Prepurchase Exams: What Can They Tell You?

I f you buy a house, you have it inspected before closing. If you buy a used car, you take it to a service station to have it checked out. The same thing is available for horses. Veterinarians will come out to your barn, or the seller's barn, and examine the horse for you. It is called a purchase or a prepurchase exam.

Before we go over what happens in a prepurchase exam, a few words on what it is not. "There is nothing standard about a prepurchase," says Eden Bermingham, DVM, formerly in practice in rural Vermont, now a PhD candidate in veterinary pharmacology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "You can get anything from an Escort model to a Cadillac."

Knowing what you want and communicating this to your veterinarian will help him or her tailor the exam to your needs.

A prepurchase exam is not a guarantee of future soundness. A veterinarian can tell you if a horse is sound at that moment, point out evidence of past problems, and show you areas that have the potential to cause problems in the future. No one can tell what will happen over the next jump or around the next barrel. Furthermore, the results of prepurchase exams often fall into gray areas. Determining the importance of the results requires skill and experience.

Finally, there is no "pass" or "fail" at a prepurchase. You often will hear horse people say, "I've found a horse I like. I'll buy him if he passes the vet." This is inaccurate. Veterinarians provide information. The decision to buy is between the buyer and the seller. Whatever the veterinarian says, the final decision is yours.

What Happens In A Prepurchase Exam?

Be present if at all possible. The veterinarian will want to go over his findings with you, and developments during the prepurchase might change the procedures you want performed. If the veterinarian is coming out to the horse, the barn should have a suitable place for the exam: enough firm, level, dry footing for the veterinarian to work, and enough space for the horse to trot in a straight line for 10-15 strides and make a large circle. Alternatively, many veterinarians require that the horse be brought into their clinic for prepurchase exams. The seller ought to agree to a reasonable request to move the horse to perform a proper exam.

Jerry Black, DVM, who is responsible for clinical lameness and prepurchase exams at Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale, Calif., explains how he begins a typical prepurchase exam.

"First of all, I do a thorough physical exam, including an evaluation of the chest and abdominal cavity. Here in California, it is not uncommon to hear abnormal abdominal sounds, which would indicate an accumulation of sand in the large intestine. During the period of time I'm doing that evaluation, I am usually doing a general observation of the horse. I want to check his ground manners at that time because safety is important, especially to novice horse owners.

"The next thing I'm going to do is have the horse walk away from me and back to me. I'm looking for limb conformation, whether or not the horse toes in, toes out, base wide, base narrow, those types of things. Then, I'll have the horse jogged away from me and back so that I can see whether or not he is winging or paddling; what his stride is. That's very important because that may give me a clue as to how he is receiving concussion. Is he landing on one side of his foot or is he using the entire foot for concussion? That may give me a clue as to future soundness.

"From there I do what I call a hands-on exam. I like to call it a hands-on exam because I will literally start at the front and run my hands over the entire body of the horse. I'll check his entire head, beginning with the nostrils, do a good dental exam, and check his age. Then, starting down generally the left side, I'm checking for any muscle abnormalities, anything on the skeletal structure that I can palpate that's abnormal, beginning with the vertebrae of the neck. I will go down the neck, the shoulder, down the forelimb, checking all the tendons and the suspensory ligaments. I'll pick the leg up and flex the joints so that I know that there is no pain to flexion and there's no reduced range of motion.

"Then I'll check for any palpable pain in the back region, starting at the withers and working my way all the way back to the gluteal muscles. I'll work down the hind leg. It is very important that I closely evaluate the stifle by palpation to check that there's no swelling in any of the joints of the stifle. I check to make sure that the medial patella ligaments aren't cut. I palpate the hamstrings, making sure there is no scar tissue remaining as a result of an injury. Carry that palpation right on down through the hock, the tendons of the hind leg, the tendon sheaths down by the fetlock, and all the way down to the bulbs of the heel. Then I'll repeat that on the other side. The goal is to be as thorough as possible."

