Purchase Exams: Safe and Sound

Buying that first horse can be exciting and scary. Getting that dreamed-about horse is the exciting part, and being concerned that you don't make mistakes in choosing the right one is the disconcerting and worrisome part. In this article, we'll first look at the situation through the eyes of horse owners, then we'll turn to a panel of veterinary experts who will discuss what to watch for concerning health and soundness problems in the various disciplines.

From a horse owner's perspective--and at this juncture I draw on years of personal experience plus mentoring from some top hands--it is very important that the novice have some professional help when making that first purchase. The word professional often is used when discussing someone who trains horses for a living. In this case, I'm using it to describe a person who has had years of experience in dealing with horses, even though that person might not be a professional trainer.

Horse traders through the years have developed a somewhat unsavory reputation. In some cases, the label of unscrupulous was unfairly applied to individuals who dealt in horses, but in many other instances, it was a fair description. While we like to think that those unscrupulous sorts are fading out of existence, some still remain who are lurking out there waiting to prey on the unwary.

This story will help explain my point. On an occasion during my years of operating a training stable, a lady came to me with a beautiful palomino mare. The lady was in her mid-sixties and all of her life had dreamed of owning her own horse. She was now at retirement age and took some of her savings to buy the horse of her dreams. The owners had assured her that the horse was safe for anyone to ride. She trusted them totally.

On the first outing in the wake of the purchase, the mare threw the lady off with such violence that her nose was broken and a shoulder bone cracked. She had finally healed up when she arrived at my stable, but was afraid to get on the mare again. She was certain she had "done something wrong" that caused the mare to buck so violently. She wanted me to work with the mare so that she would be safe to ride.

I accepted the challenge because I felt sorry for the lady, not because I had a desire to match skills with a bucking horse. I worked the mare from the ground in the early going, trying to get inside her head and look out so I could determine the source of the problem.

As I was working her, she suddenly exploded. I watched in awe as she put on a bucking exhibition that rivaled saddle broncs at the National Finals Rodeo. I was happy to be on the ground instead of on her back because I knew she would have launched me into the atmosphere just as she had the lady.

Angered at what I had witnessed, I marched to the telephone and contacted the sellers with the number the lady had given me. They said they were shocked to hear my report because the mare "had never done anything like that before." Right, and I can sell you the Brooklyn Bridge at a bargain basement price.

The next call was more difficult. I had to inform the lady that this horse would never be right for her. I arranged for sale of the horse to an acquaintance who was a rodeo contractor. He put her into his bareback string and she finished the season with a perfect scorecard--not a single cowboy stayed on her for the required eight seconds.

Get Professional Help

Could an experienced horse person have helped avoid this problem? No doubt. The first thing the horse owner would have insisted on is that the owners get on the mare and ride her for the prospective buyer. They also would have insisted the mare be put through a series of tests, such as changing gaits, stopping, turning, standing quietly while being mounted, accepting bridle and saddle willingly, walking calmly back to the barn instead of bolting...the list goes on. The lady hadn't insisted on that. She had taken their word that the mare would be fine.

While the experienced horse person's role should never be confused with that of a veterinarian, he or she also can detect obvious problems that will cause the new owner concern in the future. This person can tell at a glance whether the horse has breathing problems from "heaves" (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD), whether the hooves bear telltale ridges that indicate the animal might have had laminitis, whether the horse is young or old by looking at the teeth, whether there are patches of white hair on the back or at the withers that might indicate the horse has been ridden in an ill-fitting saddle, whether the horse has a calm demeanor when being handled rather than being frightened and flighty, whether there are troubling bumps and scars on the legs from an earlier injury that might impair the horse's ability to perform...Again, the list goes on.

Two of the most important requirements are that the horse possess good conformation and an excellent temperament. The help of an experienced horse person is invaluable in determining this.

Another important element involves desired use. There are horses out there for all purposes. Is your first horse going to be a family pet and trail riding mount? Do you have dreams of winning that shiny trophy in the show ring? Do you hanker to ride a jumper? A dressage horse? A cutter? A reiner?

There are breeds--and even bloodlines within breeds--that are specialists in all of the above. Be sure your first horse has the capability to do what you want him to do. If you want to be involved in reining, for example, your first horse probably should not be a five-gaited American Saddlebred. Instead, it should perhaps come from one of the stock horse breeds--Quarter Horse, Appaloosa, Paint, or a crossbreed that contains stock horse blood.

Conversely, if you are interested in competitive trail riding or endurance racing, you should steer away from muscular, compact horses. In those events, the Arabian, Morgan, and a variety of crossbreeds are more likely to shine.

That being said, there are no hard and fast rules on the subject. Quarter Horses can make good endurance mounts and some Saddlebreds can be cutters. The point is that certain breeds have been developed through the years for specific disciplines, and we should be aware of that.

Disciplines and Health Problems

At the 1999 American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., a group of veterinarians discussed purchase examinations. In the process, they identified some potential problem areas for horses involved in various disciplines.

The purchase examination is where the neophyte moves from getting help from a horse person to enlisting the services of a veterinarian. This is an extremely important part of the purchase process, as you want to take all possible precautions against getting a "lemon." For example, a horse might be perfectly conformed and built for jumping, but he could have moon blindness that will certainly affect his judgment of fences. Or you might buy a mare for riding use, then down the road decide to breed her, and find that she has a reproductive problem that makes her infertile. Another example might be a horse which is sound today, but ends up lame because of a chronic tendon bow that eventually begins to cause problems. A veterinarian doing a purchase exam will find these problems, whereas a lay person, even an experienced horse person, might not. That veterinarian might or might not offer an opinion on whether the horse is suitable for you, but will definitely gather information on the horse's soundness that will bear heavily on your decision to purchase or pass.

