shopping!