Also see Lameness in Horses: The Lameness Examination in Horses.
Prepurchase examinations are often requested by a potential buyer of a horse. The objective is to reduce the buyer's risks in relationship to the general health and athletic soundness of the horse for sale. The examination is not meant to guarantee soundness of the horse, but is an attempt, on the part of the veterinarian, to ascertain any preexisting problem or any potential problem that may affect future soundness (eg, degenerative joint disease).
The examining veterinarian should have experience with the specific breed, as well as knowledge of the purpose for which the horse is being purchased. Ideally, the examiner should also be aware of any related organizational regulations that may influence the prepurchase examination. All notes generated during the examination should be kept in the buyer's file and a report should be generated for the buyer. The examination should be conducted in a thorough and organized manner, as prepurchase examinations are a common cause for litigation from dissatisfied buyers. The major problems related to litigation are lack of understanding of the prepurchase examination process and the client's excessive expectation of a secure investment.
At the onset, the roles of all the parties involved (eg, buyer, trainer, legal agent) in the purchase of the particular horse should be defined. Trainers may or may not have legal agent status. The trainer does have the potential to be responsible for assessing the buyer's expectations for the horse's athletic future and also whether the horse is suitable for the buyer. If an agent is representing the buyer, the examining veterinarian should encourage all information gathered to be communicated to the buyer, along with the report. Buyers of horses have different levels of experience and practical expectations. The veterinarian should ascertain the particular buyer's expectations and define the limitations of the examination, emphasizing that the examination does not eliminate risks.
The buyer is the owner of the information, but needs to maintain a level of confidentiality so that the reputation of the horse is not potentially altered due to inappropriate dissemination of medical information. Through requests by the buyer or the buyer's agent, the seller and/or their veterinarian may agree to provide the horse's medical history to the examining veterinarian. These medical records are returned at the end of the examination. Trial periods are often acceptable and encouraged, especially if the seller can be assured of the horse's safety. One option is to house the horse in a mutually known, professionally managed barn. The seller may request that the horse be insured.
Traditionally, it is recommended that the examining veterinarian have had no contact with the horse or seller in a previous medical or personal role. However, this is often not possible when the horse is being sold within a small community or within the same boarding barn. In such situations, the relationship of the veterinarian to all parties involved should be clearly stated. The opposite situation can occur when the horse is being purchased out of town and the examining veterinarian is not the routine veterinarian for the buyer. The examining veterinarian may want to have the buyer's routine veterinarian review the examination report and any ancillary information, such as radiographs, laboratory tests, etc. Also, if any particular question arises during the examination, an opinion from a board-certified veterinary specialist might be indicated.
If the veterinarian has working knowledge of competition rules related to the discipline in which the horse is being purchased (eg, height requirements), he or she should explain how these rules may apply to the prepurchase examination. The veterinarian should counsel the buyer to learn the specific rules and verify “cards” that belong to the pony or horse. Having the buyer verify any rule requirements may help reduce future problems.
State and international disease testing and other requirements should be reviewed with the buyer and complied with by the examining veterinarian. Drug testing should be offered to the buyer and its limitations discussed. If the horse is purchased at a competition, or the seller is not known to the buyer, drug testing should be strongly recommended. Even when a buyer does not wish to have drug testing, examiners often collect blood at the time of the exam and store the serum or plasma frozen. It would then be available if any questions arose after the purchase.
Prepurchase examinations of performance horses often are conducted under several different conditions of training. The ideal situation is that the horse is currently active in the particular level of competition for which it is being purchased. However, pre-purchase examinations can involve some inherent predictability even though they are not classically meant for prediction of a horse's health. The following are examples of conditions an examiner may face. Any of these or other modifying conditions should be noted as part of the examination notes: 1) A horse is currently in early training for a specific athletic endeavor and the buyer is ultimately looking to have the horse compete at a higher level. 2) A horse is coming off a lay-off period and has only been back in work for a brief period of time. 3) An older horse that has some infirmities and is being purchased as a schoolmaster by a less experienced rider, in which case the physical demands will potentially decrease with the new buyer. 4) A horse is being purchased for a financial investment. 5) A horse is being purchased as a pleasure or trail horse where the workload is not high but the horse's attitude is extremely important. In each of these conditions, different approaches are needed, and different questions should be asked and understood by the examiner.
Examinations of pretraining and brood stock present different issues to the examining veterinarian. The examiner must be alert to potential limiting conditions of the suckling, weanling, or yearling that would diminish its ability to perform its potential future work. In examining mares and stallions, experience with reproductive examination procedures is needed. (Also see Management of Reproduction: Horses: Breeding Soundness Examination of the Mare and see Breeding Soundness Examination of the Male.) In all situations, thorough knowledge of the rules of the specific breed and any governmental disease regulations is critical.
