Smart purchasers wouldn’t think of investing in a house without first getting a home inspection or buying a car without soliciting a second opinion from someone who knows the difference between a crankshaft and a gasket. Why then, would anyone consider buying a horse without getting an expert to “check under the hood,” so to speak?

A veterinarian can take care of this through an objective pre-purchase examination. However, many prospective owners balk at getting such a workup done, especially if they’ve fallen for what they believe is their “perfect” horse and don’t want anything obstructing their excitement, hopes and dreams. Plus, it can be disconcerting to lay down money on something that isn’t even yours yet.

The pre-purchase exam should be part of the buying process no matter whether you’re buying the horse as a pet, a pleasure mount, a high-performance athlete or for breeding. It’s even a recommended procedure in the national Code of Practice for Care and Handling of Equines – an official set of horse welfare guidelines.

Think of it as risk management against heartache, wasted time and financial loss. It’s a fact-finding mission into the current health and soundness of your prospective horse and an evaluation of problems that may arise in the future. Results are interpreted depending on your intended use and performance goals and how the horse stacks up based on age, breed and history. The vet isn’t setting out to pass or fail the animal.

“My role in the pre-purchase scenario is to provide information,” said Dr. Robin Reid-Burke, owner of Millcreek Equine Veterinary Services, an Ontario ambulatory practice serving the Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo and surrounding areas.

First Steps to the Pre-Purchase Exam

The vet the buyer chooses to perform the pre-purchase exam should be equine-specific. They should also be fully independent of the seller to avoid conflict of interest and, preferably, be familiar with the particular breed, discipline or activity for which the horse is being purchased.

Dr. Reid-Burke begins by having the interested party complete a pre-purchase buyer form. She then arranges a conversation to find out what activities they plan to do with the horse in the near and distant future and what they are seeking from her to make an educated choice about their possible acquisition. “I have to have a relationship with that person to some extent so I understand what their needs are and how risk averse they are,” she said.

But, she noted, before that conversation takes place, the buyer must know what they want out of the pre-purchase exam. “It can be difficult for people who aren’t horse savvy. If I start asking questions and they don’t have answers for me, I often will say, take some time, think about it, talk to your trainer or knowledgeable horse person and decide. Then call me back and we can talk it through again.”

Once the pre-purchase exam is scheduled, a bit of homework on the buyer’s end can help the vet do his or her job. If possible, find out details about the horse from the current owner and relay them to the vet – information such as vaccinations, deworming, teeth-floating, shoeing/trimming and medical history, feeding regimen, use of supplements or drugs, work schedule and intensity, general care and management and previous illnesses or lameness.

The Exam is Underway

Dr. Reid-Burke’s clinical evaluation begins with a static exam – a basic head-to-toe health checkup with the horse at rest. Static exams generally include:

  • Checking vital signs – temperature, pulse, respiration
  • Listening to the heart for murmurs or arrhythmias
  • Performing “rebreathing exams” – placing a bag over the nose to force deep breathing, making it easier to hear lung sounds
  • Observing body condition and conformation
  • Listening to the gastrointestinal tract through the abdominal wall
  • • Evaluating nostrils, teeth and mouth, eyes and ears
  • Inspecting the body and limbs for signs of previous disease, injuries and surgeries that could affect future health and soundness
  • Assessing the hooves visually and with hoof testers
  • Palpating soft tissues
  • Observing the horse’s general behaviour

Dr. Reid-Burke then moves onto a gait assessment, which involves:

  • Observing the response of limbs and joints to flexion tests
  • Watching the horse walking and trotting on both hard and soft surfaces to see how the feet land, alterations in limb movement, abnormalities in footfalls, signs of lameness, body or pelvis asymmetry
  • Observing the horse on the lunge line, looking for shortness of stride, difficulty with transitions
  • Assessing for possible neurologic deficits

“Depending on the situation, if I have questions or doubts about an issue, I will ask for the horse to be ridden. But I don’t typically do that. A problem usually becomes clear in an exam without a rider on the horse.”

She also notes horses intended for breeding should undergo breeding soundness tests. A mare requires a rectal examination of the cervix, uterus and ovaries, at the very least, while stallions must have semen collected to determine sperm health and motility.

Additional diagnostic tests can also be performed. “It’s really owner-driven. So, depending on what the owner wants,” said Dr. Reid-Burke. These tests can include:

  • Radiographs (x-rays)
  • Ultrasound
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Upper airway endoscopy
  • Bloodwork to check for overall health and specific diseases such as equine infectious anemia
  • Drug screening – to check for the presence of sedatives and anti-inflammatories that can mask behaviour issues and pain

The price tag on a pre-purchase exam ultimately depends on what’s carried out, and will depend on several factors. At a bare minimum, you should expect to pay $200. “I’ve done some pre-purchase exams that cost $3,000, where it’s a horse that’s going to be a show animal. Every x-ray you can do, we do it,” said Dr. Reid-Burke. “I’ve done pre-purchase exams where we don’t do a single x-ray, where we just do the clinical portion and try to keep costs down. If they just want to go on a trail ride once a week, it may not require all of these things that can be offered.”

There’s Always Something

Some vets want the buyer (and sales agent, if applicable) present for the exam. Some like the seller there too. Dr. Reid-Burke said it’s up to the individuals. However, she stressed, she does need the buyer readily available by phone.

“At various points in the exam, if something crops up that I think is significant, I will halt the exam and have a conversation with them and say, ‘Look, this is what I found, does this concern you?’ I don’t want to do more of the exam if I don’t have to – for my client’s budget and for my time. The client has to decide if they would like me to continue. Some decide they want to continue because they want to see the full picture.”

For this reason, Dr. Reid-Burke usually starts the exam with an ophthalmologic (eye) test. “Because if the horse has significant cataracts or is blind in one eye, that usually stops the purchase.”

Keep in mind, by being in attendance, a buyer can glean important information that might not make it into the vet’s report. It also offers the opportunity to ask questions, request more information and witness the how the horse responds to handling and stressful situations.

Dr. Reid-Burke takes extensive notes during the pre-purchase exam. She provides the buyer with a typed or handwritten report within a couple of days. While she realizes people are usually anxious to get on with the purchase, she advises taking a beat and not rushing a deal. She feels people “don’t give themselves enough time to think things through, to get the report and be clear about what they’re willing to accept and what they’re not willing to accept.”

And, warned Dr. Reid-Burke, she will always find issues. “It’s inevitable. One-hundred per cent, if we start looking, we’re going to find things. The question is, can you handle those things as an owner?” She uses the example of an osteoarthritis diagnosis. The condition might be enough to put off one person from making the purchase, while another would be prepared to manage it through joint injections, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or other measures.

“I do a lot of pre-purchase exams and many horses – most of them – aren’t a go. They’re not really suitable for what the buyer wants. I think that’s the consensus for most of my colleagues as well.”

That may not be the happiest news, but consider the possible alternative – an unsound or unwell horse that ends up costing a lot more in emotional strife and finances than a pre-purchase exam ever would. And bear in mind too, the exam may not only play a part in obtaining insurance or negotiating a price if an issue comes to light, it could provide a helpful baseline for diagnostic comparisons if you buy the horse and an issue arises in the future.