She was a girl's dream horse--coppery palomino coat, white stockings, flashy blaze. She was also 15 years old, and a retired, unregistered broodmare with a bucking habit. When my parents finally agreed to buy my first horse, we did everything you're not supposed to do. We picked exactly the wrong horse, didn't have a veterinarian perform even a cursory physical exam, and bought her despite a known behavioral problem. We got lucky. I owned, rode, and loved my beautiful, ornery mare for more than 20 years until she died at age 36. However, the successful purchase of a new horse should rely on more than dumb luck.
Selecting a new horse challenges even experienced horse owners; the many considerations can be overwhelming. Often, the problem is not a lack of information but an overload. However, all of the data should point to answering one question: What is this horse's suitability for his intended use?
To answer this question, a prospective buyer needs the tools to evaluate:
- Horse/rider match
- Physical health/fitness
- Genetic or breed predispositions
- Performance history
- Medical history
- Financial cost
The key points are at the top and bottom of this list: Is this horse a good match for this rider? And do the requirements for purchasing and maintaining this horse fit with buyer's the long-term finances?
Where to Start
In a 2009 survey by the Unwanted Horse Coalition, the top five reasons listed for a horse becoming unwanted were:
- Economics (affordability)
- Old age/injury of the horse
- Loss of owner interest/use for the horse
- Unmanageability of the horse
- Change in owner employment status
With more than 170,000 horses classified as "unwanted" each year, prospective owners, now more than ever, need to carefully consider their capabilities, goals, and long-term plans when selecting a horse. Says Nat Messer, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, professor in the Equine Clinic at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, "It's hard to tell people they need a business plan, but when they begin to accumulate even a small number of horses, they need to make a plan for disposition (of the horses) in the event of an economic crisis."
Regardless of purchase price, horses are not cheap. Matt Durham, DVM, of Steinbeck Country Equine Clinic, in Salinas, Calif., likes to quote a client, saying, "The purchase price is the ante to an expensive game." Before you ante up, it is wise to take a good look at your cards.
Questions the veterinarian might ask a prospective buyer during a prepurchase examination (more on this in a moment) include:
- Who is the intended rider? What is the rider's age, capability, experience, and temperament? Young horse/young rider matches are often unwise, as are nervous horse/nervous rider pairings.
- How do you intend to use the horse? A 17-year-old Quarter Horse gelding with a ranch background might be great for someone looking for a quiet pleasure horse. This horse would probably not be suitable for the aspiring stadium jumper. Conversely, the 3-year-old Thoroughbred is not likely to be a good choice for a young child.
Answering these two questions honestly can provide a good starting point for deciding what breed, age, past use, and even gender of horse to consider. Durham encourages buyers to "think about best fit instead of 'best' or 'prettiest.' "
Durham also suggests enlisting an instructor or a trainer's help in the selection process. "The trainer may be a better judge of the owner's capabilities," he says.
I Found a Horse, Now What?
You think you've found the perfect horse. What do you do next? What red flags should you look for before signing the check?
Your next step, says Durham, is to "take a deep breath." In the early stages of a purchase he sometimes sees buyers "acting like the horse is going to vaporize if they don't buy it (right away)." Once you have found a likely candidate, look closely at the sale. Who is selling the horse? Why are they selling him? What are they willing to disclose about his history? Is the price reasonable, neither outrageously high nor ridiculously low? Will the seller let you ride the horse? Did he or she agree to a veterinarian (of your choosing) performing a prepurchase exam? Were you able to groom and tack the horse easily?
"Red flags" that might indicate a sale needing closer scrutiny include:
- A horse that has been "out to pasture" for a prolonged period. With horses that are not currently in work, Durham suggests asking why. Prolonged disuse of a horse might simply result from a child going off to college, but on the other hand it might indicate an ongoing lameness or behavioral issue.
- A too-good-to-be-true sale price. "The saying is 'Don't look a gift horse in the mouth,' but that's the one I'd want to check," says farrier and clinician Blake Brown of Penryn, Calif.
- One statement that worries Durham is "I saw him on the Internet, and he's beautiful." Like Internet dating, remote horse purchasing needs extra care. "Some work out fine, and some are disasters," says Durham.
Testing 1, 2, 3
You've researched your horse; know his breed predilections, temperament, and genetic risks; ridden him; and talked to the owner and previous rider. Now it's time to check under the hood.
The prepurchase examination (PPE) is one of the most critical and possibly misunderstood veterinary procedures. According to Durham, a buyer should have a veterinarian perform a thorough PPE "on a rescue horse or Grand Prix jumper, or anything in between."
Individual approaches might vary between veterinarians, but in general the PPE is a comprehensive examination of the horse. The veterinarian notes breed, age, color, identifying markings, medical history (if known), and evaluates the horse for abnormalities in behavior, conformation, physical examination parameters (including eye exam), and soundness. A veterinarian might recommend further diagnostics such as radiographs (X rays), ultrasound, airway endoscopy, or blood testing depending upon the horse's age, value, PPE findings, and intended use.
