Prepurchase Exam

Lunging or jogging in hand on a firm, even surface is one of the essential parts of gait evaluation.

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

The purchase examination of the horse has become an important part of the horse industry, and the equine practitioner plays an integral role in the procedure. Horses must be bought and sold for the industry to progress. The number of horse owners has increased, as has the value of the equine athlete. The medical examination of the horse for purchase has become an important and significant part of the process.

The veterinarian should be an asset to the purchase examination and not an obstacle. Legal references of this procedure date back to 1842. The American Association of Equine Practitioners has been working to define the purchase examination since 1968.

The specific reasons for a purchase examination are 1) to identify existing problems, 2) to identify the potential for future problems, 3) to interpret the results of the examination relevant to the intended use of the horse, and 4) to establish baseline values of abnormalities for future references.

The veterinarian performing the examination only can report and advise the client about specific conditions, conformation, or findings. The client must realize that this information only applies to that moment on the day of the examination. The role of the veterinarian is to inform involved parties of relevant facts and risks. It is always the owner/buyer’s decision to purchase the horse. Time spent prior to the examination to establish communication might prevent subsequent misunderstandings or problems. It is imperative that the buyer understands the examination results.

This medical information should be supplied by the veterinarian in simple dialog to enable the purchaser to make the appropriate decision. There is no ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ in a purchase examination. No horse is perfect.

It is best for horse owners to learn the difference between medical conditions and conformation faults that are manageable or might not affect the horse’s performance and those conditions that might affect performance. Horses are livestock, and they do not come with a ‘money-back guarantee.’ They should be investigated thoroughly prior to purchase.

Direct communication between the veterinarian and the buyer is required to discuss the buyer’s expectations, and the limitations of the exam. Purchase examinations should be custom tailored depending on the intended use and the short-term and long-term plans for the horse. The discussion prior to the examination should include the procedures the veterinarian can offer, fees, and payment responsibilities.

The buyer and (ideally) the seller should be encouraged to be present for the examination. The buyer should ask as many questions as possible to gain as much information as possible during the examination. Appropriate questions might include the following:

  • How long has the current owner had the horse?
  • What has the horse been doing?
  • Why is the horse for sale?
  • What is its competition record?
  • Are there any medical or surgical conditions?
  • Are there previous radiographs of the horse?
  • What is its breeding record?

When purchasing horses from sales or auctions, the buyer, seller, and examiner must have a thorough understanding of the conditions of sale as well as conditions to be announced by the auctioneer to the general public.

The potential purchaser needs to inform the veterinarian of the purpose of the horse, the potential for resale, and restrictions or reservations about conformation and soundness. If the horse will be insured, the veterinarian needs to know the insurance company and the terms and requirements of the policy prior to the examination. Special blood tests might be required if the horse will be exported to another country. These requirements need to be addressed prior to the examination.

The best-case scenario is having both the seller and the purchaser present for the examination. This allows the veterinarian to ask direct questions of both the seller and the buyer with the opposite party present. This also allows proper identification of the horse by the seller and buyer. Comments regarding the horse’s past medical and surgical history, Coggins history, travel, exercise, and vices can be discussed with both parties present.

A thorough history should be the first part of the examination. Preventative health records should be reviewed to ensure that vaccinations, deworming, Coggins tests, and dental care are all up-to-date. A feeding and supplement schedule also should be reviewed.

A recent work or exercise history is important to the exam because rest can mask chronic lameness. The best time to examine a performance horse is at his or her peak fitness. Potential problems are more evident at this time as compared to the off season.

The information obtained during the examination belongs to the buyer, since it is the buyer’s responsibility to pay for the examination. (However, any X rays of the horse belong to the practitioner.) This information is confidential to the buyer and the veterinarian. It only can be shared with the permission of the buyer. The horse’s reputation in the specific community might be affected by the examination results, so it is important that both parties respect confidentiality.

The intended use of the horse by the prospective buyer is essential to the structure of the examination and how the examination results are interpreted. The more strenuous and precise the activity, the more important minor infirmities become. It is a rare occasion that a horse has no problems when carefully examined.

For example, competitive endurance horses and event horses usually won’t have even non-pathologic cardiac arrhythmias or murmurs because even though they might not affect the horse’s performance, they will waste time at the required veterinary checks along the course. Similarly, young horses are difficult to evaluate due to improper training or lack of early training. They might have physical defects that have not become noticeable because the structures have not been adequately stressed.

Cutting, reining, and roping horses must sustain extensive training sessions and repetitive use. A serviceable horse implies an adequate relationship of the horse’s physical capabilities to the intended use. The purchaser must be willing to accept some level of imperfection before buying the horse. The likelihood that the horse will remain serviceable for its intended use depends on the horse’s age, health, expected level of activity, conformation, and past use.

The purchase examination can range from a relatively quick inspection to an in-depth examination. It is best for the buyer to ride the horse several times to get a feel for the horse’s ability to perform. A trainer should be consulted to determine the suitability of the horse for a given task. Several equine veterinarians are qualified to do this, but their examinations should be limited to an assessment of the health of the horse. The horse should not be presented to the a veterinarian for examination until his/her ability has been well evaluated.

A similar precedent should be followed when purchasing breeding stock. The veterinarian should be consulted on the health of the animal and not necessarily the pedigree. There are extremely qualified bloodstock agents available for the study and recommendation of bloodlines.

Horses in intermediate training often are medicated for prolonged periods. The buyer might ask the seller to consult with his or her veterinarian for a medication history. Alternatively, the buyer might request drug testing as part of the purchase examination. Drug screens are limited in that they will not measure intra-articular medications (joint injections) or undetectable medications (hormones and some steroids). The screen will test for most anti-inflammatory agents (pain killers) and mood-affecting medications. Drug testing is very expensive, but helps ensure examination of a drug-free horse.

