Prepurchase Examination of Horses
Also see The Lameness Examination in Horses.
Prepurchase examinations are often requested by a potential buyer of a horse. The objective is to reduce the buyer’s risks in relationship to the general health and athletic soundness of the horse for sale. The examination is not meant to guarantee soundness of the horse but is an attempt, on the part of the examining veterinarian, to ascertain any preexisting problem or any potential problem that may affect future soundness (eg, degenerative joint disease).
The examining veterinarian should have experience with the specific breed and discipline, as well as knowledge of the purpose and level of exercise for which the horse is being purchased. Ideally, the examiner should also be aware of any related organizational regulations that may influence the prepurchase examination. All notes generated during the examination should be kept in the buyer’s file, and a report should be generated for the buyer. The examination should be conducted in a thorough and organized manner, because prepurchase examinations are a common cause of litigation from dissatisfied buyers. The major problems related to litigation are lack of understanding of the prepurchase examination process and the client’s unrealistic expectation of a secure investment.
At the onset, the roles of all involved parties (eg, buyer, trainer, legal agent) in the purchase of the particular horse should be defined. Trainers may or may not have legal agent status. The trainer does have the potential to be responsible for assessing the buyer’s expectations for the horse’s athletic future and also whether the horse is suitable for the buyer. If an agent is representing the buyer, the examining veterinarian should encourage all information gathered to be communicated to the buyer, along with the report. Buyers of horses have different levels of experience and practical expectations. Possibly the majority of prepurchase examinations are accomplished between an amateur buyer employing the veterinarian. With the advent of social media, expectations of some buyers may be very high, possibly thinking that newer tests such as genetic testing, MRI, CSF evaluations, etc, should be done or are part of a typical prepurchase examination. The veterinarian should ascertain the particular buyer’s expectations and define the limitations of the examination, emphasizing that the examination does not eliminate risks.
The buyer is the owner of the information but needs to maintain a level of confidentiality so that the reputation of the horse is not potentially altered because of inappropriate dissemination of medical information. Through requests by the buyer or the buyer’s agent, the seller and/or the seller's veterinarian should be willing to agree to provide the horse’s medical history to the examining veterinarian. These medical records are returned at the end of the examination.
The potential examination and its procedures should be thoroughly reviewed with the buyer and seller verbally and with written explanatory documents. Written release forms for riding the horse, payment, and the seller’s permission for any interventional procedures, such as sedation for radiographs, shoe removal, hair clipping, etc, should be obtained before the examination. Partial examinations should not be encouraged. Trial periods are often acceptable and encouraged, especially if the seller can be assured of the horse’s safety. One option is to house the horse in a mutually known, professionally managed barn. The seller may request that the horse be insured.
Traditionally, it is recommended that the examining veterinarian have had no contact with the horse or seller in a previous medical or personal role. However, this is often not possible when the horse is being sold within a small community or within the same boarding barn. In such situations, the relationship of the veterinarian to all parties involved should be clearly stated. The opposite situation can occur when the horse is being purchased out of town and the examining veterinarian is not the routine veterinarian for the buyer. The examining veterinarian should have the buyer’s routine veterinarian review the examination report and any ancillary information, such as radiographs, laboratory tests, etc. prior to final purchase of the horse. Also, if any particular question arises during the examination, an opinion from a board-certified veterinary specialist might be indicated.
If the veterinarian has working knowledge of competition rules related to the discipline in which the horse is being purchased (eg, height requirements), he or she should explain how these rules may apply to the prepurchase examination. The veterinarian should counsel the buyer to learn the specific rules and verify “cards” that belong to the pony or horse. Having the buyer verify any rule requirements may help reduce future problems.
State and international disease testing and other requirements should be reviewed with the buyer and complied with by the examining veterinarian. Drug testing should be offered to the buyer and its limitations discussed. If the horse is purchased at a competition, or the seller is not known to the buyer, drug testing should be strongly recommended. Even when a buyer does not wish to have drug testing, examiners often collect blood at the time of the examination and store the serum or plasma frozen. It would then be available if any questions arose after the purchase.
Prepurchase examinations of performance horses often are conducted under several different conditions of training. The ideal situation is that the horse is currently active in the particular level of competition for which it is being purchased. However, prepurchase examinations can involve some inherent predictability, even though they are not classically meant for prediction of a horse’s health.
The following are examples of conditions an examiner may face. Any of these or other modifying conditions should be included in the examination notes:
A horse is currently in early training for a specific athletic endeavor and the buyer is ultimately looking to have the horse compete at a higher level.
A horse is coming off a lay-off period and has been back in work for only a brief period of time.
An older horse that has some infirmities and is being purchased as a schoolmaster by a less experienced rider, in which case the physical demands will potentially decrease with the new buyer.
A horse is being purchased for a financial investment.
A horse is being purchased as a pleasure or trail horse for a moderate or light workload but the horse’s attitude is extremely important.
In each of these conditions, different approaches are needed, and different questions should be asked and understood by the examiner.
A newer type of horse ownership is obtaining a horse through a rescue situation or organization. The reason for the horse’s previous “rejection” should be identified if possible and the reason explained to the buyer, so any potential longterm needs, outcomes, and costs are understood.
Examinations of pretraining and brood stock present different issues to the examining veterinarian. The examiner must be alert to potential limiting conditions of the suckling, weanling, or yearling that would diminish its ability to perform its potential future work. In examining mares and stallions, experience with reproductive examination procedures is needed. In all situations, thorough knowledge of the rules of the specific breed and any governmental disease regulations is critical.
