Evaluation of a new horse prior to purchasing is a wise decision for all buyers. The goal of the evaluation is to help ensure that the horse being purchased is free of flaws that will limit his ability to perform what is expected. It is not a guarantee for future soundness.
The expenses associated with the prepurchase evaluation are the responsibility of the buyer and will range from less than $100 to upwards of $1000 dollars depending on the depth of the examination.
Selecting a Veterinarian
In selecting a veterinarian to perform a prepurchase evaluation the buyer should look for someone that has experience with performing them and expertise with horses. Working with someone who can identify subtle lameness is paramount in avoiding purchasing a lame horse. Your current veterinarian, if you have one, may fill this role perfectly. If he or she would not be comfortable in performing a prepurchase examination, ask for a referral to someone who is.
If this is your first horse and you do not have a previous relationship with a veterinarian then you have several options.
- Word of mouth from other horse owners/professionals
- State Veterinary Medical Association membership list for your area
- American Association of Equine Practitioners membership list for your area
- Standardbred or Thoroughbred racetracks in your area for veterinarians who specialize in horses
- The yellow pages and the internet
- A veterinary teaching hospital close to you to provide the service or supply you with a list of veterinarians in your area who treat horses
Regardless of the source, you should speak with the veterinarian to be sure that he or she is capable of providing the services that you require. Many veterinarians will decline participation if the horse is located beyond the limits of their practice area so you may have to speak with several before you can decide.
Remember also that you want to select an unbiased veterinarian. You do not want to have your prepurchase examination performed by the same individual who has been caring for the horse for the seller. This is a conflict of interest and should be made known to you by the seller and the seller's veterinarian. This does not mean that the seller's veterinarian would be dishonest and fail to disclose problems but familiarity with an individual horse prevents you from having someone with a "fresh eye" evaluate the horse. If you have no option other than to use the seller's veterinarian then you should insist on complete disclosure of the horse's complete medical record and the veterinarian's knowledge of the horse's health.
What Information the Veterinarian Needs from the Buyer
- Who will be riding the animal?
- What is the expertise of the intended rider?
- How often will the animal be ridden?
- How many times has the buyer ridden the animal?
- Will the horse be under the same management as it currently is? If not, how will it be changed?
- What is the intended use of the animal? Is this different than what it is currently being used for?
- How intensive of a prepurchase examination is required? This will be dependent on the intended use of the animal, its past history and ultimately the purchase price
Information From the Seller
- Age, breed and gender of the horse
- How long have they owned the horse?
- What type of work has the horse been doing?
- What is the current intensity and frequency of the work?
- What type of footing is the horse ridden on?
- Who has been riding the horse?
- How is the horse stabled?
- What is the amount and type of turnout that the horse receives?
- Any known behavioral problems or vices?
- Is the horse on any medications?
- The reason for selling?
- A copy of the horse's medical record.
- A detailed history of reproductive performance if the animal is being bought as a breeding animal
- When was the horse last shod? And if the horse is wearing anything other than standard horseshoes, why?
Where Should the Exam Take Place?
Ideally the horse should be examined in his own environment. This allows the veterinarian to have an accurate assessment of the animal's general demeanor as well as the ability to inspect for evidence of behavioral and stall vices. The veterinarian, however, will also require an area in which the horse can be exercised – on a flat, firm surface and on a flat, soft surface. If this is not possible at the horse's current stabling facility then the horse will need to be transported elsewhere. Referral to a large equine veterinary hospital may also be necessary to complete some of the more extensive testing procedures if the prepurchase examination warrants them.
Who Should be Present?
The buyer should, if at all possible, be present for the examination. The buyer's agent or trainer may represent the buyer in his absence but this is less preferable due to the chance of miscommunication. Be sure to speak to the veterinarian and inspect the veterinarian's written report to avoid this risk.
There are both benefits and drawbacks to having the seller present. The seller can answer any historical questions concerning the horse and give ready permission for more extensive testing if deemed necessary during the examination. On the other hand, the presence of the seller, intentionally or unintentionally, can interfere with the examination and the communication between the buyer and veterinarian.
- General Health and Appearance
- Assessment of Conformation
This assessment is to determine if the horse has any underlying conformation problems that will limit his ability to perform the intended use. A conformational flaw may be acceptable for some uses and not for others. For example a young horse that toes-out on his front feet but that is currently sound may continue to be a sound pleasure horse as he ages but may become lame if he were to compete in long distance endurance events.
- Eye Examination
- Examination of Mouth and Teeth
The alignment, wear, and absence of teeth are checked. The odor, ability of the horse to chew and swallow normally, as well as the health of the gums, tongue, and mucous membranes are assessed. Age confirmation is also attempted. As horses mature, an age range and not an exact age is often all that is possible due to individual horse and breed variations.
