The business of buying and selling horses can be a stressful one – aside from the heart-rending ups and downs of finding the right horse (or buyer), there is also the fear that the horse you’ve just fallen in love with may have some hidden issue that could spell disaster to your long-term competitive plans. Recently, there’s been growing concern that too many horses are ‘failing’ their pre-purchase inspections. The result has not only reduced the pool of available horses to buyers privy to rumours of past ‘failings’, but it’s also affected breeders, trainers and dealers who are left with horses who have become virtually unsellable.
The solution could be a simple change in how we view the vetting process. Rather than having a horse ‘pass’ or ‘fail’, it makes sense to see the examination as a ‘risk analysis’. HQ spoke to Dr Alison Sheppard, past president of the South African Equine Veterinary Association.
“I try to remain as objective as possible from the start,” she emphasises. “I think that often a vetting can be misinterpreted and result in a buyer missing an opportunity for a good horse.” She explains that in many instances when a ‘fault’ is noted the buyer may choose not to purchase the horse, when it may be a simple case of managing the problem. “When vetting a horse, I like to ask the purchaser what they want to do with the horse and marry their requirements with my clinical findings,” she says.
Once I know what the horse is intended for, I’ll get more information on his history and what he has done. A young horse should be ‘cleaner’ than a more seasoned horse, who may have varying levels of wear and tear
The first step is to check relevant identification and request the buyer to confirm the intended purpose of the horse in writing. It can sometimes be the case that a buyer changes their mind about what they hope to achieve and end up being disappointed down the line if they don’t have a written reminder of what their initial intentions were.
On the head, the vet will examine ears, eyes, sinuses and mouth. Dr Sheppard mentions that these may harbour hidden problems that wouldn’t normally occur to a buyer – a weepy eye may indicate an eye tumour, for example. “If we’re uncertain of something we’ll call out a specialist,” she says. During the head-to-toe check, the vet will examine the respiratory, digestive and reproductive systems. “We’ll also look out for skin issues, such as possible skin cancer in the spots of breeds like Appies,” she adds.
Back and legs
Obviously, legs are a primary concern. “The foot tells you a tale of what’s going on above for gait analysis,” she says, adding that some breeds have specific issues – Thoroughbreds are prone to flat feet which can be hard for a farrier to balance. For high-level competitors x-rays are a good idea because without them a lot can be missed, however, Dr Sheppard says that superficial signs of wear-and-tear, such as tendinous windgalls or splints, shouldn’t be a reason to abandon a sale. “However, an articular windgall is a red flag for something which could be more serious,” she continues.
A good back is also essential and your vet will examine it closely. “During the vetting I will palpate the back, paying attention to the lumbar and sacro-iliac areas,” says Dr Sheppard. Some horses are ticklish, which can create a false impression of sensitivity.
Dr Sheppard explains that it’s best to check conformation when the horse is in motion, ideally on a level rubberised surface. “Seeing how the horse moves will show you how he absorbs pressure and indicate the possibility for future unsoundness, and any abnormality should be noted for future reference. I’ll have the horse walked away from me and then walked back, followed by a trot-up. Unsoundness in the trot on a straight line is a cause for concern, even in a schoolmaster,” she warns.
Flexion tests have come under the spotlight in recent times and Dr Sheppard explains that they require a degree of skill. “A flexion should be firm but the leg should be naturally flexed – not too hard – for a minute. The idea is to simulate the type of pressure that would be applied in work. A young horse should have a perfect flexion test but a 12-year-old who’s been around the block would probably flex positive.” She describes a perfect score as a 0, with five being non-weight bearing. “Up to a two might be acceptable, depending on how quick the recovery is.”
Next is the examination of the horse moving, preferably under saddle since the weight of the rider may highlight issues not seen on the lunge. “Trotting on a 20m circle on both reins can provide insight” Varying the surface from hard to soft is optimal and the vet will want to see all of the gaits. “I like to see walk, trot and canter without a warm-up since this will give an idea of the horse in his natural state. I also ask for a loose rein to show normal head carriage.” Dr Sheppard likes to see the horse change rein, spiral in and out on a circle to see lateral movement, and have the rider trot on the wrong diagonal.
“The canter is quite difficult to examine since there is lots of hind leg action to evaluate,” she continues. “We’ll look out for trouble striking off, disunited movement, tail swishing or teeth clenching. After the canter, as well as after a gallop if possible, I also check for respiratory anomalies to rule out problems such as roaring.”
After the ridden examination the flexion test will be repeated to review any previous concerns. “If there’s an improvement on a horse who previously showed a positive flexion this is a good sign, however, it’s not good news if the horse is worse.”
It’s up to you
In addition to specific tests for areas of concern, when horses have a high value Dr Sheppard generally advises buyers to request a complete radiography screening as a matter of course. “It’s usually a matter of peace of mind,” she says, “but if anything becomes apparent on x-ray it allows you the opportunity to weigh your options.”
At the completion of the vetting, Dr Sheppard will discuss the buyers plans for the horse and then quantify her findings in a risk profile listing the horse as either a low, medium or high risk.
“One of the main problems we see is bone chips; buyers often steer clear when they hear about these but they can be removed arthroscopically with great success.” In young horses chips may be the result of osteochondrosis dissecans, sometimes related to rapid growth due to overfeeding. “Many horses who don’t pass a vetting go on to successful careers without a problem,” she says but adds that it’s important to remember that if something does go wrong, the vet is usually the one called into question. “In defence of the vets, the vetting document is the one thing that has the most legal implications attached.”
In closing, Dr Sheppard highlights the most important factor: “I never say a horse has failed, but I will make suggestions if I think he has a high risk profile. The big irony is that many horses are written off over a vet check, when it’s the care of the horse after purchase that makes the real difference. Once you’ve found your dream horse and he’s through the vetting, it’s your job to keep him sound. A good horse can be ruined with poor training and mismanagement. The end result is up to you.”
Text: Brigitte Billings