The simplest way for the veterinarian to accumulate history prior to the examination is to have the seller fill out and sign a history form. This helps to legally bind the seller in the transaction and gives information that may or may not have been known to the buyer, their agent, or the examining veterinarian. A similar questionnaire can be devised for the buyer as to their expectations, potential use, and previous experience with the horse in question. Examples of such forms are readily available on the Internet and may be modified as needed.
The examination for a performing horse can be divided into 4 sections. The first part is observing the horse in the stall. The second includes observing the horse on a lead strap at a walk and a trot on a straight line, doing flexion tests, and in a circle with a long line. The third part of the examination involves observation of the horse while it is being ridden. The fourth part includes diagnostic procedures such as radiography and ultrasound.
In the UK there is a standardized 5-stage vetting procedure: Stage 1, preliminary examination; Stage 2, trotting up in hand; Stage 3, strenuous exercise ridden or longed to evaluate conditioning, heart, breathing, and strains that might be expressed; Stage 4, a period of rest for up to 30 min for evaluating heart and lung recovery, during which paperwork such as identification can be accomplished; and Stage 5, a second trot in hand and foot evaluation.
The key to any successful prepurchase examination is having a regular routine. At some point during the first part of the examination, a thorough identification of the horse should be recorded. This can be a written description of its color and age verification with inspection of the teeth. Notations of markings and any other permanent peculiarities to the horse's body are also beneficial. The most common markings include a star, stripe, blaze, or snip on the face of the horse. Any white markings on the legs should also be described. Other markings that are valuable to record include whorls on the face and neck, brands, and tattoos. The presence of any scars, splints, or joint effusion should be noted. In some cases, brands or tattoos can give information, such as age (eg, American Jockey Club tattoos have an alphabet letter before the number; “A” represents the years 1971 and 1997). The date, time, and place of the examination should also be recorded.
The initial part of the examination ideally should be done in a stall or area out of direct sunlight, dark enough for an ophthalmologic examination. Temperature and pulse recordings, auscultation of the heart and lungs, and oral examinations can be done in the quiet and controlled confines of the stall. It is also worth looking in the stall for wood chewing, the character of the manure and feed, and/or oral medication remaining in the feed bucket.
The second phase of the examination outside the stall can begin with general body and skin condition. The body condition score (1–9) can be assigned a number from thinness (1) to obesity (9). Scores of 4, 5, or 6 are considered normal. Next, visual observation and palpation of the limbs, hoof examination (including hoof testers), passive and active flexion tests, and watching the horse move on different surfaces on a straight line and in a circle should be done. It is also valuable to complete a basic neurologic examination.
Many examiners feel that it is helpful to watch the horse being ridden to rule out any subtle unsoundness. It also gives the examiner some observations and insight into the potential of the rider, if it is the buyer. These observations are worth noting, even though it is the trainer's and buyer's responsibility to determine the suitability of the horse. It is in this portion of the examination that the British Equine Veterinary Association recommends exerting the animal at a level appropriate for its age and fitness. Having the horse hand gallop for 5–10 min so the examiner can evaluate breath sounds and perform cardiac auscultation is recommended. Young or untrained horses can be longed. The horse is then monitored during recovery. Next, the jogging in hand is repeated so that any subtle lameness that might have been accentuated during the exercise stage can be detected. All observations are duly recorded in the report.
The fourth part of the examination should include any diagnostic procedures that may be necessary to determine soundness, including radiographs (particularly of the feet, hocks, and stifles), ultrasonography, and nuclear scans. (Also see Lameness in Horses: The Lameness Examination in Horses.) Radiography is the most common diagnostic procedure performed. A recent retrospective analysis of radiography in equine prepurchase examinations suggests that higher radiographic grades (eg, 2–3) in the navicular bone and distal phalanx are associated with lameness, whereas similar grades in the tarsus were less likely to be associated with lameness.
Report of Findings
A summary report should be prepared and given to the buyer. There are many published samples of these reports, available in letter or check-off list form. The report should describe any abnormal or undesirable findings and include an opinion as to the functional effect of these findings. The American Association of Equine Practitioners publishes an annual Resource Guide in their membership directory that provides guidelines for reproduction, medications, sale issues such as cryptorchidism, dental malocclusions, postsale examination of the upper respiratory tract of horses intended for racing, radiograph custody, and sale disclosure. Specific guidelines for reporting prepurchase examinations are also included. The British Equine Veterinary Association also publishes guidelines for conducting a prepurchase examination.
Last full review/revision March 2012 by Richard A. Mansmann, VMD, PhD