Purchase Exam: What Does It Do For You?

Purchasing a horse means embarking on an exciting adventure. It is a big step along a path of realizing equestrian dreams and goals, no matter how small or large these might be. A new horse becomes part of your family and a distinctive part of your lifestyle. The horse represents not just a financial investment; he becomes an emotional attachment and time commitment as well. A purchase exam, also referred to as a PE, can be an asset in the process of buying a horse.

But, what does a purchase exam do for you?

When stacked up against on-going, daily bills of board, feed, shoeing, veterinary care, training, and tack and equipment purchases, the purchase price of a horse (and the PE) often pales. The investment in time, emotion, and dollars is most likely to be satisfying when you assume ownership armed with knowledge.

A PE accomplishes multiple things. It provides you with a wealth of information about the current state of the horse you are interested in purchasing so you can make an informed decision on whether to go forward with the sale. The veterinarian, as the objective party in the transaction, collects data and presents the significance of this information in the context of your equine needs. The complete exam provided by a PE also gives you a baseline reference about issues that might exist at the time of purchase, and provides you with information for future comparison should a problem or question develop.

No matter the cost, the horse you are looking to own is an investment in your future enjoyment. Even if you are considering buying a non-performance horse (or if a horse is being given to you at no expense), a PE can alert you to problems that might cost you considerable money and management hassles down the road. Your veterinarian can help you understand what liabilities the horse could have at the time of purchase, and how these liabilities might affect your future use and enjoyment.

 Many knowledgeable horse owners can detect overt problems, but a professional veterinarian is experienced in assessing subtle problems that could otherwise go undetected. An equine veterinarian is accustomed to knowing what is within normal limits and so can more easily identify and interpret abnormal findings.

Due to comparatively less experience, a prospective buyer might not recognize muscle asymmetry, hoof abnormalities, or subtle lameness. In some cases, those things are overlooked because emotions are geared toward purchase, not rejection.

Money is well spent in hiring a capable veterinarian to help you ferret out potential problems and decide what you can and can't live with. It is particularly useful for you to hire a veterinarian who is knowledgeable about the intended sport for which you are buying the horse. Each equine discipline has its unique set of idiosyncrasies; what might be an irrelevant issue in one sport could have phenomenal consequences in another.

It is helpful to rein in your emotional attachment to the prospective purchase so that if exam findings are not favorable, you will be able to walk away from the purchase with ease. Enter into the exam with an open mind, not already having decided to buy the horse no matter what. It might be helpful to have a friend or trainer accompany you to help you keep your open-minded resolve; or you might do better on your own without outside pressure.

The Horse's History

An important information-gathering feature of a PE includes a concise account of the horse's medical and surgical history as far back as possible. Any colic, surgery, or lameness concerns should be disclosed by the seller prior to purchase. Complete immunization and deworming schedules provide an insight as to the level of preventive care the horse has received. A synopsis of the horse's athletic career, including successes and failures, enables you and your veterinarian to track the horse's past ability to cope with the stress of certain athletic disciplines.

Prior to the exam, all veterinary medical records should be made available to the buyer and the buyer's veterinarian so specific concerns can be addressed during the purchase exam.

What Goes On During a Purchase Exam?

Every veterinarian has his or her own method of evaluating a horse for purchase--a way of following a comprehensive checklist. No matter the order in which things are done, a detailed physical picture of the horse will be created by the end of the exam. In its simplest form, your veterinarian is looking at all of the little pieces to create an overview of how serviceable this horse will be for riding. Every single thing a veterinarian considers and examines during the PE would be too exhaustive to list here, but some general features can be mentioned to illustrate the process.

The Physical Inspection

The first thing your veterinarian might do is view the horse in order to gain an impression of his overall presence, body condition, and conformational characteristics. He/she will discuss the impact conformational flaws might have on intended performance. An older horse which has been in steady use successfully for some years might pose less of an athletic risk despite a conformational abnormality than a young horse with a similar fault which has had only limited use. If the older horse has held up to the rigors of exercise despite a conformational abnormality, this is favorable information. A young horse is still untried or untested in his ability to compensate for an imperfection.