The PPE should be viewed as an investment, not simply an examination for expensive horses. "Whatever it costs you, if there is a problem, down the road you're going to pay 10 times more," Brown explains.
Another misconception surrounding the PPE is the concept of "passing" or "failing" a horse. In its "Don't Skip the Purchase Exam" brochure the American Association of Equine Practitioners states, "The veterinarian's job is neither to pass or fail an animal. Rather, it is to provide you with information regarding any existing medical problems and to discuss those problems with you so that you can make an informed purchase decision." Durham's goal during the PPE, for instance, is to "try to discover as many factors as I can and put them into context so that the owner can make the best educated decision."
So let's begin the exam. It is often best to perform the examination in a setting away from the horse's home farm if possible. This gives you and the veterinarian a chance to evaluate the horse's reactions in unfamiliar surroundings. Pay close attention to behavioral issues that might arise during the exam. While it is easy to discount undesirable behavior as something that can be overcome with training, behavior can also be linked to a physical condition or to a horse's response to performance stress. A 2010 study by French researchers demonstrated a correlation between aggressive behavior in horses and chronic pain.1 A 2009 study by another group in France showed a connection between the type and degree of stereotypic behavior (cribbing, weaving, and other repetitive behaviors) and the type of work a horse performs.2
The physical portion of the examination includes evaluating the horse's vital signs, conformation, and parts of all externally perceptible body systems including coat, skin, musculoskeletal, eyes, ears, nose, teeth, lymph nodes, heart, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and reproductive tract if indicated. While a veterinarian will note abnormalities found in any of these systems, Durham says with some conditions the level of concern depends upon the degree of the problem and how the issue is likely to impact that particular horse.
During the eye exam, for instance, Durham pays close attention to "floaters" (material from the iris), which he says "can be a bigger deal long-term than people realize." Durham believes many horses are spooky on one side because of eye issues. "They may be clinically minor, but can have a big impact," he says.
Conformation assessment might also be part of the exam. As a farrier consultant, Brown lectures about conformation's impact on the horse's performance and long-term soundness. He acknowledges that "every horse has faults, but as long as the fault is addressed and supported through proper hoof care, I've had a lot of poorly conformed horses have great careers." However, if conformation faults are not recognized, they can lead to problems further down the road.
The soundness portion of the exam is designed to highlight underlying lamenesses or gait abnormalities. Again, the goal is neither to pass or fail a horse nor to predict his future. It is, however, to highlight issues requiring treatment or maintenance or those that might impact the horse's future performance. Soundness problems can range from chronic heel pain to joint disease and more. Few horses are perfectly sound. Some conditions, such as mild bone spavin (osteoarthritis of the lower hock joints), might be very manageable. Durham says of some cases, "more often than not, it's not career-ending. It may not even be performance-limiting if the owner is willing to maintain the horse with hock injections or other therapies."
Recognizing signs that might indicate lameness when you first see the horse can give you an idea of questions to ask during the PPE. Brown points to clues such as abnormal shoe wear, shoe boils (soft tissue swellings caused by the shoe rubbing against the elbow when the horse lies down), and the presence of therapeutic shoes and/or pads as indicators the horse might have an underlying lameness. Having your farrier evaluate the horse prior to purchase can also be a good idea, says Brown. He or she "is going to be seeing the horse every six weeks. What's the attitude of the horse (toward handling the feet and legs)? This is important, especially for a new owner." A farrier might also note issues that could arise during a PPE such as improperly trimmed or shod hooves, signs of chronic laminitis, or what Brown calls "high-low syndrome where a horse has one very upright foot and one long-toe, low-heeled foot."
The perfect horse, like the perfect rider, does not exist. Every horse will have some problem. The buyer needs to factor in age, use, and above all his or her own willingness and ability to provide the maintenance and care a physical or behavioral condition requires. If possible, be present when the veterinarian evaluates the horse and ask questions about potential implications of and treatment options for any suspected conditions. In summary, says Brown, "you need to have all the information you can to make a smart purchase to have something you can enjoy for years to come."
1. Fureix C, Menguy H, Hausberger M (2010) Partners with Bad Temper: Reject or Cure? A Study of Chronic Pain and Aggression in Horses. PLosONE:5(8)e12434. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012434
2. Hausberger M, Gautier E, Biquand V, Lunel C, Jego P (2009) Could Work Be a Source of Behavioural Disorders? A Study in Horses. PLoS ONE 4(10): e7625. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007625
About the Author
Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM, practices large animal medicine in Northern California, with particular interests in equine wound management and geriatric equine care. She and her husband have three children, and she writes fiction and creative nonfiction in her spare time.
POLL: Managing Working Horses