The Exam

The actual purchase examination is a comprehensive exploratory process to evaluate the physical condition of the horse at the time of sale. The components of the examination might include a physical evaluation, a locomotor examination, a radiographic evaluation, a reproductive examination (if appropriate), an endoscopic examination, and laboratory tests. The physical examination includes temperature, pulse, respiration, ophthalmic exam, auscultation of the heart and lungs, oral examination, a neurological evaluation, and general conformation.

The next step is to evaluate the gait of the horse. This should include evaluation of musculoskeletal and foot abnormalities; the use of hoof testers; evaluation of the walk and trot on the straightway, on the lunge, on a firm level surface and on an incline; and flexion tests. The feet should be properly trimmed, shod, and in good condition for proper gait analysis. The results of the assessment of the gait when the horse is lunged on a hard surface are considered of more importance than response to flexion. If a horse is able to trot in a relatively small circle on a firm surface without marked shortening of stride and without detectable lameness, a positive response to flexion might not be as important.

Lunging or jogging in hand on a firm, even surface is one of the essential parts of gait evaluation. An occasional uneven step is disregarded, but marked shortening of the stride or more consistent lameness is significant. There is a population of horses for which it is not practical to lunge, and the assessment of the locomotion is limited to jogging in hand. For example it might be dangerous and detrimental to lunge a racehorse.

The chief limitation of the examination is that the veterinarian only gets to look at the horse one time, usually for a couple of hours. Buyers are looking for assurance of a horse’s future soundness, and this simply is not possible.

Another limitation of purchase examinations is that many factors affect a horse’s short- and long-term ability to perform. These factors include conformation, health and hoof care, fitness and conditioning of the horse, the manner of training, the level and kind of performance, the age of the horse, the skill and experience of the rider and trainer, and genetic predisposition. Lameness might be undetectable at the time of the examination because the horse has not been in regular work. Many lamenesses surface or return when the work intensity is increased.

Lameness also can be masked if the horse has had systemic medication or intra-articular injections. Horses which are examined for lameness on a soft surface (where a hard surface is not available) might have lamenesses that are not detected on the initial purchase examination. Therefore, the facility where the examination is performed must have a hard, even surface large enough to examine the horse on a straight path and in a circle. Intermittent lameness problems might not be detected on a single evaluation, either. The buyer must consider these possibilities and assume the horse is a fair risk for purchase.

A red flag in a purchase examination is lameness. There is no reason to buy a lame horse which is not useable. If the lameness is minor, have the horse re-examined after treatment or recovery. On the other hand, detection of an abnormality does not necessarily imply that the horse cannot be recommended for purchase. Decision making is based on factors that include the age and condition of the horse, the horse’s value, the intended use, the severity of the problem, the purchase price, and insurance and export requirements.

A problem that a horse has lived with and coped with for several years might be more acceptable than a problem in a young horse which has done very little. The problem might be tolerable and manageable if the horse has performed well despite the problem. Another option is to get a second opinion from a consulting veterinarian or a board certified specialist. (Owners should realize that there often can be differences of opinion between veterinarians as to the significance of any particular abnormality.)

The use of radiographs in a purchase examination is primarily to explore highly probable areas for the presence of subclinical pathology. These areas usually include the front feet and the hocks. Any joint with joint effusion or suspicious lameness should be evaluated radiographically. Ann Gribbons (in The Chronicle of the Horse) said, ‘If you went to your doctor and asked to have all of your joints radiographed and studied by the doctor, then after the doctor thoroughly evaluated those radiographs you asked if he or she could tell you if you would be able to perform the tango in four years as well as you do now, you would be politely escorted to the psychiatric ward for thorough evaluation.’ This comparison helps to put radiographic findings in perspective. Many radiographic changes are incidental. Radiographic abnormalities should be interpreted in light of clinical findings including conformation, age, and previous and intended use of the horse. The veterinarian should explain the current findings and not predict the potential significance of radiographic findings.

Other Examination Techniques

Ancillary procedures might be used as supplements to the fundamental physical examination, but not as replacements. These procedures depend on the findings and recommendations of the veterinarian and the needs and financial resources of the buyer. These procedures also require the permission of the owner and seller. Extra procedures include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Ultrasonography of soft tissue structures or organs;
  • Electrocardiogram of horses with arrhythmias or murmurs;
  • Endoscopy of horses which make abnormal respiratory sounds or in horses which might require maximal respiratory function (i.e., racehorses);
  • Laboratory tests to include Coggins, complete blood count, serum chemistry, fecal parasite egg count, and genetic testing (HYPP).

If you are purchasing breeding stock, rectal palpation and ultrasonography are indicated. A speculum exam of the mare with or without a uterine cytology and culture also should be done. A breeding soundness examination should be performed on males to be used as breeding prospects. Invasive procedures should not be incorporated in the purchase exam as these procedures can have serious side effects.


In conclusion, the purpose of any purchase examination is to uncover health problems of the horse that might make the animal unsuitable for the intended use. The goal is to provide medical information to be evaluated by the purchaser along with information on the horse’s ability, temperament, bloodlines, and price. The purchase examination is not a predictor of potential performance or potential lameness problems. It is a synopsis of the horse’s past and present. A reader cannot open a book, read one page in the middle, and tell the listener how the story ends. The decision to accept and buy the horse rests totally with the buyer.

About the Author

Rhonda Rathgeber, DVM, PhD

Rhonda Rathgeber, DVM, is a partner with Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky. She also has a PhD in equine anatomy and locomotion from Washington State University.

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