Buying and selling horses is a major part of the equine industry. However, with buying a horse comes a large amount of risks. It’s not like buying a car where you can usually predict how long a car will last and what will go wrong with it before you buy it. With horses, you are dealing with a living, breathing animal that has a mind of its own. You want to be sure that if you make an investment in this animal (and sometimes it’s a BIG investment), that the horse is suited for its purpose and that it will last long enough to continue carrying you throughout its career. So how do we do this? Well one of the things that might give you a little peace of mind when making a decision is to get a Pre-Purchase Exam.
The thing to always keep in mind is that a pre-purchase exam is just a glimpse at a moment in time. What I’m seeing on that day may be different the next day, or the next week, or the next month. And any horse could fall and break its leg two days after the pre-purchase exam. So really, a pre-purchase is what I’m seeing that day. Another thing to remember is that the BUYER should be the one paying for the exam, and the BUYER is the one who owns the information. The veterinarian is not allowed to share any information with the seller unless expressly given permission by the buyer. And be sure to remember that I never “pass” or “fail” a horse. I will only tell you what I see and what my interpretation is. The decision you have to make is if you want THIS horse or if you want A horse.
The first part of my exam is the physical. I listen to the horse’s heart and lungs, take his temperature, look in his mouth, and check his eyes. When I’m evaluating the heart and lungs, I’m listening for crackles or wheezes in the lungs, or arrhythmias in the heart. When I check the eyes, I’m looking for damage to the cornea, cataracts on the lenses, or signs of chronic uveitis. If I note any of these issues, I’ll mark it down on a chart.
Next, I perform a passive lameness exam on the horse. Many times, a horse’s body will give you clues to what you may find. I’m looking for extra fluid in any joints and/or tendon sheaths, swelling or pain of any of the tendons or ligaments, signs of back pain, or any scars or conformational issues that may contribute to lameness.
Lastly is the active lameness exam. This is the most controversial part of the exam, and where the most conflict occurs, especially between the seller and the veterinarian. Equine veterinarians, depending on their area of expertise, spend a lot of time watching horses move. In my case, I’ve dedicated my career to the study of performance issues. I took extra classes in school to learn how to identify lameness, attend yearly continuing education on the subject, and spend much of my time working on different cases. Therefore, I may see a problem where other people may not be able to detect it. Equine veterinarians grade their lamenesses on a scale from 1-5, with 1 being difficult to detect, and 5 being so lame they can’t put any weight on it. Most lay people (including most owners) can detect a lameness at a grade 3, where there is a consistent head “nod” or hip “drop” that is easily observed. I’ve been trained to detect the grade 1 and 2 lamenesses, so when I spot them, I have many sellers that get confused and frustrated because the horse they presumed to be “sound” actually has a small issue. Now whether this observed problem will affect the horse and his ability to perform his duties is between the buyer and the veterinarian.
Optional parts of the exam include an exam of the reproductive system (especially in broodmares), radiographs, and drug testing. A reproductive exam would include a palpation and ultrasound of the mare’s uterus and ovaries, a cervical exam, and possibly a uterine culture, cytology, and biopsy. This would give the purchaser a better idea of how likely a mare is to be able to conceive and carry a foal.
Radiographs are another optional part of a pre-purchase exam. Some buyers may choose to x-ray certain parts of the body that were flagged during the lameness exam. For instance, if a horse flexed positive to the hocks, the buyer may choose to have the hocks radiographed to look for signs of arthritis. Or perhaps the buyer had a bad experience with foot issues, so they choose to have the front feet radiographed. And then some buyers, depending on the horse, want to have everything radiographed. What they are looking for include bone spurs, OCD lesions, cysts, or any other potential issue that may not have shown up by just looking at the horse.
Many buyers are concerned about sellers drugging a horse to make the horse look better, or to “pass” a pre-purchase exam. One service now offered through TVMDL is a pre-purchase drug screen. This screen looks for anything like tranquilizers, bute, Banamine, and other performance-enhancing drugs.
Whether you’re paying $1000 for the backyard grandkid’s horse, or $100,000 for the Grand Prix jumper, a pre-purchase exam is always a good idea. What I try to remind people of, is that you can bring me ten different horses, and I will find ten different problems. It’s up to you to decide if what I find at that moment is a deal breaker for you. I can’t tell you how many times a client has brought me a horse they just bought only for me to tell them the horse has a significant problem that may have kept them from buying the horse in the first place. A quick $150 pre-purchase exam may save you a lot of money and heartache in the future.