The excitement of buying a new horse is for some of us very similar to the excitement we felt when we bought our first car. You spend an extended period of time shopping for just the right fit, and when you find it you can’t wait to get home and go for a ride. Unfortunately sometimes buying a new horse can be like buying a used car. Does the horse have any previous injuries or health problems? Trying to better inform a horse buyer is the purpose of the veterinary prepurchase exam.

Not a pass-fail type of exam

The first thing to understand about a prepurchase exam is that it is not a pass-fail type of exam. The prepurchase exam is meant more to be an assessment of the horse’s health at that point in time. It is also important to remember that even the most thorough of exams cannot predict the future. Overall the purpose of the prepurchase exam is to help a potential horse buyer to better understand the horse they are considering for purchase. No horse is perfect, and the exam is meant to help detect potential problems or faults with the horse so that the potential buyer can make an informed decision on buying the horse or not. Some initial information that is important in beginning a prepurchase exam is to know what use the horse is intended for, and what level of work it is currently performing. Previous medical records also help with background knowledge of the animal being examined, and in the interpretation of exam findings.

Basic or extensive

The actual examination can be made as extensive as the potential buyer desires. It is always important to remember that the more extensive the exam however, the more expensive a prepurchase exam will become. The most basic of prepurchase exams however should always include a review of the revealed medical health history of the horse. This history should include any behavioral problems the horse may have, vaccination and deworming history, performance history and issues, time and type of any previous surgeries performed on the animal, or any other abnormal health issues the horse has encountered. After reviewing the medical history of the animal, a thorough physical examination should always be performed. This portion of the exam includes a resting physical exam, conformational exam, an exam in motion including flexions of the limbs, hoof tester exam, and a repeat physical exam after the horse has undergone some degree of exercise. During the physical exam, the veterinarian should auscultate (listen with a stethoscope) carefully to the heart and lungs in attempt to detect cardiac or pulmonary abnormalities. They should also auscultate the abdomen carefully, especially in an environment like Arizona, to listen for possible sand in the gastrointestinal tract. Palpation of the entire body is also an important portion of the physical exam. As during this time previous surgical scars, such as from colic surgery or joint surgery, may be detected. The veterinarian may also detect subtle changes in the joints, tendons, or ligaments that may indicate a potential future problem for the horse. A complete oral exam should be performed along with an ocular examination on both eyes. After the physical examination, the horse should have all four feet checked with hoof testers, followed by a motion exam being performed where all joints are flexed in an attempt to detect potential lameness issues. After jogging the horse several times is can be beneficial for the veterinarian to repeat the auscultation of the heart and lungs, as minor abnormalities may be easier to detect after exercise.

More than just a physical exam

Following the physical exam, and the motion portion of the exam, a prepurchase can be customized as the potential buyer wishes. Often times the variations in the exam are determined by the intended purpose of the animal. If a mare is intended for breeding then the addition of an ultrasound of the reproductive tract may be included. A stallion being purchased for breeding may have a semen evaluation performed during a prepurchase examination. Other tests that can be performed include upper airway endoscopy (especially for race or performance horses), examination under tack (show horses), blood testing for the presence of medications such as bute or Banamine, or imaging of certain structures. Typically the most common imaging modality used during a prepurchase exam is radiography, or x-rays. Again depending on the intended use of the horse, the actual structures x-rayed may change. It is fairly common for many horses undergoing a prepurchase exam to have its front feet and hocks radiographed. This is primarily due to the incidence rate of problems such as navicular disease and osteoarthritis of the lower hock joints. However if the exam revealed that there was increase joint distension in a different joint then the veterinarian may recommend that a different joint also be radiographed to try and detect a reason for the distension. Another imaging modality that might be used would include ultrasonography for exam of soft tissue structures. Typically the use of ultrasound during a prepurchase exam is only done when a potential abnormality is detected during the physical and motion exam.

Interpretation for intended purpose

Once everything is complete including the additional tests requested, then all of the information needs to be interpreted with the intended purpose of the horse in mind. This means that some findings may be acceptable for a walk-trot pony, but the same findings would be unacceptable in a Grand Prix show jumper. It is important to remember as a potential buyer that at this point a veterinarian can only comment on what they have found, and that they cannot predict the future on the horse.

Open communication

Overall a prepurchase exam on any potential new horse can be a very beneficial part of the purchasing experience. There are a few other nuances that should be pointed out for both the potential buyer/agent and the seller/agent. First and foremost is that open communication between the two parties helps the exam go much more smoothly and completely. Second is that in the case of a prepurchase exam, the veterinarian is working for the buyer/agent, and thus the results of the exam can only be disclosed to the seller/agent if the buyer gives permission for them to be released. Since the veterinarian is working for the buyer/agent, then I always recommend that a prepurchase exam be performed by a vet that does not have the seller as a regular client, as this may raise concerns regarding a conflict of interest on the veterinarian’s behalf. Finally it aides the examination if both the seller and the buyer or their agents are present during the prepurchase exam. This may help to increase knowledge of current and previous health issues, medication use, and overall horse performance during the exam.

Finally it is important to remember that we as vets don’t pass or fail a horse during a prepurchase exam. The point is to help the potential buyer to make a more informed decision about the purchase of a new horse. To have the best prepurchase experience possible as a buyer, it is important to contact your veterinarian before scheduling the exam so that you can discuss what the exam should include to provide you with the best information possible.