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Pre-Purchase Exams

Pre-Purchase Exams
By Bethany Bickel
True or False? A pre-purchase exam guarantees your horse will be sound and have long-term good health.
False. The pre-purchase exam is a snapshot in time, it is not a pass or fail test. It gives you the information you need to decide if this horse will suit your goals.
-- Make choices that are right for you, your goals, and bank account.
-- No horse is perfect! As a buyer, are you willing to deal with the problems found?
Why a pre-purchase exam?
These exams can reveal health concerns that may not be readily apparent or may present later, allowing the owner to decide if that is a problem, they are willing to take on if they purchase the horse. For example, a poorly balanced foot and irregular footfall pattern could point to changes in the navicular bone that may present as lameness later and a diagnosis of navicular disease, which is rarely cured. Another objective of the pre-purchase exam is to expose pre-existing health conditions the horse may have. An example of this might be a horse that has an overbite, called parrot mouth, which is when the horse’s top incisors front edge is further forward than the lower teeth. This condition is something a horse is born with and will require additional dental care and maintenance.
As you prepare for the pre-purchase exam process ask yourself these questions:
  • What would this horse's primary function be?
  • How long do I think I will keep the horse?
  • What management problems am I willing and able to take on?
  • What am I not willing to deal with?
  • What can I afford to fix or manage if discovered?
First Things First
Choose a veterinarian to conduct the exam. It is best to have an impartial, equine-specific veterinarian who is familiar with the breed or discipline, if possible. The veterinarian should never have worked on this horse, never performed work for the seller, and have no stake in the sale. Request the horse’s health history, including farrier records. Acquire permission from the seller to have the horse’s current veterinarian release information to your veterinarian.
Schedule the appointment and make sure the seller is aware. Discuss with your veterinarian what is included in a basic exam and what the cost will be. Expenses rise with the extent of the exam. Choose what works best for your budget, but remember, an early investment could save money in the long run. The pre-purchase exam is paid for by the buyer, and the veterinarian reports directly to the buyer with the information and results of the exam. There is no obligation for the veterinarian to share exam results with the seller unless permission is given by the buyer.
What to Expect
The process can include many steps and depends on what you have requested. Are you looking for the most minuscule of faults, or only major issues? This should depend on your goals for the horse. The order in which exams are conducted varies with every veterinarian.
Elements of a Basic Pre-purchase Exam
Basic Health
  • Health history
  • Temperature
  • Pulse
  • Respiration
  • General condition
  • Hooves
  • Conformation
  • Flexion tests
  • Soft tissue palpation
  • Movement evaluation
  • X-rays
  • Ultrasound
  • Bloodwork
The Physical Exam
The physical evaluation includes taking pulse, respiration, temperature, listening to the heart and lungs, and observing the general overall condition of the horse. Evaluating the conformation can point out issues that may become apparent during the lameness exam. The horse’s hooves are another area where the veterinarian will focus their time. Abnormalities in the foot may suggest bone variations that could lead to lameness. They may look at the balance of the hoof, how the hoof is wearing, and if there are any "stress-lines" or rings on the horse’s hoof.
The Physical Exam
The Lameness Exam
Evaluating movement and screening for lameness is a crucial component of the pre-purchase exam. The horse will be viewed in hand at the walk and trot, on a hard surface, in a straight line. The next step typically is to watch the horse travel both directions in a circle on a lunge line or in a round pen with soft footing. Flexions of the joints are meant to reveal potential lameness and discover joint pain. Your veterinarian will hold a single leg for a set period, typically 30-90 seconds. Once the joint is released, the handler promptly trots the horse. A few initial lame steps are normal after the flexion, and if there are no issues the horse should trot sound again after the first few steps. A lameness scale developed by the American Association of Equine Practitioners is used to classify lameness. The scale goes from 0 to 5, with 0 being sound and 5 being unsound, with minimal weight bearing in motion and/or at rest.
The Lameness Exam
Diagnostic Testing
Diagnostic testing may vary greatly during a pre-purchase exam depending on what the buyer has asked for. X-rays are the most common element of an exam to look for bone injuries or abnormalities. A horse’s breed, discipline, age, and history help to determine the views that are taken on the X-ray. Ultrasounds may be done to look at soft tissues (tendons, ligaments) if there has been a current or ongoing problem. The Coggins test for equine infectious anemia is the most common example of bloodwork conducted during an exam. Another component of bloodwork may be testing for drugs.
Remember the pre-purchase exam is to help you, the buyer, make a well-informed decision about your purchase. Determine examinations and tests you would like your veterinarian to perform based on your goals and budget. Have an open mind and listen to the findings. A horse does not pass or fail the pre-purchase exam. Being prepared in advance will help you know what to expect from the pre-purchase exam and can help you determine what issues you are willing to deal with for health and management. These exams can aid you in making an informed buying decision. If you intend to use the horse for breeding, special considerations should be taken during the pre-purchase exam and a breeding soundness exam should be conducted.
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