“When buying a horse or taking a wife, shut your eyes tightly and commend yourself to God.”
Thus says the small, often-crooked plaque that hangs in my father’s office. It was given to him as a gift, no doubt by a well-meaning friend, about the time my mother and I and eventually my brother began to get serious about riding horses. We all thought it funny at the time, but then my dad realized that the joke was on him. He had it all: a wife, two kids, and growing equine habits to feed. Would the odds ever be in his favor?
Buying a horse, is a big commitment, both of time and money. You want to be certain that the horse you’re about to buy will do the job you want it to do. Everyone says to get a prepurchase exam done by a good vet before you buy, but do you really need to have one done? The answer is yes, but let’s find out why.
To get these answers, I talked to three veterinarians, all of whom work and evaluate performance horses on a regular basis: Dr. Alan Donnell, Dr. Michael Hoge, and Dr. Ray Randall.
Testing, one, two…
Let’s get the basic questions about prepurchase exam answered and out of the way.
- What exactly is a prepurchase exam?—A prepurchase exam is exactly what it says, a thorough physical given to a horse prior to its possible purchase. This exam is meant to help you (as the possible buyer) determine if the horse under consideration is physically capable of meeting your needs and is suitable for you.
- What is examined during a prepurchase exam?— Because this is such a thorough exam, no part of the horse is ignored. Most vets will try to run their hands over the horse’s entire body because they can often feel lumps, bumps, and sensitive spots that can be missed by the naked eye. The prepurchase vet will pay particular attention to the cardiovascular system, the muscularskeletal system, the respiratory system, the digestive system, the nervous system, the skin, and the reproductive system (if applicable).
- Who performs this exam?—A prepurchase exam is performed by a veterinarian of the potential buyer’s choice, or by a veterinarian acceptable to the potential buyer. The thing to remember with prepurchase exams is that the buyer chooses who performs the exam. If the seller suggests a veterinarian, the recommended veterinarian may feel that he/she has a conflict of interest and may decline.
- Why have a prepurchase exam done?—The premise of a prepurchase exam is simple: to provide the potential buyer with current and pertinent medical information about a horse that may influence the decision whether or not to purchase that horse.
- What should you expect to get from a prepurchase exam?—As the potential buyer, any prepurchase exam should provide you with medical information that will assist you in determining whether or not that horse will meet your usability requirements and to make a good purchase decision. The exam is not meant to make your decision for you, but rather to facilitate making the purchase decision easier. The vet’s responsibility is to inform the buyer of the horse’s present condition. Remember, the ultimate decision whether to purchase resides with the buyer, not the veterinarian.
- How much will this exam cost?—Unfortunately, there is no set cost for this type of exam. There will be a base exam fee; however, if additional blood work, x-rays, lab work, endoscopy, treadmill work, or ultrasound scans are required, the price goes up from there. Keep in mind that this price is dependent upon location and the extent of the examination. A more thorough exam results in more accurate information.
- How long will this exam take?—Depending on the type of work you ask the veterinarian to perform and the on-hand equipment, expect to spend at least an hour and up to a full day performing this exam. Prepurchase exams done in the field/barn that include x-rays and other science work may require even more time. To help move things along and to get more immediate results, go to a veterinary clinic with on-site x-ray development. Available diagnostic equipment will vary significantly from vet practice to vet practice.
- Who pays for the exam?—As the potential buyer, you are responsible for paying the veterinarian for the prepurchase exam. After all, he/she is working for you and in your best interest.
- Who is present at the exam?—In a perfect world, both the potential buyer and seller would be present during exam to make communication between the buyer, seller, and veterinarian that much easier. However, it is not uncommon for neither the buyer nor seller to be present, or the potential buyer’s trainer may be on hand. There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding attendance.
- Who owns the medical information?—As the possible buyer, you own the medical information discovered during the exam. The information discovered during a prepurchase exam is confidential and belongs to the potential buyer and veterinarian. Radiographs and other diagnostic tests are a part of the horse’s medical record and normally are retained by the veterinary clinic.
Prepurchase exams have three major players, not counting the horse: the buyer, the seller, and the prepurchase veterinarian. Dr. Hoge, a California equine vet, says that “Full and honest disclosure is the responsibility of each party.” When everyone is clear of their roles, it’s easier to make sure that everyone is satisfied with the completed work.