The horse's body flesh and condition is evaluated along with his current diet. On  close inspection, each organ system and body part that is available for critique will be diligently evaluated with a careful, hands-on assessment by the veterinarian. A complete physical exam is performed, including obtaining the rectal temperature, heart and respiratory rates, as well as listening to the heart and lungs at rest and following exercise. The veterinarian listens for heart murmurs, irregular heartbeats, or abnormal respiratory noises using a stethoscope. Also, the rate of return of the heart to its resting rate is noted after exercise, particularly if the horse will be used for a demanding athletic career.

The horse's neurologic status is evaluated at rest and in locomotion. The horse should be able to walk, trot, canter, make gait transitions, and be able to back up and negotiate uneven or inclined terrain with no sign of unsteadiness. The horse's head and neck should be movable in all directions--up, down, and side-to-side--with no sign of unsteadiness or pain. Muscles over the entire body should appear symmetrical with good tone.

The horse should be able to easily grasp grass or hay, and chew and swallow food with ease. The horse should have no difficulty with vision, and should appear confident when moving around the property or among obstacles.

The health of the hair coat is noted and the skin scrutinized for scars, growths, or abnormal lesions. The ears are examined for tumors or insect bites. The teeth are checked for malocclusion (poor bite alignment), wolf teeth, or sharp points on the cheek teeth that might require dental procedures. Evidence of wood-chewing or cribbing might be apparent if the incisor teeth are worn excessively. This kind of vice is best recognized prior to purchase. It is prudent for you to spend some time separate from the veterinary exam observing the horse in his stall or paddock to identify the presence of any stable vices such as cribbing, weaving, pacing, or stall-kicking.

Your vet will use a special instrument called an ophthalmoscope to look into the near and deep structures of each eye. Any scars on the cornea or cataracts of the lens pose vision problems, and could hint at an underlying chronic disease process such as anterior uveitis.

Tumors, such as squamous cell carcinoma, are common in the unpigmented areas of the eye, and particularly the third eyelid. The pupils should respond to bright light by contracting, and should then dilate in a dark stall or barn. The lids and surrounding facial structures should have normal neurologic function and tone. For more on eye exams, see "Look Into His Eyes" in the February 2002 issue of The Horse, article Quick Find #3259 at  www.TheHorse.com.

The external reproductive organs are also inspected for health or disease. If this is a stallion or a mare with a potential breeding future, further testing might be done to determine fertility (see "Additional Diagnostic Tests" on page 38.)

The Horse in Motion

Since soundness is a key element in deriving the most from a horse's athletic performance, a thorough exam of the musculoskeletal system is essential. A purchase exam sets out to discern if overt problems are present, or if there is any evidence of a gait abnormality. The horse might be observed in motion prior to the hands-on exam of the limbs. This way, the veterinarian can see if the horse has an odd way of going that invites special scrutiny of a particular leg or body part.

Your preparation for the exam is critical in helping it move along efficiently. Come prepared to jog the horse in hand, to longe him, and to ride if that is appropriate. The more information your veterinarian has at hand to discuss with you, the easier it'll be for you to make a decision whether to buy or not.

For your veterinarian to adequately accomplish the task, the horse should be halter-broken and should lead in hand at the trot. If the horse doesn't know how to longe, then a round pen should be available to free-longe the horse in circles, and he might need to be observed at work under saddle.

The horse is watched closely on the longe line on different surfaces, such as in a sandy arena or a grassy paddock, and on hard-packed ground when available. A hard surface often reveals subtle lameness issues that might not be noticeable on softer ground, particularly those related to problems in the feet or joints. Deeper footing can exacerbate pain from soft tissue injuries of muscle, tendons, ligaments, and joint strains or sprains. An inclined surface also helps the veterinarian identify slight abnormalities in a horse's way of going. Mincing steps on a downhill grade or on gravel can point to foot tenderness or degenerative arthritis that could require additional management strategies to keep the horse comfortable in his work.

Stress tests of each limb are performed by holding the joints in a flexed position for a minute or two, then asking a horse to trot off. Such flexion tests compress cartilage surfaces within the joints, and also stretch the soft tissue structures within and surrounding the joints. A "normal" horse trots off happily with no limp after a flexion test.

