Pre-purchase veterinary exams: Hindsight is a wonderful thing and buying horses is a risky business. While there is no such thing as a perfect horse, a pre-purchase exam can answer many questions about the likely significance of an abnormality and likely long-term prognosis to protect you, the purchaser, from buying a problem that may be expensive, risky or even impossible to fix or treat.

So, what does a pre-purchase veterinary exam entail? Dr Olivia James from Australian Veterinary Equine Dentistry and The Veterinary Dental Company explains.

Horses are a risky business, right? The horse that is perfectly fine one day, can be rolling around on the ground with colic the next day, bandaged from hoof to hock the week after or scratched from a competition the folllowing month due to lameness.

We all know that some horses are just out to get injured, no matter how hard we try to protect them from themselves. It often seems that the more we pay for a horse, the more they seem to invent things to get us dialling our vet’s phone number… again.

In today’s litigious society where having insurance on everything from your car, your house, your job and even your life is becoming the norm, horse owners are becoming more aware of just how risky buying and owning a horse can be.

While many common problems are obvious to an experienced horse person, there are many things that are not obvious without specific veterinary training, specialised equipment and experience in equine veterinary practice.

Some common scenarios

Consider this scenario: Your 12-year-old daughter is riding independently and has been having riding lessons for the past two years. She has just outgrown her first pony and is looking to move up to something a little bigger and a little more forward. You find what you think is the perfect mount; he is a 14-year-old quarter horse cross gelding for a reasonable price of $2,500.

After a little financial juggling and a few delighted squeals you are heading back home with the newest member of your family. A pre-purchase veterinary examination (PPE) of this horse was too expensive and too hard to organise.

After a few weeks you notice that this horse is slower to eat his feed compared with the others, and he is a ‘hard keeper’, not gaining weight despite the extra feed he is getting. After noticing the spilled feed around the feed bin you ask your local vet to come and take a look at him.

At the end of this visit you are feeling dismayed, your daughter’s precious pony has a fractured tooth that requires treatment. Your vet has taken you through the treatment options, your mind boggles with all this talk of x-rays, extractions and infection.

Suddenly, the price and effort of a pre-purchase veterinary examination is dwarfed by the potential cost of treatment of this horse’s health problem.

Now let’s look at a different scenario: The same horse has been shying more than usual and last week your daughter fell off and fractured her collarbone when he shied at the last minute at something he has cantered past a million times before.

You get your local vet out, and after a physical exam, which includes examining the back of the eye with an ophthalmoscope, your vet declares that your horse is slowly going blind due to a degenerative eye condition whose name you can’t even pronounce.

There is no treatment and there is no cure. You are now left with a horse that doesn’t suit his intended purpose, you won’t be able to sell (ethics aside) and one that you will probably have to look after (and pay for) for the foreseeable future. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So, what does a pre-purchase veterinary exam entail?

A pre-purchase veterinary exam is likely to be the most detailed veterinary examination a horse will receive in its lifetime, and it will be tailored for an individual horse (and client) depending on many factors.

A PPE on a grand prix showjumper will be entirely different to one that is performed for a cutting horse, or a child’s first pony.

They will, however, share many similarities, such as an examination of the integumentary system (skin and mucous membranes), respiratory system (lungs, windpipe and throat), gastrointestinal system, conformation and an assessment of gait and soundness, just to name a few.

A vendor is asked to reveal any vices (e.g. windsucking) they are aware of, or if the horse has received any medications in the last 45 days.

Clients can elect to request specific diagnostics before the examination even starts, such as an endoscopic exam to assess the upper airway, or a reproductive exam to assess the likelihood of a broodmare being able to carry a foal.

The process

The clinician usually starts looking at the horse from a distance, evaluating the general demeanour of the animal, type and conformation.

In the absence of the purchaser, they need to make sure that they are actually examining a 16hh eventing prospect rather than a 11hh miniature pony. Don’t laugh, it has happened before!

