Pre-Purchase Exams (and why you need one)
Tuesdays with Tony
Horse shopping is at once thrilling and terrifying. You may have spent months searching and trying out horses. Now finally you think you’ve found the right one, Woohoo! You love his personality and the way he rides! He’s even the right color! He’ll be purrfect for what you want to do with him! What are you waiting for?!
Whoa there, human. Take a moment and listen to my cat wisdom. Buying a horse is a big step. There might be a hefty price tag involved, and you’ll want to make sure you’re spending that money wisely. But even if the price isn’t high, a new horse is a time investment and often an emotional commitment, and it’s super important to find one that’s going to fit your plans well.
Why should I want a Pre-purchase Exam?
The point of the exam is to give you enough information to make an informed decision about whether the horse’s health, conformation, and soundness will fit your needs. You’ll want to know if there are pre-existing issues that would prevent him from being able to do the job you intend. It can be heartbreaking to invest all that time, money, and emotion into a horse just to find out he’ll never be suitable.
But don’t think about a PPE as just a reason to say no to a sale. Another important purpose is to learn about your new horse’s health. It’s very rare to find a horse with no problems at all (unlike cats, who are above such things, of course), and if you decide the exam findings are something you can handle, you’ll have a leg up on how to best care for his needs.
What happens in the Exam?
There are three basic parts to a pre-purchase exam. The first is a detailed physical exam. My docs take out their fine-toothed combs for this kind of evaluation. They’ll assess general condition, evaluate the heart and lungs, and examine the eyes, ears, and teeth. They’ll do a thorough palpation of the joints, tendons, and ligaments of the horse’s legs, looking for evidence of past or current injury. They’ll examine the hooves closely, since the old saying “no hoof, no horse” still rings true. They’ll also look at the horse’s conformation for red flags that could mean problems later. Lumps, bumps, growths, and scars will be assessed. A basic neurological exam will be performed, and his back and muscles will be checked out. If any abnormalities are found, my docs will talk with you about whether she thinks they’ll be problematic, or just cosmetic blemishes that won’t bother the horse.
The next phase is the movement evaluation, where my docs will look for signs of lameness. She’ll watch the horse move in-hand at the walk and the trot on a straight line. A firm, level surface is best. Then she’ll watch him circling in both directions, usually on a longe line or in a round pen. She’ll perform flexion tests to simulate stress on a particular joint, to see if underlying lameness shows up.
The last phase of the pre-purchase exam is additional diagnostic testing. Not every PPE will include this. If the buyer is satisfied with the results of the first two phases, the exam may end there. On the other hand, if the horse appears lame or there are problems with the physical, they may have enough reason to walk away from the sale already.
X-rays are the most common type of additional testing. In many cases, buyers want screening images of areas where lameness problems frequently occur (like the front feet) or areas that will undergo strain in the horse’s intended career (like hocks and stifles for a dressage horse or a reiner), even if there are no signs of a current problem. A horse might be sound on the day of the exam, but if a significant problem shows up on the x-rays, my docs may be able to make predictions about future lameness problems. If abnormalities such as heat, tenderness, or swelling were found on the physical exam, or if the horse appeared lame, those may be enough of a concern to require further investigation.
How many x-rays are taken will depend on how the buyer wants to balance the expense of the x-rays against the value of the horse. The breed, age, and intended use of the horse also play a factor. Some buyers will feel comfortable without x-rays, and some will want to image every area possible. My docs can work with you to customize the exam for your risk-tolerance, budget, and plans for the horse. It’s never wrong to have a baseline set of x-rays on your new horse, so you can know what you’re starting with in case any future problems occur. Some issues are immediate deal-breakers, and you can save yourself heartache later. On the other hand, some x-ray imperfections don’t prevent the horse from being able to perform. Perfection is hard to find outside of cats, and most buyers will have to balance how well the horse fits their purpose, their budget, and the exam findings. My docs will help you determine if they are really a problem, since after all, you ride the horse, not the x-ray.
Other types of diagnostic imaging, such as ultrasound, are usually recommended only if my doc finds something that worries her, like a thickened tendon.
There are a few kinds of blood test commonly requested. A coggins test is required if the horse will be crossing state lines. A “wellness profile” including a CBC and blood chemistry panel can be used to screen for overall health and organ function. Drug testing can be used to check for pain medications or sedatives in the horse’s system.
What a PPE is and what it is not
A pre-purchase examination is an opinion of the horse on the day of the exam. Your vet will let you know if she finds indications of problems. No one cannot predict the future of any horse and its’s impossible to be certain that no sub-clinical problem exists. The exam isn’t a guarantee of long-term health or soundness, but a snapshot of a moment in time.
It’s also not a “pass or fail” test. A completely clean pre-purchase is a rare thing. Some findings are manageable but will require care to keep the horse performing well. There can be wide variation between what’s acceptable for a grand prix jumper versus a kid’s trail horse. The same finding may be a deal breaker for one but never cause an issue for the other. Arthritis in the joint of a 3-year-old you plan on jumping for decades to come is different than in the schoolmaster who has been competing successfully and probably has wear and tear from years of work. My docs can’t tell you whether you should buy the horse or not, but they can give you the information to make an informed decision for yourself.
Do’s and Don’ts
It’s important to choose carefully who will perform the exam. Do choose a vet who is experienced with equine medicine and lameness. To avoid conflicts of interest, don’t choose a vet who has previously cared for the horse or worked for the seller. The vet performing the pre-purchase exam is paid by and reports to the buyer, so an unbiased opinion will best protect your interests. Talk to the vet about basic exam costs and what diagnostic tests you want.
Do request the horse’s health records, including vaccines, deworming, and dentistry from the seller. If they will release previous x-rays and other medical records, even better.
Do have a clear idea about what you want to use the horse for, how long you hope to own him, and how much management you’re willing to put into keeping him sound. Do think about what issues would be deal-breakers for you.
Do be there for the exam, if possible. Unless you’re buying a horse from across the country (or plantet), it’s best to be present during the exam to discuss findings as they come up. If that can’t happen, talk with the vet ahead of time about your intentions for the horse, and be available by phone to make decisions during the exam.
Here’s the hardest one… don’t get so attached to the horse that no matter what my docs tell you, you’re going to buy him anyway. That’s called a “post-purchase exam” and it’s kind of not the point!
Happy horse hunting!
Until next week,
P.S. If you really want to dig into PPE concepts, my docs have a brand new podcast episode releasing September 1st that will teach you a ton of useful things regarding the purchase of horses. This old cat even learned a few things, and I already knew everything. Well, pretty much everything. Anyway, you can find it over on the Podcast Page or wherever you get your podcasts.
Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!