Prepurchase Exam of the Western Performance Horse, AAEP 2009

"Certain concepts apply to any horse in any discipline being evaluated for a prepurchase exam," commented Kent Carter, DVM, MS, as he addressed the topic Purchase Exam of the Western Performance Horse at the 2009 American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) convention, held Dec. 6-10 in Las Vegas, Nev.

Carter noted the examining practitioner should be familiar with breed-associated rules, intended use, and athletic discipline. His or her objective should be to evaluate the health of the horse and determine problems that might inhibit serviceability, then communicate that information to the buyer to enable an informed decision.

"A perfect horse is rare," commented Carter. He noted athletic horses develop problems, and although not perfect, a horse can still perform well. He cautioned that some horses perform better for one owner than another. A buyer should communicate his or her expectations for a suitable animal to the veterinarian.

Carter urged having both buyer and seller present, or at least in immediate phone contact, since a seller's permission might be necessary for further evaluation and diagnostics. Both medical and performance history are relevant, including a buyer's riding assessment of the horse--the veterinary exam is only one of many factors considered in a purchase decision. Carter stressed that the veterinarian works for and reports to the buyer, and he or she should speak directly to the buyer.

"According to Carter, if the veterinarian doesn't complete a thorough exam—for example, he or she completes only a cursory or partial exam or is simply requested to take radiographs—problems can arise. These situations can be misconstrued by buyers as prepurchase exams. All physical exam findings, both normal and abnormal, as well as ancillary procedures (for example, radiographs, endoscopy, ultrasound), should be well-documented in a complete medical record."

It's important that the veterinarian makes close observations of a horse's disposition, conformation, symmetry, limb stance, and body condition. Carter recommended conducting a systematic physical exam from nose to tail, including careful inspection for scars and abnormalities that could be indicative of old injuries or conditions that might affect performance. The alleged age should match the teeth. It is important to check if a Western performance horse is able to raise the tail to or above horizontal with anal stimulation, to ensure that  tail function has not been altered or blocked, a practice which is disallowed by the American Quarter Horse Association. At rest, the veterinarian should perform limb palpation, an exam with hoof testers, and a joint flexion test to detect any unsoundnesses. The veterinarian can gather the most information from the in-motion exam, which is a large component of the prepurchase evaluation, if it's performed in hand on a hard surface, and it's good to longe the horse on both hard and soft surfaces. The owner should ride the horse for the prepurchase exam when possible.

The veterinarian will perform additional tests based on findings from the exam. While gathering more information is ideal, Carter stipulated that many buyers are willing to take a risk without this additional data. Laboratory testing might be indicated; the veterinarian might pull blood for a Coggins test (EIA), drug tests, blood chemistry and hematology, or to screen for hereditary diseases specific to Quarter Horses (for example, hyperkalemic periodic paralysis, or HYPP, and hereditary equine regional dermal asthenia, or HERDA). High-quality radiographs in which the horse is properly positioned for appropriate views, are desirable. Many owners think X ray films are a window into the horse, but Carter asserted that radiographs don't always correlate with lameness--a lame horse might have normal radiographs, while a sound horse shows abnormal radiographic findings. Further, Carter noted that radiographs or ultrasound imaging don't always accurately predict long-term prognosis.

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 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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