- The buyer is responsible for communicating to the veterinarian the intended use for the horse in question, as well as voicing any concerns he/she may have.
- The seller (the current owner or agent) is responsible for providing full, honest disclosure regarding the horse’s health and behavior.
- The veterinarian conducting the exam is responsible for informing the buyer of the horse’s current health and behavior. He/she is also charged with explaining the horse’s imperfections and how those might impact the intended use.
Okay, now that you know the basics and responsibilities of a prepurchase exam, let’s drill down into some of the specifics tests you will often see done, especially for performance horses.
It’s All in the Legs
Performance horses are athletes, so their legs see a lot of use. Because they will be used for events such as cutting or reining, performance horses need to have a close inspection of their legs prior to purchase. These events are great fun for both horse and rider, but they cause greater stress to the horse’s legs. Before you buy these horses, make sure that they can stand up to the demands you have in mind.
Let’s say that your veterinarian asks to you to take a horse you are considering buying out into the arena. She picks up the horse’s hind foot and bends the leg into what seems to you an unnaturally exaggerated position. What in the heck is going on? Even the horse is curious.
The veterinarian is performing a flexion test. Legs or limbs are flexed, manipulated, and palpated to increase stress on joints, tendons, and ligaments, thereby making inapparent problems apparent. Flexion tests require no special equipment other than a vet’s practiced eye. Flexions are simply one of many tools vets use to obtain medical information to help buyers with their purchase decisions. Because the vet places his hands directly on the leg, he can feel swelling, heat, or pain that might be missed otherwise.
It’s also important for the veterinarian to watch the horse move in both soft and hard ground. Horses that may have soundness problems might be fine in an arena, but on hard ground a problem may present. Just like the flexion test, judging the horse’s gait over different types of ground helps the vet to determine if there are soundness problems or the hint of soundness problems. And finally, don’t be surprised if the vet asks you to saddle up and take the horse for a spin.
Can a flexion test cause lameness? Not if it’s properly applied. It’s normal for the horse to be a little “off” immediately following flexion in response to the increased stress on the leg, but that does not mean that a horse is unsuitable for its intended use. Some horses flex poorly but are fine—those first couple of steps just look uncomfortable.
A horse’s hooves are just as important as the legs to which they are attached. A careful inspection of the hooves can help the vet to determine an opinion about the horse’s long-term soundness propspects. Hoof testers and an experienced eye are the tools of choice here as well because they help the vet to evaluate pain or discomfort in the foot. This exam may help the veterinarian zero in on areas that he may feel need further diagnostics tests, such as radiographs.
An Inside Look
Most prepurchase exams will include x-rays for the simple fact that this is an excellent way to see what the horse’s legs really look like. Performance horses experience a great deal of stress, so x-rays, especially if we can compare them to other films can tell us how well the horse is holding up to this high level of performance. In older horses they allow us to see how he is aging and in younger horses they tell us whether or not the horse will probably be able to handle the stress. They can’t tell us what is in his heart or how he handles pain but they do let us see if things might be headed in a negative direction. One of the basic tenets of x-rays is that they help in the interpretation of exam findings, but they cannot replace the exam itself.
You thought an ultrasound was something done only during pregnancy exams, right? Not any more. Ultrasound has long been used by veterinarians to let them look at soft tissue, namely tendons. Veterinarians can detect if old scars are interfering with tendons in the leg, thereby taking a lot of the guesswork out of examinations. If a skin laceration is still healing, proudflesh will be present as well.
The veterinarian will also take blood from the horse, primarily to run a Complete Blood Count (CBC). The CBC evaluates the red and white blood cells as well as various anemias. A blood chemistry screen is a bit different, focusing on the evaluation of the kidney and liver functions and electrolyte balances. Neither the blood count or the chemistry screen, however, test for immunity to specific diseases. It should be noted that a routine blood chemistry does not include a drug screen.
Veternarians will most likely perform a Coggins test as well for Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA). While EIA cannot yet be treated, it is easily diagnosed.
Frequently Asked Questions (or they should be)
We’ve gathered up some good questions to ask the veterinarian conducting the prepurchase exam. Too often, these go overlooked when they can help you determine whether or not to buy the horse in question.
- Is a prepurchase exam a guarantee?–A prepurchase exam is not a guarantee or soundness exam. Insurance exams are generally not acceptable prepurchase exams; however, a prepurchase exam is often acceptable for insurance purposes.