The markings, brands, scars etc. are all noted, and the horse scanned for a microchip. While every vet will have their own way of proceeding, the vet will then have the horse trotted out in hand as a cursory evaluation of soundness (or lack of soundness).

Some of the more common problems found are conformational faults (pigeon toed, fetlock varus), oral pathology such as periodontal disease, splints and joint effusion (from arthritis or wear and tear on joints), skin lesions and scars.

An often-overlooked aspect of a pre-purchase veterinary exam is a complete oral examination. Periodontal disease is the most common disease of horses, and with over 60% of horses aged over 15 years affected, it makes complete sense to have a thorough exam carried out. In order to perform a complete examination, the horse requires a mild sedation and an examination with a speculum to keep the mouth open, a bright, focal light and a mirror or oroscope (endoscope designed for use in the mouth).

It is not acceptable for a cursory examination just by feel, approximately 75% of pathology is missed if this occurs (just as in when an oral exam and routine floating is performed).

The veterinarian should check the teeth to determine that the stated age correlates with the estimated age of the horse. They should also check for the presence or absence of dental disease and any malocclusions (such as wave mouth, hooks, ramps displaced teeth etc), and for the presence or absence of disease such as periodontal pockets, pulp exposures, fractures and more.

What can’t be seen can’t be diagnosed, and what can’t be diagnosed can’t be treated. It is important to note that the majority of dental diseases do not have clinical signs, but signs such as dropping feed, pulling faces when eating or slow eating can also occur in some cases.

The author routinely performs this part of the PPE at the end of the clinical and ambulatory examination as the horse can then be left alone while the sedation wears off.

Pass or fail?

Much discussion has taken place on a horse ‘passing’ or ‘failing’ a PPE. This is where good communication between the potential purchaser and vet is crucial.

While evidence of a tendon injury has a high significance in a showjumper, this becomes less so for a brood mare.

There is no such thing as a perfect horse; all horses have some imperfections that will be major or minor in magnitude.

The author assigns a risk level for any abnormality found depending on factors such as the age of the horse (e.g. a weanling versus a 17-year-old schoolmaster), and level of anticipated performance in the intended discipline and the horse’s breed.

The veterinarian performing the pre-purchase exam is not the buyer’s insurance policy for the horse staying sound. They are however, providing an examination at a point in time with consideration given to the intended purpose of the horse, the level of work it is currently in and with the history that has been provided.

The final decision

The final decision as to whether to continue with the purchase of a horse will always lie with the purchaser, and a good vet can help guide by answering specific questions as best they can about the likely significance of an abnormality and likely long-term prognosis.

Who owns the information?

The information gained from a PPE strictly belongs only to the potential purchaser, and it is entirely up to them whether or not they choose to share this information with the vendor.

A vendor may be unhappy if the purchaser decides not to proceed with a purchase after the completion of a PPE.

This can be a very awkward situation where the vendor feels hard done by and is worried there might be something wrong with their horse. Or they may feel that a problem that has been found by the veterinarian, in their opinion, is not as significant as the level of risk that it has been assigned.

Any conflicts of interest must be declared before the start of the examination. And, while it is preferable not to have that horse’s regular veterinarian perform the PPE, in reality this is often difficult, for example in small country towns where there may only be one veterinary clinic.

The pre-purchase veterinary exam report

Finally, a written report should be given to the purchaser and the opportunity given to explain any abnormalities found during the examination.

Often the practitioner requires that if the purchaser is not present at the time, they must be contactable by phone so any major issues can be discussed immediately and if any ancillary diagnostics are required (e.g. the recommendation of taking radiographs of feet or a specific area) these can be performed at the time.

The Equine Veterinarians Association (a special interest group of the Australian Veterinary Association) provides forms to its members to use for the purpose of providing a written report.

In summary, it is always advisable to have a pre-purchase veterinary exam performed on a horse you are considering, in order to protect yourself from buying a problem that may be expensive, risky or even impossible to fix or treat.

An experienced equine veterinarian will be able to tailor a pre-purchase exam depending on the individual horse and their client’s needs.

This article was published in Horses and People January-February 2020 magazine.