The simplest way for the veterinarian to accumulate history before the examination is to have the seller complete and sign a history form. This helps to legally bind the seller in the transaction and gives information that may or may not have been known to the buyer, his or her agent, or the examining veterinarian. A similar questionnaire can be devised for the buyer as to his or her expectations, potential use, and previous experience with the horse in question. Examples of such forms are readily available on the Internet and may be modified as needed.
The examination for a performing horse can be divided into four sections. The first part is observing the horse in the stall. The second includes observing the horse on a lead strap at a walk and a trot on a straight line, doing flexion tests, and in a circle with a longe line. The third part of the examination involves observation of the horse while it is being ridden. The fourth part includes diagnostic procedures such as radiography, endoscopy, ultrasonography, etc.
In the UK, there is a standardized 5-stage vetting procedure:
Stage 1, preliminary examination
Stage 2, trotting up in hand
Stage 3, strenuous exercise ridden or longed to evaluate conditioning, heart, breathing, and strains that might be expressed
Stage 4, a period of rest for as long as 30 min to evaluate heart and lung recovery, during which time paperwork such as identification can be completed
Stage 5, a second trot in hand and foot evaluation
The key to any successful prepurchase examination is having a systematic, consistent routine. At some point during the first part of the examination, a thorough identification of the horse should be recorded. This can be a written description of its color and age verification with inspection of the teeth. Digital photographs are easily adapted and helpful in prepurchase identification. Notations of markings and any other permanent peculiarities to the horse’s body are also beneficial. The most common markings include a star, stripe, blaze, or snip on the face of the horse. Any white markings on the legs should also be described. Other markings that are valuable to record include whorls on the face and neck, brands, and tattoos. The presence of any scars, splints, or joint effusion should be noted.
In some cases, brands or tattoos can give information, such as age. Most Thoroughbred tattoos are one letter followed by five numbers. Some Thoroughbred tattoos have four numbers, which indicates the horse is older than 25. The letter represents the year of foaling. (eg, “A” is 1997, “L” is 2008). An asterisk in front of a Thoroughbred tattoo indicates this was a foreign-born horse. Other breeds also tattoo racehorses on their upper lips. A Quarter Horse tattoo consists of four or five numbers followed by a letter, and a Standardbred tattoo consists of one letter followed by four numbers.
The date, time, and place of the examination should also be recorded.
The initial part of the examination ideally should be done in a stall or area out of direct sunlight, dark enough for an ophthalmologic examination. Temperature and pulse recordings, auscultation of the heart and lungs, and oral examinations can be done in the quiet and controlled confines of the stall. If blood is to be drawn it would ideally be done in this quiet, confined area. If this is the horse’s own stall, note any wood chewing, the character of the manure and feed, and/or oral medication remaining in the feed bucket.
The second phase of the examination outside the stall can begin with general body and skin condition. The Henneke body condition score (1–9) can be assigned a number from thinness (1) to obesity (9). Scores of 4, 5, or 6 are considered normal. Each of the front and hind feet should be thoroughly examined with hoof testers; mismatching, abnormal foot conformations, flares, dishing, type of shoeing, and rings should be noted. Photographs that document body condition scoring and feet can be part of the examination and may simplify a written description. Next, visual observation and palpation of the limbs, passive and active flexion tests, and watching the horse move on different surfaces on a straight line and in a circle should be done. It is also valuable to perform a basic neurologic examination.
Many examiners feel it is helpful to watch the horse being ridden to exclude any subtle unsoundness. It also gives the examiner some observations and insight into the potential of the rider, if it is the buyer. These observations are worth noting, even though it is the trainer’s and buyer’s responsibility to determine the suitability of the horse. It is in this portion of the examination that the British Equine Veterinary Association recommends exerting the animal at a level appropriate for its age and fitness. Having the horse hand gallop for 5–10 minutes so the examiner can evaluate breath sounds and perform cardiac auscultation is recommended. Young or untrained horses can be longed. The horse is then monitored during recovery. Next, the jogging in hand is repeated so that any subtle lameness that might have been accentuated during the exercise stage can be detected. All observations are duly recorded in the report.
The fourth part of the examination should include any diagnostic procedures necessary to determine soundness, including imaging. (Also see The Lameness Examination in Horses.) Radiography is the most common diagnostic procedure performed. If there is a question about the significance of any imaging defect, a boarded specialist should be consulted. Because there are some foot conformational differences and corrective shoeing allowing a horse to compete within various disciplines, the buyer should consider hiring their farrier for the evaluation. This would not be for diagnostic purposes but to determine the ease or difficulty of trimming and/or shoeing of the prospective horse.
A summary report should be prepared and provided to the buyer. There are many published samples of these reports, available in letter or check-off list form. The report should describe any abnormal or undesirable findings and include an opinion as to the functional effect of these findings. Tests that were recommended to but declined by the buyer should be noted in the final report. The American Association of Equine Practitioners publishes guidelines for reproduction, medications, sale issues such as cryptorchidism, dental malocclusions, postsale examination of the upper respiratory tract of horses intended for racing, radiograph custody, and sale disclosure. Specific guidelines to report prepurchase examinations are also included. The British Equine Veterinary Association also publishes guidelines to conduct a prepurchase examination.
Also see our pet health content regarding selection of a horse.