There are relative degrees of a "positive" test: The amount and duration of lameness that accompanies the trot-off is graded by the veterinarian on a scale of 0 to 5, with zero indicating no lameness. An attempt is made to isolate the source of pain in a leg that demonstrates a positive flexion test. Each limb will be compared to the leg on the opposite side. Expectations of flexion tests should be realistic. The degree of lameness elicited by a flexion test and the duration of the lame steps taken are important features of interpreting the significance of the findings. An older, campaigned athlete might respond with a limp to flexion tests simply because of wear and tear on aging joints, yet he could still possess the ability to continue with athletic efforts for which he has been trained.

Just prior to the exam, a horse of any age could have taken a misstep in the field and temporarily strained a joint that is otherwise healthy. It might be practical for your veterinarian to return at a later date (in a week or two) to re-evaluate adverse findings of the gait analysis and/or flexion tests.

The Horse Examined Under Saddle

When possible, the horse should be ridden in the intended use: A jumping  x horse should be put to jumps, a dressage horse asked to work at its current level of training or showing, and a roping horse used to rope a steer. There have been incidents of horses that seemed to be fine on physical inspection, but then were unable to do the intended job because of pain that showed up in unique circumstances.

An example that comes to mind as related by one veterinarian is of a roping horse that seemed perfectly fine until the steer hit the end of the rope that was dallied on the saddle horn. At that moment, the horse experienced a good deal of pain in the withers and threatened to go down. This horse had an on-going problem that never could have been detected without riding him for his intended use.

You won't always have the opportunity to try a horse in a specific athletic endeavor. In many cases, the horse might be young or untrained for the intended use. Or, he could be in the process of changing careers and has limited experience in the prospective buyer's athletic world. So, as with most things in life, your purchase becomes a gamble as to how he'll work out in the years to come.

There is no crystal ball to see into the future--only the ability to play the percentages that the horse has the proper attributes and the likely potential to do the job. No one can accurately predict potential attitude or disposition of a horse put to certain tasks. Willingness to work and innate talent are intangibles that are not necessarily discernible during a PE. Sometimes genetics provides you with a glimpse of future potential related to ability and motivation, but horses do not always follow their genetic template.

The Musculoskeletal System--Hands-On

After the horse has been put to exercise and stress tests, hands-on evaluation, including touching and manipulation of every portion of the musculoskeletal system, yields more information. The spine, back, loins, withers, and ribs are inspected with careful pressure to check for swellings or pain. The symmetry of all muscles is examined to check for atrophy resulting from disuse, injury, or a neurologic condition.

Every leg and every portion of each leg is handled and inspected for swellings, x scars, or pain with manipulation. The limbs are palpated both in weight-bearing and non-weight-bearing positions to identify anything out of the ordinary. Character of the digital pulses is assessed in each limb. Each joint is evaluated for tautness or swelling; each joint space is measured with care to identify any effusion of joint fluid that is beyond normal expectations. Each tendinous structure is also evaluated for distention of its sheath or bursal sac.

The lower joints of the legs are rotated, flexed, and extended gently to check for resistance or pain. Each limb is gently stretched forward and behind and out to the side to see if the horse resents any of these manipulations (due to pain).

The hooves and coronary bands are closely inspected for size, shape, and symmetry. Attention is paid to the health of the soles and frogs, and the structure of the heels and heel bulbs. A hoof tester is applied to all parts of each foot to detect any painful areas. The horse responds to hoof testers by pulling back slightly on the limb when the vet  squeezes over a sensitive spot within the foot. Not all sensitive responses indicate a significant problem; likewise, not all significant problems will elicit pain with hoof testers.

Current shoeing practices are noted and recommendations made for improvement when appropriate, preferably in consultation with the buyer's farrier. Any specialized or "corrective" shoeing is noted and attempts are made to discern the reason for such shoeing strategy.

Interpreting the Findings

Another factor that you should consider is whether the horse has been in regular exercise up until the time of the exam, or if he has been out to pasture for many months. A horse with a chronic problem might look good when brought off the field after a lengthy rest, only to go lame when put to consistent use. Whereas, a horse in steady exercise which shows minor soundness issues during the exam might stand a better chance of withstanding the stress of sustained athletics.

A drug test helps the veterinarian determine if the horse is performing without the influence of systemic medications.

Once your veterinarian has gathered all the information at hand, he or she will explain to you the significance of certain findings that could spell trouble down the road. You need to remember that the horse is being analyzed at a single moment in time, and there is no guarantee  that the horse will remain in the same state he was in at the time of the exam.