- Examination of the Respiratory System
- Evaluation of the Heart
The heart rate and character of the horse's peripheral pulses are assessed at rest and immediately following exercise. The heart itself is also examined with a stethoscope before and after exercise. The veterinarian will be listening for changes in the rate and rhythm of the heartbeat and for the presence of heart murmurs. Some types of disturbances in the heart's rhythm as well as some types of murmurs are considered insignificant findings. Other types, however, are not. An electrocardiogram (ECG) and an ultrasound of the heart may be required to fully characterize the problem and determine its significance for the horse. A specialist may be consulted if the veterinarian has any doubt as to the significance of his or her findings.
- Evaluation of the Digestive System
- Genital/Urinary Examination
In most instances, only the external appearance of the genitals is examined for pathology. Horses can develop infection or stones within their kidneys or their bladder but these are uncommon. Procedures necessary to rule these conditions out may include rectal palpation, ultrasound evaluation, endoscopic evaluation of the bladder, and laboratory analysis of a urine sample. Horses that are to be used for breeding, whether they are a mare or a stallion will require more intensive scrutiny. Mares dependent on their age and breeding history may require at minimum a rectal examination confirming their pregnancy or as much as ultrasound evaluation, vaginal examination, uterine biopsy and uterine bacterial and fungal cultures for those that have previously failed to conceive. Stallion prospects should have all portions of their reproductive system evaluated, including their semen and their libido.
- Examination of the Nervous System
- Examination of Hair Coat and Skin
Problems of the hair coat and skin can range in severity from being just a nuisance to those that can be career limiting or life threatening. Previously removed skin growths may return in several months to several years. Skin testing, skin biopsy and laboratory testing are the only definitive methods of determining the cause and severity of most skin disorders.
- Gait Analysis
- Discovery of Lameness
In most instances this is grounds for termination of the prepurchase evaluation. There are instances in which mild degrees of lameness are acceptable, however. Horses that have been successfully performing week after week at the same job and are being bought with the intention to continue to do the same job deserve further scrutiny providing the management of the horse will not change significantly. Mild to moderately lame horses that are being retired from high level competition are another example of horses that may require the benefit of the doubt and a closer look. And of course if the animal is being purchased for reproduction, certain types and degrees of lameness can be overlooked.
With the permission of the seller, anesthetic injections can be performed to localize the origin of the lameness if it is unclear. The expertise that your veterinarian has will help to guide you regarding which horses, despite their unsoundness, may prove to be serviceable for your intended use. Unbroken horses, young horses in early training, and horses that have had little exercise in the immediate past should not be lame. If for some reason (temperament, ability) the buyer is still interested in the lame horse, it might be wise to have the horse examined again at a later date to determine if the problems have resolved, remained static or become worse.
- Endoscopy of the Upper Airway
The pharynx and larynx of a horse should be evaluated by endoscopy if the intended use requires speed and endurance, marked flexion of the head/neck, or if the horse produces a noise when exercised. Horses that have or have had a history of nasal discharge or cough should also be evaluated.
- Laboratory Tests
A complete blood count can be used to rule out anemia and current infectious processes.
A serum chemistry can be used to rule-out some types of liver, kidney, intestinal and muscle problems.
Equine infectious anemia/Coggin's test is a requirement for all horses. Do not purchase a horse unless it has a current negative test.
Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) titer a blood sample that can be submitted for a rapid screening test. A positive test does not mean that the horse has EPM but only that it has been exposed to the organism. However, a negative test means that the horse has an 88 percent chance that it does not have EPM. In horses showing clinical neurologic signs that have a positive blood EPM titer, a sample of the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF fluid) can be submitted to specific laboratories for further testing.
A fecal parasite exam should be performed on horses that have unknown backgrounds and deworming histories. Parasites can be responsible for loss of condition, poor hair coat, weight loss, anemia and some forms of colic.
A contagious equine metritis culture should be negative for horses that will be transported abroad.
A negative equine viral arteritis blood titer is required on horses being transported abroad.
- Drug Screening
- Ultrasound, Thermography and Nuclear Scintigraphy
These represent a group of diagnostics that can be pursued to determine the significance of musculoskeletal disorders. Your veterinarian may recommend them if he/she feels that they are necessary to prognosticate the serviceability of the horse.
Whether or not you buy the horse if your decision. It is not the veterinarian's role to tell you whether or not a particular horse should be purchased. Ask questions during the evaluation, and review the written report closely. If an item is unclear in regards to significance or meaning ask for clarification. Suitability of the horse for the intended use, current level of training, potential for further development, behavior, personality, conformation, age, breed, gender, health, soundness, and purchase price are all factors that must be weighed and only the buyer can do this. The results of the prepurchase examination can help you avoid making the wrong decision.