- Should someone be present while the prepurchase exam is being conducted?—The veterinarian and potential buyer and/or their agent are present during the prepurchase exam; however, it is not uncommon for the buyer’s trainer to be on hand as well. The current owner and trainer are generally not present for the simple reason that the medical information is confidential between the veterinarian and the potential buyer.
- Should I ask for a drug screen to be performed during a prepurchase exam?—A drug screen tests for various classes of drugs, and there are several classes that can be detected. Just like any medical test, it gets more expensive as you test for more classes. Most veterinarians will recommend that drug screening be performed simply because they protect both the buyer and seller. As the potential buyer, if you are concerned about the possibility of a specific drug being present in the horse’s system, make sure that you communicate this concern to the veterinarian.
- Should I have a genetic screen performed?—Genetic screening should be offered to the buyer if the horse’s pedigree indicates a potential risk. It is up to the buyer, however, as to whether or not this screen is performed.
- Should I have the prepurchase exam videotaped?—Videotaping a prepurchase exam is a great way to help you remember a horse, specifically if you are using a prepurchase exam to help you narrow a decision. This can also be helpful if you want to confer with your personal veterinarian at home or with your trainer. However, check with the veterinarian before you press the start button, just to be on the safe side.
Who Can You Call?
You need a veterinarian to conduct the exam, but how do you go about finding a good veterinarian when you’re away from home? First, call your regular veterinarian and find someone he/she recommends. Your home veterinarian is going to need to treat your new purchase on a regular basis, so why not use a veterinarian with whom he/she feels comfortable. If you cannot reach your home vet, both the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) and the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) provide services to help you find qualified equine veterinarians across the country.
If you are purchasing a performance horse, consider using a veterinarian that specializes in equine medicine, or more specifically, that type performance horse. After all, your needs will be best served by using a veterinarian that is knowledgeable, comfortable, and experienced in vetting horses in the event in which you wish to participate. In other words, it might not be the best idea to use a veterinarian who specializes in cats and dogs to conduct prepurchase exam on a working cowhorse. Both may know how to conduct a prepurchase exam, but you are more likely to get pertinent, viable results from the veterinarian who is on familiar territory.
For the First Time
If you are reading this article and considering the purchase of your first horse, congratulations. But as a potential first-time owner, there are a few things that you should consider.
- Get some help!—And no, we don’t mean that you should have your head examined for even considering to buy a horse. But we do suggest that you get an experienced trainer to accompany and advise you during the prepurchase exam, especially if you are new to an event or sport. The trainer can help you to determine if the horse in question is the best one for you with regards to conformation, temperment, suitability for job intended. This trainer is often the person who helped you to select the horse in the first place. Just make sure that this trainer will also act with your best interests foremost in mind.
- Ask questions—Good prepurchase exams have clear communication at the core. If you have a question about what the veterinarian is doing, the reasons for conducting a test, or if you don’t understand test results, ask for clarification. The best way to to find a horse that you are happy with is by talking with the veterinarian throughout the exam. And if the veternarian does uncover some unsettling medical results, regardless of severity, make sure that you discuss all possible scenarios with either the prepurchase vet or your regular vet.
- Age before beauty—Seasoned horses will come with some “jewelry,” i.e., scars, old injuries, or interesting x-rays, but that doesn’t mean that these old campaigners should be discounted. They can and are great horses to learn from, so don’t write them off simply because they aren’t the latest model. The latest ingenue isn’t always the best choice.
- Do your homework—Both the AAEP and AQHA produce pamphlets for first-time buyers, so don’t be afraid to get some more information. Understand the rules and parameters of the events for which you are purchasing a horse, and make sure the veterinarian has those in mind as well.
- Take your time—Buying a horse is sort of like buying a house. Don’t get your heart set on one and think that is the only horse you can buy. If both you and your trainer feel that the horse in question won’t work for you, keep looking. Remember, there is always another horse out there.
Although my brother and I have officially grown too old to live at home, my father still keeps the plaque in his office. He claims that it reminds him of the many mistakes we made, but also of the ones we didn’t make because we checked horses carefully before buying. So learn from our experience: know your horse before you buy.
Special thanks to Alan Donnell, DVM, of Pilot Point, Texas; Michael Hoge, DVM, of Murrieta, California; and Ray Randall, DVM, of Bridger, Montana. This article was originally published in Performance Horse magazine in 2005.