A fair analogy is to compare the results of the exam to a still photo of a person on a ladder: You don't know if that person is standing still, going up, or going down the ladder. The same is true of a horse's condition at the time of a PE. Because the horse is a living organism constantly in a state of flux, there simply can be no guarantees that nothing will change even days later, let alone months or years in the future.

Conflict of Interest and Medical Confidentiality

It is not unusual for a buyer to request a PE by a veterinarian who also has a working relationship with the seller. In many cases, the veterinarian who works for both the buyer and the seller elects to excuse himself or herself from the exam and instead refers the PE to an objective colleague. In other cases, neither the buyer nor the seller have any concerns as to the impartiality or ethics of the veterinarian whom they both trust, and they consequently have no objection to that veterinarian performing the exam.

It should be understood that the veteri  narian is hired and paid by the buyer to represent the buyer's interests. A seller might not like the information uncovered by the exam, but if there is established trust and honesty, there should be no hard feelings. It's a personal judgment call by all parties involved on whether to use this "shared" veterinarian to examine the horse. Often to avoid misunderstandings, the veterinarian will offer to forgo the x  x exam so there is no misconstrued conflict of interest.

All findings of a PE are considered to be confidential medical information--this information belongs only to the buyer and the veterinarian. None of this information is to be shared with any other party without express permission from the buyer who paid the veterinarian for the exam. In the event that a buyer declines the purchase, it is inappropriate for a seller to ask for this information to be provided to another potential buyer, or for that secondary potential buyer to request the information. Information can only be disclosed to other parties if the original prospective buyer (who hired the veterinarian) releases permission in writing or by verbal contract with the veterinarian.

There is No Pass or Fail

A veterinarian does not "pass" or "fail" a horse on a PE. It is important to make this distinction, since historically this is how these exams have been done. Unfortunately, this has previously created an undue amount of confusion.

There are so many complicating features to the purchase of a horse that one would be hard-pressed to find a horse which is perfect in all necessary respects. Your veterinarian is incapable of judging whether a horse is "suitable" for your personal use regardless of how well he/she knows you and your intended sport. His/ her role is to gather information regarding the state of the horse at the moment of the exam and to provide you with a scientific interpretation of the findings. Predicting the future is impossible for your veterinarian or anyone else.

You, as the buyer, are given the facts so that you can make an informed decision as to whether you can accept certain liabilities of that horse or not. A helpful strategy is for a buyer to take a blank sheet of paper, put the purchase price at the top, then build a pro and con list down opposite sides of the page. With the hard, cold facts listed in this way, you can better decide if you can afford to lose the purchase price should things not work out at some later date; in many cases, certain excellent attributes outweigh some of the horse's faults.

Your personal needs and desires do not necessarily match up with the expectations of a friend or a trainer. What is acceptable to you might be unacceptable to another horse owner, and vice versa. Remember, you are the one who must live with your decision, and you are the one with the full financial responsibility.

Every person assigns a relative importance to different elements of an equine purchase exam. Since there is no such thing as a perfect horse, you must decide for yourself what features rank highest on your list. Don't necessarily compromise on these, but perhaps be more flexible in accommodating some less important aspects of that horse's physical presentation or personality.


Besides a comprehensive physical exam, other testing procedures might be pursued to give you more complete information. Depending on how much investment you are willing to put into a purchase exam (PE), a variety of diagnostic tests are available.

Any of these additional testing procedures will require a lag time to obtain results, so patience is needed by both the buyer and the seller to allow time for results to return to the veterinarian. Each diagnostic procedure adds to the cost of the PE, so you as the buyer must weigh the value gained from such additional information against the value of the horse.

Diagnostic Imaging Radiographs (X rays)--These can be taken for baseline information and to analyze areas under scars or swellings, or to survey for developmental joint problems such as osteochondrosis (OCD) or current degenerative arthritis. Radiographs are suggested when the veterinarian has a concern about some element found on the physical or motion exam or while the horse was subjected to flexion tests.

Likewise, ultrasound examination of a soft tissue structure such as a ligament or tendon might be recommended as another non-invasive procedure. This could clarify a concern presented by a thickened or painful tendon or ligament, or a past known injury. Ultrasound examination by an experienced veterinarian is also useful for assessing joints.

