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The Prepurchase Exam


By Jennifer Dunlap, DVM

Buying a horse can be one of the most exciting, yet nerve wracking, experiences in a horse person’s life.  Adding a horse to your family is not only a substantial monetary investment, but also an emotional investment. A veterinary prepurchase exam can be a valuable part of the buying process.  Health issues can be revealed during a prepurchase exam that will help a buyer make the decision on whether to buy that particular horse or to take a pass and continue looking for the right horse.

The most important thing to remember when looking for a horse is that there is no perfect horse and there is no pass/fail on a prepurchase exam.  Every horse is an individual with his or her own set of physical attributes. A prepurchase exam details the horse’s health on the day and time the exam is performed.  It can be a valuable tool because health issues may be identified that would make that particular horse unsuitable for the desired career, saving a lot of money and heart ache. It can also serve as a baseline for the buyer, helping to guide future health care. 

The prepurchase exam lays the horse’s health cards out on the table and the buyer has to decide how to play those cards.  For example, one of the best event horses I have ever owned had some mild hock arthritis identified at his prepurchase when I bought him, but he was the greatest cross country jumper I’d ever seen and I was willing to inject his joints when needed and do the required upkeep to make sure he was comfortable.  It would be rare to find a very experienced competition horse who doesn’t have some lumps or bumps somewhere. The flip side to that is the yearling who really shouldn’t be showing us much on the prepurchase exam, lameness wise. This is why it is so important for the examining veterinarian and the buyer to communicate.  I really like it if the buyer and the seller can both be there during the exam.  This way we can all be on the same page. 

The veterinarian performing the prepurchase exam is the buyer’s choice.  It is very important for the prepurchasing veterinarian and buyer to discuss ahead of time what type and how detailed a prepurchase exam the buyer needs.  A Prepurchase exam on a foal is obviously different than one on the older competition horse.  The veterinarian and buyer should also get approval from the seller if any invasive procedures need to be performed, such as upper airway endoscopy.

A prepurchase exam can be basic or it can be very detailed.  A good prepurchase exam involves a general physical exam and a lameness exam tailored to the horse’s age and intended job. The horse’s eyes, teeth, heart, lungs and limbs will be examined for defects or abnormalities. His neck and back will be palpated for soreness, and he will be palpated all over, checking for such things as colic surgery scars, hernias, and his overall body condition.  Ideally, he will be jogged and lunged in both directions at the walk, trot and canter.  Hoof testers are used to determine hoof soreness.  Flexion tests are done to stress-test joints to see if any lameness crops up.  Further tests that can be performed include radiographs; ultrasound; a reproductive soundness exam if the horse is going to be potential breeding stock; blood work, including drug testing; and endoscopy to check the upper airway or the stomach for ulcers.  Another good reason for the buyer to be at the prepurchase exam, or at least available by phone, is that if something does crop up during the prepurchase exam, it can be discussed, further diagnostics can be done, or the exam can be stopped if the health issue is not something the buyer is willing to accept.

I have been doing this a long time – both as a horse purchaser/owner and as an equine veterinarian – and I can’t stress enough how important it is to make sure things are clear between the seller and the buyer, or the buyer’s and seller’s agents, before the prepurchase exam is performed.  Most sellers feel that if the horse does well on his prepurchase exam, the deal is sealed and they’ve sold a horse.  For this reason I generally recommend that the prepurchase exam be the final part of the decision making process – after  you have decided that this horse is the one for you and you’ve been able to spend enough time with him.  The exception to that is when a horse is very far away.   Sometimes starting with a prepurchase can save you money in the long run, identifying issues before you spend the money to travel to see the horse. I recommend getting a contract between the buyer and seller, stipulating all the details of the purchase to make sure both parties understand the expectations of the other. Buying a horse is an emotional and financial endeavor and doing a prepurchase exam and having a good clear contract in place can facilitate the process.

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