The Prepurchase Exam

The Prepurchase Exam

Gait evaluations allow the veterinarian to examine the horse's movement and identify if lameness is present. During this evaluation the horse is often placed through a series of exercises on different footings such as hard pack and arena surfaces.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Purchasing a new horse can be both an exciting and nerve-wracking experience for horse owners. While you probably have an appreciation of the horse's potential to achieve your goals based on his disposition and training, you might not know whether the horse is capable of carrying out these goals physically. This is why many prospective buyers look to their veterinarians for advice so they can make an informed decision about proceeding with the purchase.

A prepurchase examination (also known as the "vet check" or "vetting") is a detailed evaluation by a veterinarian of the physical well-being of a horse before purchase. The veterinarian's task during an examination can be categorized into four basic steps:

  1. Discover any physical abnormalities the horse might possess;
  2. Document any findings in a medical record and report;
  3. Disclose any abnormalities to the buyer and seller of the horse; and
  4. Discuss the implications of each finding.

This information is then used by the veterinarian to advise the buyer on the relevance and possible implications of each finding. It is not the veterinarian's duty to "pass" or "fail" a horse, but to provide information the buyer can use when deciding whether to proceed with the purchase.

The layout of a prepurchase examination can vary and might depend on the veterinarian performing the exam, the discipline in which the horse is intended to be used, the buyer's request, and geographic location. A prepurchase examination typically is divided into four parts:

  1. General health examination;
  2. Musculoskeletal and conformation examination;
  3. Gait evaluation; and
  4. Additional diagnostic testing.

A general health examination is an assessment of the horse's health status and is intended to identify any abnormalities, such as a heart murmur or uveitis (moon blindness). The musculoskeletal and conformation examination can help identify abnormalities pertaining to specific structures such as tendons, ligaments, and joints. Also, this exam allows the veterinarian to identify anomalies in sensitive areas (e.g., back pain). In addition, the veterinarian can assess the horse's conformation to better determine if the horse could be at higher risk of future injury. For example, a horse with upright or post-legged (in which the hock is very straight) conformation might be more prone to developing degenerative joint disease of the lower hock joints due to added strain in this region.

Gait evaluation allows the veterinarian to examine the horse's movement and identify if lameness is present. During this evaluation the horse is often placed through a series of exercises on different footings such as hard pack and arena surfaces. The veterinarian evaluates how well the horse travels in both directions and in transitions between different gaits (for example, from a trot to a canter).

Veterinarians often perform flexion tests of the limbs to help identify subtle changes that might otherwise go unnoticed during a gait evaluation. During a flexion test the examiner holds the limb in a flexed position for a set period of time and then evaluates the movement pattern as the horse trots off. Underlying joint and/or soft tissue injuries can sometimes present as a lameness while completing this test. With the information gathered during the exam, the veterinarian can then recommend additional diagnostic testing such as radiographs (X rays), ultrasound examination, endoscopy, and blood work. Information from these tests can be used to provide further detail on relevant examination findings and give the veterinarian and buyer more information to determine the serviceability of the horse for his intended use.

A level of risk should always be assumed when purchasing a new horse. Research, experience, and veterinary guidance cannot always guarantee the horse will be free of future problems. However, the more information obtained about the horse, the more likely you are to make an informed and correct decision with the help of a prepurchase examination.

About the Author

Casey Gruber, DVM

Casey Gruber, DVM, is an associate veterinarian at Moore Equine Veterinary Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where he specializes in podiatry and emergency and sport horse care. He’s a graduate of Colorado State University.

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