In a dental exam, a veterinarian will look for abnormalities in the jaw (a horse whose teeth do not meet uniformly might have trouble grinding his food), for tooth problems, and to check the horse's age. In an Internet article "Horses and the Prepurchase Exam" (http:/, Robert N. Oglesby, DVM, explains aging a horse, "Using a horse's teeth, it is possible to estimate a horse's age. If less than five years, it is possible to get within six months; if less than 10 years, get within a year; and for horses over 10, you can get within five years. The most common reason horses are rejected during a prepurchase is for incorrect age. Recent research has shown there is a lot of variability in the teeth of older horses, so the estimate is just that and may be subject to error."

In the lameness exam, the veterinarian will watch the horse in action and test the feet and legs. Usually the horse works on a longe line. Horses which do not longe can be worked in a round pen. The veterinarian will want to see the horse go in both directions at all gaits. He will look for any unevenness in the steps or in the horse's rhythm. Unfortunately, many lamenesses are much harder to spot. The horse might have long-term, low grade pain, such as arthritis, for which he has learned to compensate by moving stiffly or unevenly.

To check the foot, the veterinarian will use a hoof tester, an oversized, scissor-like gadget that applies pressure to a small area. The veterinarian will hold up the horse's hoof, place one face of the hoof tester on the sole of the hoof and the other face on the outside wall, and, by closing the arms of the hoof testers, pinch the horse's hoof between the jaws. The veterinarian looks for a reaction to this pressure, but needs to consider the horse. A horse with thin, delicate feet might object to the hoof tester without being otherwise sore.

To check the joints, the veterinarian will perform flexion tests. In a flexion test, a joint is held under pressure for 60 seconds, then the horse is trotted. What you will see is the veterinarian standing next to the horse, holding the horse's leg up in the air in an extremely bent position, and staring at his watch. You, or the horse's handler, will be given a warning and the veterinarian will let go of the leg. The goal is to get the horse to trot off immediately--not always easy. The veterinarian will watch for any uneven steps before the horse trots out normally, how long he trotted unevenly, and the severity of the unevenness. A positive flexion test might or might not indicate a problem. Flexion tests are performed on fetlocks, knees, and hocks.

Up to this point, the cost of the prepurchase has been based on time. Black charges $150 for a basic prepurchase, although costs can vary greatly around the country. Further tests, discussed from here on, cost extra. Be sure to understand the various costs before starting the exam.

Prepurchase Addendums

Another way to evaluate a horse's joints is with radiographs. A prepurchase exam can include anything from no radiographs, to two or three images of a joint that had questionable results in a flexion test, to multiple images of each joint of each leg. Black recommends 18 radiographs: five of each front foot and four of each hock. Unfortunately, if you chose to have images taken of the feet, radiographs of the feet are close to worthless if the horse wears shoes. While the veterinarian can pull the shoes, the seller's blacksmith will need to come out to reshoe the horse. This can be a logistical problem.

Other possible tests in a prepurchase exam include ultrasound of tendons and soft tissue, an endoscopic exam of the throat (a long tube with a small camera at the end passed down the horse's nose to visualize the upper airway), and blood tests for drugs or blood chemistry. Most states require a test for equine infectious anemia (a Coggins test). Horses to be used for breeding will have their reproductive systems thoroughly checked. (For prepurchase exams on breeding stock, see article on prepurchase exams in The Horse of June 1995.) A veterinarian should not scare you into having extra tests, but might suggest a test because of a horse's reaction to an earlier part of the exam.

The veterinarian will want to know your plans for the horse. Do you plan to compete, or will he have an easy life as a trail horse? Do you plan to breed the horse? Sell him in a few years as your child improves? You should be as truthful and complete as possible. Your plans might affect what you chose to have done to the horse. For instance, although you might be satisfied with a horse without taking radiographs, if you plan to sell the horse, you might want them done so you do not discover potential problems when the next buyer has them taken.

The veterinarian will want to know how suitable the horse is to what you plan to do with him. You might want a backyard pet who is an easy keeper. You might plan to buy an older, seasoned horse from which to learn the basics. In which case, you might be willing to work with, for instance, special shoeing requirements to compensate for old injuries. The veterinarian might be able to give you an opinion on the horse's temperament, again depending on his eventual job. An experienced rider might take on an aggressive, but talented, horse, while a novice or child rider should have one with a good attitude, first and foremost.

