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Education | Equine Prepurchase Exam
The search is over: You've finally found the horse of your dreams. But before you sign the sales contract and load him onto the first trailer headed home, protect yourself with a prepurchase exam. Granted, there's no magic crystal ball there to guarantee a horse that looks great on exam day will carry you to reach all of your equestrian goals. But a prepurchase exam can give you insights to help ensure you're making a smart, informed decision before money changes hands.
Understanding what to expect from the exam and getting an upfront idea of what tests you might be willing to spring for--and under what circumstances--will prepare you for the veterinarian's visit and help you make the right choices for your needs, your pocketbook, and your dreams.
What's the Point?
If a prepurchase exam can't guarantee that a horse will be your perfect mount, why bother? For one thing, it could prove that a particular animal won't be suitable, saving you from heartache and financial loss. Plus, it can expose health concerns not apparent to the naked or untrained eye that could present management issues now or later, giving you an opportunity to decide if you want to take on that problem. In short, the true purpose of a prepurchase exam is to help provide the buyer with enough information to make an informed decision as to whether a horse will meet their needs. Another goal of the prepurchase exam is to try and uncover any pre-existing conditions a horse might have. A prepurchase exam is not a pass-fail test or a guarantee of long-term health and soundness. Rather, it's a snapshot of a moment in time. It provides information about an individual horse on a given day at a particular moment. How accurate and complete that picture is will depend on how comprehensive the exam is and what the problems actually are.
Pre Purchase Examinations Should Be Custom-Tailored
Purchase examinations may vary, depending on the intended use of the horse and the veterinarian who is doing the examination. For example, a mare being bought as a broodmare may require a thorough reproductive evaluation along with a routine clean bill of health. A gelding intended for use as a show hunter may need a comprehensive physical exam that includes a battery of lameness tests. Close inspection of the upper air passages may be required for racehorse prospects. Deciding exactly what should be included in the purchase examination requires good communication between you and your veterinarian. Here are some guidelines to help you:
• Explain your expectations and primary uses for the horse, including short- and long-term
goals (for example, showing, then breeding)
• Ask for an outline of the procedures that should be included in the examination
• Establish the costs for these procedures
• Be present during the purchase exam. The seller or agent should also be present
• Don't be afraid to ask questions or request further information regarding the findings
Our responsibility is neither to pass nor fail an animal. Rather, it is to provide you with information regarding any existing medical problems and to discuss those problems with you so that you can make an informed purchase decision. We can only advise you about the horse's current physical condition, which may include evaluating its conformation, eyes and vital organs and most especially, its limbs for signs of disease or injury. We can discuss how these things might affect performance from a health standpoint, but he or she cannot predict the future.
Elements of the Exam
Although there is no standard protocol for prepurchase examinations, there are several specific issues that we will want to evaluate. Exactly what's included in your prospect's exam depends to some extent on your expectations. Do you want to know a horse's tiniest flaws? Or are you only concerned with major issues? How you intend to use the horse is another factor in determining the extent and content of the exam and how you assess the results. In general, a prepurchase exam will include these areas:
• Basic health evaluation, including health history, temperature,
pulse, respiration, general condition, and limb and body
• The horse's medical history, including vaccination and
deworming schedules, feeding and the use of any
supplements or drugs (if such information is available; it may
be necessary to get permission from the owner or agent for
a review of the horse’s medical records)
• Auscultation of the heart and lungs to detect the presence of abnormalities
• Evaluation of the nostrils, ears, and eyes for symmetry and proper function
• Evaluation of the he teeth and mouth to determine their condition and to plan for any
future modification if needed
• Assessment of the horse's behavior to determine its threshold for patience
• Assessment of the horse’s feet, both visually and with hoof testers
• The body and limbs for signs of previous injuries, surgeries, or disease.
• Lameness assessment, including flexion tests, soft
tissue palpation, and evaluation of movement
• Watching a horse move in-hand at the walk and trot,
in a straight line, on a hard, level surface allows us to
o How the horse's feet land
o Alterations in limb movement
o Abnormalities in the footfalls or the pattern of
o Obvious signs of lameness, pain, or weight-
shifting when the foot lands
o Asymmetry with the way the body or pelvis moves
• Joint flexibility and response of the limbs to flexion testing
• Lameness evaluation in both directions in a round pen or on a longe line which can:
o Highlight a shortness of stride, particularly in the hind end
o Allow the horse to move more freely at faster speeds than traveling in-hand allows
o Show the horse's movement at the canter, including any difficulty in picking up a
o Demonstrate fluidity (or lack thereof) in transitions
o Accentuate a lameness due to increased pressure on the inside legs
o Uncover potential respiratory issues, such as if a horse makes noise while traveling
at speed, gets out of breath easily, or recovers slowly
• This also allows assessment of the heart and lungs recovery after exercise
• Ancillary diagnostics that can be helpful in evaluating a horse potential or revealing
some abnormalities include radiographs (X rays), ultrasound, magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI), and bloodwork
o Blood samples for diseases such as equine infectious anemia or complete blood
count and serum chemistry for overall health purposes can be helpful
• Reproductive Exams
o Stallions and mares being purchased for breeding often require special tests to
determine their reproductive status
o A stallion’s semen should be collected and evaluated for sperm count, motility and
viability to determine his usefulness as a potential sire
o A prospective brood mare should undergo rectal palpation for evaluation of the
reproductive tract for signs of normal activity or for the presence of structural
• Additional testing, such as ultrasound or a uterine biopsy and culture help determine
the health of the mare’s uterus and help establish probability of her conceiving and
carrying a healthy foal to term
When discussing the results of a purchase exam keep the following points in mind:
• No horse is perfect in every respect.
• Some medical conditions or conformation faults are manageable or may never seriously
affect the horse’s performance.
• If such things as specialized shoeing, exercise or nutrition are necessary, decide
whether or not they are practical for your needs and your budget.
Once the exam is complete and results from radiographs and other tests have been interpreted, the final decision is ultimately up to you, the buyer. If the horse didn't pass the exam with flying colors, this may not rule him out, depending on your plans for him. For example, a jumper may show some signs of arthritis in his hocks, but has been treated in some fashion, either with anti-inflammatory medication or by injecting his hocks with steroids, hyaluronic acid, or both. If he is performing well and you have his treatment history, the horse might be worth buying, but you know ahead of time that he requires extra maintenance.
On the other hand, a horse can have a clean pre-purchase exam and still not be the right one for you. In addition to physical health, it is extremely important that the horse is trained for your skill level and that you click with him.
If you have any doubts, ask the seller if he or she will agree to a trial period that allows you to temporarily ride and care for the horse as your own; in most cases, a deposit and an insurance policy on the horse would be required. Whatever the agreement, put everything in writing first.
Take your time shopping, request a thorough pre-purchase exam and don't be in a hurry to buy. You're making a major decision that involves a living being that will depend on you for as long as you own it. Once you find the right horse, all the effort will be worth it.
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