What to consider when vetting a horse for purchase

The prepurchase exam varies considerably from vet to vet, with some vets putting more emphasis on some aspects than others

Most people buying a horse today will request at least a basic ‘prepurchase exam’ to be carried out by a veterinarian. Others will want a more advanced prepurchase exam that includes blood tests and radiographs, for example. This is of course wise to prevent serious heartache down the line, but what is this exam really about and just how seriously should we be taking its findings?

Pass or fail

Ninety-nine percent of horses have some or other problem, be it major or minor

The first thing to know about the prepurchase examination is that it should not be considered to be a case of passing or failing. Ninety-nine percent of horses have some or other problem, be it major or minor, so actually the examination is more a case of elucidating what exactly those problems are, and evaluating whether or not those particular issues are something that a) is manageable and b) you are prepared to manage.

It all boils down to your needs as a rider and horse owner, and your ambitions for yourself and the horse. If you are a Grand Prix rider, even minor faults must be taken seriously, but if you are more of a happy hacker, only major issues should really be a deterrant for you in taking the horse.

Essentially, the goal of a prepurchase examination is not to find a ‘perfect’ horse (we may all be waiting a while for that), but instead it is about assessing the horse for suitability for the function that the rider requires him for. Think of it as a risk analysis exam.

How many investigations do I need to do?

The prepurchase exam that is carried out varies considerably from vet to vet, with some vets putting more emphasis on some aspects than others. It’s usually felt that it’s best to go to your own vet for the examination, as you are familiar and comfortable with their practicing style. It is generally speaking best to avoid using the owner’s vet.

In terms of what makes up the prepurchase exam, vets will usually at the very least perform:

  • A basic health evaluation, including a history of previous health and/or surgical problems; an assessment of condition and conformation; and measurements of temperature, pulse and respiration rate.
  • An assessment of lameness, including flexion tests, palpation of the soft tissues and a general evaluation of movement.

Further diagnostic tools may then be required, including x-rays, ultrasound, MRI and bloodwork, but these are only generally recommended if the horse is going to be expected to do very high-level work, or if something has been flagged from the basic physical examination or medical history.

Owners often over-investigate horses at this stage, as they are striving for that practically unattainable ‘perfect’ horse. However, this is not necessarily recommended, as firstly, almost all horses (if extensively scanned) would be found to have issues, many of which would prove to be incidental findings that would never affect future wellbeing. Rejecting a horse based on findings at scanning that are not currently affecting him needs serious consideration and is often unecessary, especially in the context of a horse being selected for recreational riding and low-level competition.

What if I really want to buy the horse anyway?

Unfortunately, in some cases, vets will find problems with a horse at the prepurchase exam that make him unsuitable for the prospective buyer. Thankfully, it is reasonably uncommon that that horse will be unable to serve any function at all, but if he is not going to stand up to what you need him to do, you must say no. If you know going into the examination that you are going to take the horse regardless of the findings, it is certainly financially best to avoid the prepurchase exam. Performing a vetting when you know that really you can’t resist the horse is essentially performing a post-purchase exam, and really does not serve a huge amount of value!

From the vet’s perspective

The prepurchase examination puts huge pressure on our veterinarians. Generally speaking, the tests are all simple enough to perform, but unfortunately for all of us, vets are not in possession of crystal balls and cannot give a 100% guarantee on any aspect of an animal’s future. They can give you the statistics regarding a particular finding, and their opinion, but, believe it or not, they are human like the rest of us, and sometimes they may miss something, or sometimes your horse may just be one of the unlucky statistics. Don’t expect your vet to predict the future! The prepurchase exam is a screening tool to pick up issues that may affect a horse’s future performance, not a guarantee of soundness until the horse is 35! We must have realistic expectations of vets, and understand that the prepurchase exam is not a lifetime guarantee. Consider having two separate vets perform a prepurchase exam if you want to be extra cautious.

 

The full article appears in the March issue (131) of HQ > Shop now