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.
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
Information From the Seller
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.
This is a record of the height, color, gender, age, physical markings and blemishes, and overall appearance of the horse. Included in this are comments about the horse's demeanor.
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.
The eyes are examined for normal vision and presence of diseases or conditions that may affect future sight. An exam using an ophthalmoscope is necessary. If questionable lesions are found, your veterinarian may refer you to a veterinarian that specializes in ophthalmology for the definitive call.
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.
The nose is examined for symmetry of shape, volume of airflow, odor, and presence of nasal discharge. The sinuses are examined for pain and congestion. The horse's larynx, trachea, and chest are palpated and listened to using a stethoscope to determine if abnormalities exist. The horse's respiratory rate and his effort to breath are recorded prior and immediately following at least 10 minutes of forced exercise. The horse's chest, trachea, and larynx are again evaluated immediately following exercise. During exercise careful attention is paid to whether or not the horse makes an abnormal respiratory noise which would suggest an underlying problem.
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.
Many components make up the horse's digestive system and long term health is impossible to predict. In the examination the abdomen is auscultated using a stethoscope to listen for unusual motility sounds and the abdomen is examined for surgical scars suggestive of previous abdominal surgery. The horse's appetite and weight may provide clues as to whether or not ulcers are present. Laboratory tests, endoscopic evaluation of the stomach, rectal palpation, and ultrasound imaging of the abdomen can be performed to identify certain problems if they are a concern.
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.
The horse has many nerves, known as cranial nerves, which innervate the function of the head, which are tested for in other portions of the examination. For instance, eye movement, sight, ability to swallow, and symmetry of the face. In addition to the cranial nerves, assessment of the nerves to the rest of the horse's body is performed. The horse's posture, gait, coordination, and body weakness will be assessed through the use of several neurologic tests. Evidence of cutting the nerves to the feet or tail will also be ascertained. Horses with abnormal responses may require further diagnostic tests including a second opinion by a specialist, radiographs, or laboratory evaluation of the blood or cerebral spinal fluid. It is often difficult to differentiate between a horse with subtle neurologic deficits and those with a subtle lameness. A repeat evaluation at a later date or a second opinion may be helpful.
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.
Initial evaluation includes assessment of conformation and foot balance, palpation of the neck, back, and limbs including the joints, tendons and ligaments. The veterinarian will look for changes in symmetry, in range of joint motion, in tendon and ligament size, for abnormal swelling of joints and tendon sheaths, and painful reactions to the palpation and manipulation.
The horse will then be observed at the walk and trot while being led in a straight line and eventually at all gaits on a lunge line and/or under saddle. At the walk how the limb is carried and how each hoof is placed is assessed. Lame horses are best seen at the trot. At this gait differences in limb stride length and weight distribution among the four limbs can be determined.
Some conditions become more obvious when the animal is trotted in a circle, or on soft or hard footing. For these reasons the animal is usually lunged to both directions on both hard and soft footing. Manipulation of the joints will also be used to rule-out potential joint problems. Concentrated stress on an already sore joint will exacerbate lameness when the horse is then trotted out. Horses with normal joints will take only a few stiff steps and then again appear sound.
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.
Radiographs (X-rays) are typically taken of the limbs only unless something else on physical examination warrants otherwise. Which limbs and what structures will be determined by the intended use of the animal, the current use of the animal (targeting injuries commonly seen with a particular sport or breed), and whether a specific question arose on the lameness or physical examinations. Radiographs can be taken of all limbs in their entirety but this is costly.
In most instances, radiographic examinations can be limited to the front feet, pasterns, fetlocks, hocks, and if the horse is young, the stifles. Radiographs of the knees are usually not warranted unless the horse has been a racehorse. Radiographs of the shoulder, elbow and hip are rarely necessary. The cost of the animal being purchased and whether or not the horse is being bought to resell will also influence the number and type of radiographs being taken. Bony abnormalities seen on the radiographs will be interpreted by the veterinarian in light of the intended use of the animal and his current level of soundness. The veterinarian may decide to send the radiographs to a radiologist or a surgeon for a second opinion. If the significance of a lesion is questionable, this second opinion is well worth the wait.
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.
An ECG is performed when a horse has an irregular heart rhythm or heart rate and in high-level performance horses that are not performing to their capabilities.
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.
Blood as well as urine samples may be collected to screen for behavior and performance altering drugs. Samples can be analyzed for anesthetics, anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics, tranquilizers and muscle relaxants. A drug screen that would rule out the presence of most performance altering drugs costs on average $150. This may be a worthwhile investment if the buyer does not know the horse or the seller that they are dealing with.
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.