The exam will probably take from one to three hours, depending on what you have done. At the end of the exam, the veterinarian will want to discuss the results with you privately. Results from the radiographs will be available in a day or two. Since the veterinarian works for you, the results belong to you. (The actual radiographs belong to the veterinarian. You are buying his interpretation of what they show.) You have no responsibility to disclose anything to the seller, unless you choose. You will receive a written report.

What to do with the results? This is the time to have the veterinarian explain all findings thoroughly. You should understand what the veterinarian found, and the significance of each problem or potential problem. Unfortunately, no horse is perfect. You will very likely have to decide what you are willing to accept. You might want to use a potential problem as a point to renegotiate with the seller. A horse which has turned up lame can be examined later if the lameness is a temporary one. Or, if you are uncertain, a second opinion from another veterinarian, while not usual, is always a possibility.

How To Find And Evaluate A Veterinarian

You will most likely find a veterinarian through recommendations from other horse owners. The veterinarian should not be the one who normally works on the horse. This situation might be unavoidable, but it can place the veterinarian in a difficult ethical position and all parties should work hard to find an alternative.

Scott Palmer, VMD, of the New Jersey Equine Clinic, Clarksburg, N.J., recommends finding a horse veterinarian. "I would be most comfortable with an exam being done by a person with a lot of experience around horses. Truthfully, horse practice is such a rough way to make a living that almost nobody does it unless they really love horses, and almost nobody does prepurchase examinations unless they are really comfortable around horses, handling them, testing them, flexing them, jogging them, and even riding them."

Veterinarians who are experienced in a discipline might wish to try the horse: riding a jumper prospect or driving a Standardbred.

"I admit to having a personal bias. If I knew nothing about a large animal veterinarian and I was trying to find out if this person was dedicated or committed to the industry, I think I'd probably find out if he was an AAEP member (American Association of Equine Practitioners). If he was not an AAEP member, I'd ask him why not; there may be a reason," said Palmer, who is a member of the AAEP.

The AAEP can be contacted at 4075 Iron Works Pike, Lexington, KY 40511, 606/233-0147; Fax: 606/233-1968, E-mail:; web site: To find the nearest equine veterinarian in your area, call 1-800-GET-A-DVM (1/800/438-2386), sponsored by Bayer Corporation. The AAEP and Bayer also produce an informational brochure on prepurchase exams: Purchase Exams, A Sound Economic Investment, available from an AAEP-member veterinarian or by calling the AAEP office.

Palmer explains that you should evaluate a prospective veterinarian as you would any other service professional.

"Professional knowledge and communication skills are the critical components to the equation. You must have confidence that a) the veterinarian knows what he is doing, and b) that he can communicate those things to you in a way that you can understand and make decisions."

What Should You Do?

Discuss your concerns with the veterinarian before the visit. Let the veterinarian know what you plan to do with the horse, what you want to find out about the horse, and any budget constraints you have. Find out what the veterinarian recommends. Balance your comfort level between cost and information.

An experienced trainer might feel knowledgeable enough to do his or her own physical and lameness exam and ask a veterinarian only for specific tests. A client purchasing an inexpensive horse might have had a bad experience and request an entire battery of tests from the physical through a drug screen, costing a fair percentage of the horse's purchase price.

Each veterinarian has a different opinion on what might be necessary. By discussing the exam beforehand, you will know what to expect and the veterinarian will be prepared with the necessary equipment.

In Conclusion

Black: "Always gather as much information about the horse as possible. Always consider getting a good prepurchase evaluation. Not only is money important, but emotions are important, too, particularly if it is your first horse. Make sure that it's going to do the job that you intend for it to do."

Palmer: "I'd like them (a first-time buyer) to have a clear understanding of what they want in a horse. I'd like them to have a clear understanding of what my role is in the process."

Bermingham: "The first-time buyer is going to be confronted with a lot of different things. I'm sure they're going to want solid answers, and there aren't any in this game."

About the Author

Katherine Walcott

Katherine Walcott is a freelance writer living in the countryside near Birmingham, Al. She writes for anyone she can talk into paying her and rides whatever disciplines she can talk her horses into doing.

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