There is often some confusion regarding "ownership" of X ray films or sonograms. As a buyer, you are paying for the veterinarian's time and expertise. Radiographs and ultrasound images are, in fact, part of the veterinarian's medical records on that horse and legally must be retained by that veterinarian for as long as the statute of limitations of the state mandates; this is usually a period of six or seven years, but varies depending on the state.

If you desire to have these images examined by a different consulting veterinarian, you can request that these be sent to the consultant, but following scrutiny all documents should be returned immediately to the initial examining veterinarian. Another option is to pay for copies of the diagnostic images so these can remain in the permanent file of your personal veterinarian.

Radiographs often represent a quagmire that can muddle a PE. Often noted are incidental findings that might have no relevance to future performance, but are certainly abnormal features of a bone or joint. To base an assessment of a horse's intended use strictly on X rays is difficult; radiographic findings are best used when corroborated with a full physical exam, movement evaluation, and the horse's athletic history and performance.

Endoscopy--It might be appropriate for a horse which will be competing at high speeds (such as in eventing, polo, or racing) to undergo an endoscopic exam of the upper airway to evaluate the nasal passages and back of the throat. Some problems might not arise until the horse is exercised at speed. It would be wise to scope any horse which makes respiratory noise while undergoing the motion part of the exam. Problems with the respiratory tract rank second only to musculoskeletal problems in affecting performance.

Electrocardiogram--A horse intended for high-exertional athletics might be a candidate for further examination of the heart via an electrocardiogram and ultrasound. This would also be a recommended ancillary procedure for any horse with a murmur or arrhythmia detectable on physical exam.

Blood Testing--Blood tests might be advised to screen for infections, anemia, or elevated liver, kidney, or muscle enzymes. Every horse examined for purchase should be tested negative for equine infectious anemia (EIA) with a Coggins test. This is a reportable disease in which affected horses might only be carriers, but due to severe quarantine restrictions, positive horses are often euthanized.

Genetic testing of mane and tail hairs can also be used to screen for syndromes like hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP) found in horses descended from the Quarter Horse stallion Impressive.

Drug Testing--Another test to consider, particularly for a performance horse, would be a drug test of blood and/or urine to screen for the presence of pain-killing medications or mood-modifying drugs that could obscure interpretation of findings by the veterinarian during the physical exam. A drug test will not identify all masking agents--for example, a recent injection of anti-inflammatory medications into a problematic joint might not be identified with a blood or urine screen.

Fecal Screens--A fecal exam might be advisable to check for the presence of eggs of intestinal parasites despite assurances that a horse has been on a regular, frequent parasite control program. However, a negative fecal examination doesn't always mean that a horse is free of parasites; results are dependent on the life cycle of the parasite. A fecal exam can also identify the presence or absence of sand in the intestinal tract.

Pre-Breeding Exams--For the potential breeding horse, it is prudent to have your veterinarian perform a pre-breeding exam. For the mare, this encompasses ultrasound of the uterus and ovaries, a tissue biopsy of the uterus, and a bacterial culture and cellular smear of a swab sampled from the uterus. For the stallion, semen should be evaluated, and the testes and accompanying organs measured and ultrasounded for abnormalities. His libido and ease of handling during the breeding process can also be assessed while collecting him for a semen sample. For more on breeding soundness exams, see "Mare Breeding Soundness Examination" in the December 1997 issue of The Horse, article Quick Find #607 at www.TheHorse.com; "Breeding Soundness Exam" in the March 2000 issue of The Horse, article Quick Find #3040 at www.TheHorse.com; and "Assessing Sperm Quality," article Quick Find #3249 at www.TheHorse.com.

International Imports--Horses which are imported from abroad are required to be tested for certain communicable diseases not found in the United States, such as dourine, piroplasmosis, and glanders. A negative Coggins test for equine infectious anemia (EIA) is also required. Contagious equine metritis (CEM) testing is required on breeding animals. The horse is screened for these communicable diseases prior to export, and the tests are repeated at the quarantine station in the continental United States.

The only other test or form to consider is an insurance exam--some insurance companies require specific tests or procedures that can be potentially be done at the same time as or incorporated into the purchase exam.--Nancy Loving, DVM

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her recent book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care (available at Shop.TheHorse.com or by calling 800/582-5604). She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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