A key part of purchase exams is that the veterinarian doing the exam is working for you, the buyer, to protect your interests. That veterinarian should have no conflict of interest regarding the seller. Along those same lines, it can be very risky to accept a purchase exam done by a veterinarian for the seller.

At what point is a purchase examination called for? Not until you are seriously considering purchasing a horse following initial evaluation and any performance evaluation. There are some who will say the decision on whether to do a purchase exam at all is based on the monetary value of the horse. Others argue that it doesn't matter what the price is--even if you have purchased a horse for a minimal amount and find that he isn't usable, you are still the loser.

I tend to side with that viewpoint. I remember one situation while living in Kentucky where I spotted a horse that I thought would be just right for a friend in Minnesota. As a horseman, I had checked out the animal, ridden him, handled his feet, etc. I had given him my stamp of approval.

My friend accepted my evaluation, but also asked that a veterinarian perform a purchase examination. The seller was incensed. He was only asking $2,500 for the horse, he declared, and it was foolish to even discuss a purchase examination. He took it as a personal insult against his integrity. After all, he said, he had declared the horse to be sound. My friend stuck to his guns and the purchase exam was performed. The veterinarian didn't find anything to squelch the sale, but he did note that, because the horse had competed as a reiner in the past, there was some wear and tear on his hocks that could cause problems if he were to continue in that discipline. No problem, my friend was looking for a trail horse and this one fit the bill.

The deal was closed with my friend being assured that his $2,500 investment was indeed a valid one from every aspect.

Distance Horse

The first of the Albuquerque panelists we will check in with is Matthew Mackay-Smith, DVM, MS (Med), of White Post, Virginia. An accomplished endurance rider himself, Mackay-Smith discussed what to look for when doing a purchase examination of a horse for endurance riding/racing.

The important thing for the examiner, he said, is to recognize "major seeds of soundness." We start with this because what he describes can be applied to other disciplines as well. The "seeds of soundness" in a distance horse included:

  • Good feet, with thick, tough, "flinty" walls, moderate slope; deep, open heels; an "oversized" look; and matching hooves left and right;
  • Heavy "flat" bone, big joints, a relatively over-designed frame compared with stature and muscling;
  • A "saddle" back--strong, wide, neither hollow nor roached, with adequate withers to keep the saddle back where the rider belongs;
  • A low resting pulse rate, full palpable pulse wave, a large heart "shadow" on auscultation, and no clinically suspicious murmurs--all indicate a strong heart;
  • Straight, elastic, moderate gaits with no interference between legs. Self-carriage with six inches-plus over-stride (overlap of hind hoof prints past the front hoof prints). Straight legs, moderate to long in proportion, moderate angulations and slope of axes (how the joint bones connect);
  • Moderate size--16 hands and 1,100 pounds; and
  • Deep, narrow chest; lean, "clean" neck; full hamstring muscles extending down below the level of the stifle; and short cannon bones.

American Saddlebred

Making the presentation on this type of purchase examination was Hugh Behling, DVM, of Simpsonville, Ky. Highly important, Behling said, is the upper respiratory examination because Saddlebreds work very hard with a unique headset (elevated and flexed) that creates great air turbulence. Other problems to watch for, according to Behling, are "soft backs" that might indicate lordosis or low back. Stringhalt, he said, seems to show up with more frequency than in other breeds. Foot problems that might show up, he said, are contracted heels, sheared heels, quarter cracks, and wall separation.

Western Horses

The presenter was Jerry Black, DVM, of Oakdale, Calif., a former AAEP president. He divided the Western horses into four groups--cutting and reining horses, team roping and steer wrestling horses, barrel racing and gymkhana horses, and Western pleasure and trail show horses.

A wide range of stresses are involved when these horses perform, he said. One must watch for inflammatory or degenerative conditions of the hocks and stifles in reining and cutting horses. When checking roping and steer wrestling horses, he said, you should bear in mind that the front legs sustain stress. In barrel racing horses, he said, rear legs, including the fetlock joint, sustain stress. With pleasure horses, he said, the front legs should be carefully evaluated because of the conformation of these horses. Some Western pleasure horses tend to have more upright pasterns than horses used in other disciplines, which could cause navicular problems.

Jumpers and Dressage Horses

The presenter was Daniel Marks, DVM, of Santa Fe, N.M. Any obvious conformational abnormalities that are noted during the purchase examination should be recorded and reported to the potential buyer, he advised. Following are three things that can compromise soundness and cause lameness in a jumper or dressage horse:

  • Short, upright pasterns, especially in a Grand Prix jumper;
  • Toed-in conformation in the front feet; and/or
  • A horse which is over at the knee.

Take-Home Message

The take-home message for the first-time horse owner-to-be is to understand various disciplines bring various degrees of stress to varying parts of the body, depending on the discipline. To buy a horse which suffers from a weakness that might render him unable to perform is a waste of time, money, and emotional energy. In most cases, a purchase examination by a veterinarian familiar with your chosen discipline is a worthwhile investment, even if the horse is being purchased for a modest sum.

Ask an experienced horse person to help you pick out a suitable mount from a reputable seller, then have a veterinarian examine him to make certain you are buying a sound, healthy horse.


See the Purchase Exams category under Business/Financial/Legal at TheHorse.com.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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