Owning a horse is a big investment: in time, in money, and in emotion. If you’re thinking about buying a horse, you’re likely to be spending a good deal of money, with no money-back guarantee. Thus, many people will ask a veterinarian to perform a prepurchase (presale) examination before they buy a horse. Trainers and friends can help you determined such things as ability and behavior, but your veterinarian is the person you should turn to to make sure that all of the parts are working. While such exams can be pricey – depending on what you ask for – they are usually good investments, particularly when you compare the cost of the exam to the cost of taking care of a horse that comes with a problem.
HORSES DON’T PASS OR FAIL
You have to think of a prepurchase exam as an exercise in risk management. Buying a horse is a risk; the biggest risk is that you will buy a horse that doesn’t work out. You’re getting a prepurchase exam to help minimize that risk. As such, you shouldn’t think of the exam as one where the horse either passes or fails. Instead, your trying to gather information to help you make a good decision.
As such, a veterinarian will probably look at things such as the horse’s physical condition, take his temperature, listen to his heart and lungs, and check his eyes; he or she will probably spend a lot of time looking at the horse’s limbs, and watching him move, in an effort to make sure that the horse isn’t lame (after all, you are likely to want to ride the horse). With that information, your veterinarian can give you an opinion on how these things might affect the horse based on his or her experience; however, he or she cannot predict the future.
Here’s what you get when you ask your veterinarians to do a prepurchase
exam; you get an opinion as to what the horse looked like on the day he was examined. The deeper you look, the more you know.
After a prepurchase exam, what you will know is if the horse is likely to have any ongoing health or lameness problems. What you won’t know is if you are going to like riding or being around the horse, so here’s a bit of advice: make sure you like the horse, and are happy with how he feels when you ride him, before you call for a prepurchase exam. And, to a certain extent, the more time you can spend finding these things out, the better.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A “STANDARD” PREPURCHASE EXAM
Depending on what your level of anxiety, as well as the veterinarian who is doing the examination, a prepurchase exam may be more or less involved. For example, if you want to buy a stallion to breed mares, you might consider having his semen evaluated; obviously, that’s not going to be a concern with a show gelding. Talk about what sorts of things that you might want to do during a prepurchase exam, how much you’re going to be expected to pay, and how much a particular procedure is likely to change the ultimate outcome. Good communication between you and your veterinarian is the key to getting exactly what you want.
You have to help you veterinarian decide which tests are best for you, and your needs. More is not necessarily better. Still, your veterinarian will probably ask about things like:
- The horse’s medical history
- The use of any supplements or drugs (if such information is available – you may need to ask for permission to look at the medical records, and, believe it or not, not everyone tells the truth)
- Basic health information such as pulse, respiration, and body temperature
- The body and limbs for signs of previous injuries or disease
- Blood tests, for diseases, for overall health, or for drugs
- The mouth, for condition of the teeth, and for a very rough estimate of the horse’s age (NOTE: horses cannot be aged accurately by looking at their teeth after the age of about 5 years)
- The horse’s hooves (“No foot, no horse”)
– The horse in motion. This one is a biggie – you’re most likely going to want to ride the horse you’re buying, so your veterinarian is going to spend a lot fo time watching your horse move: in a straight line, in circles and often under tack; at the walk, trot and canter; and possibly before, as well as after, the horse has been warmed up.
One test that you’ll undoubtedly see during a prepurchase exam is a “flexion test,” where your veterinarian holds the horses leg up in the air, bending one or more joints, and then trots the horse off to see his response. But don’t take these tests too seriously; it’s been shown that they aren’t very accurate, and don’t predict the future.
There are tons of other things that can be done during a prepurchase exam. Ultrasound, X-rays, nerve blocks, urine and blood tests (for general health, or for drugs), endoscopic exams, and more may be recommended based on what you find. Or, if you’re buying a horse for breeding purposes (male or female), certain tests of the reproductive system (for example, semen evaluation in stallions – rectal palpation in mares) might be in order. But the most important thing is the clinical exam – if the horse isn’t showing a problem after you’ve ridden it, and had it examined, additional tests are unlikely to tell you that one is around the corner.
Another reason for additional tests, such as Xrays, is if you’re buying a horse for resale. Potential buyers may be comforted in having a record of how the horse looked at the time that you bought it, and have nothing to hide.
But again, no diagnostic test can tell you if the horse is going to work out or not. For example, some horses have Xrays that vary from what is generally considered normal, and yet never show problems. Xrays cannot predict the future for a horse. Don’t necessarily pass on a horse that has an Xray that suggests a “change;” it may, in fact, not be a problem for the horse at all.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
The most important thing that the veterinarian can do during a prepurchase exam is a thorough physical examination. Often, that’s the only thing that you need to do. If you’re not spending a ton of money on the horse, and you’re not interested in reselling him in the near future, it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to get into paying for a ton of additional diagnostic information. Plus, there’s one other thing: diagnostic tests such as X-rays and ultrasound cannot predict the future. No test can tell you whether or not a horse is going to go lame down the road; don’t expect to get that information, and, if you’re being given such information (either as a buyer or a seller), be very skeptical of it.
SHOULD YOU BUY?
You’re the one who should ultimately make the decision on whether or not you should buy the horse that you’re having examined. Your trainer and veterinarians can give you valuable advice, but don’t get overwhelmed by the process, and purchase a horse that you really don’t like, or can’t afford.
You can even tally-up the pluses and minuses, the way some people have advised evaluating any relationship. Write all of the things that you like about the horse in one column, and all of the things that you don’t like in the other column. Write the price on top (make sure you can afford him, even if you like him). Then add up the pluses and minuses. You will probably have your answer.
Don’t be in a hurry to buy a horse. Take your time to make sure that you’re spending your time and money on a purchase that you’re really going to enjoy. Horses are an expensive hobby and a long-term investment of time and money. A thorough prepurchase exam can help you decide if the investment is likely to be a good one.