5 Things to Consider Before Buying a Horse

Money put toward good-quality radiographs is well-spent, whether for establishing a baseline or catching a subclinical condition.

Photo: Kevin Thompson/The Horse

Performing a successful prepurchase examination is a complex undertaking. To evaluate every system in the horse takes an experienced jack-of-all-trades who must serve as a lameness expert, ophthalmologist, neurologist, dentist, podiatrist, cardiologist, radiologist, and crystal-ball reader all in one. However, a successful horse-buying experience is about much more than the medical findings.

In my experience, prepurchase exams are primarily about risk assessment. My job is to help clients utilize my findings to decide whether a horse is appropriate for them. To effectively do that, I need to keep the following things in mind:

  1. What level of risk is the purchaser willing to assume?
  2. What is the purchaser’s level of ­experience?
  3. Do he or she own a farm or board?
  4. What are his or her goals?
  5. Is this horse being purchased to be sold in the near future?

I spend a lot of time discussing risk with the purchaser, so open communication is key. Some come into the exam unwilling to accept any imperfections, conformational, radiographic, or otherwise. Some have had bad experiences with specific ailments, such as allergic airway disease, back pain, or poor hoof conformation, and so those findings are deal-breakers. There are no correct answers; it’s all about the purchaser’s personal level of comfort. 

So, never be afraid to express your concerns to your ­veterinarian—that’s why we are here!

The buyer’s level of experience is also important. Many professionals and knowledgeable amateurs understand the pitfalls of buying a horse. Horses are born and then spend the rest of their lives trying to hurt themselves—I don’t know any longtime horse owner who thinks otherwise. With less experienced purchasers, I take the time to explain how specific findings may affect care, financial outlay, and future utility. 

Purchasers who have their own farms can more easily buy and keep horses that need downtime, like one with a recently bowed tendon. They might also be in a better position to take a chance on one that inherently carries higher risk, like an older schoolmaster. They can easily rest or even retire the horse, should the need arise. There are excellent deals to be had on valuable experienced horses that are recovering from an injury or have other known, but manageable ­issues. 

I am a huge fan of looking at ­schoolmasters for inexperienced riders but, again, this does come with increased risk. There is nothing more reassuring than having a novice kid or adult re-rider learn to event on a horse that has gone around the upper levels safely and is on its way back down the ranks. These teachers might come with some osteoarthritis or other chronic issues that require good daily care, but their mileage is invaluable in keeping these riders safe and feeling positive. They are usually more expensive to maintain, likely have a reduced time span at a certain level, and should not be purchased for resale. That being said, my clients who have purchased schoolmasters after understanding the requirements have never been disappointed in their decisions.

Get good radiographs on any horse intended for resale. I strongly encourage these clients to invest in a set of baseline films as a starting point. Unless the client buys and sells a lot of inexpensive horses and can afford to occasionally get stuck with one, this is a worthy ­investment. 

In general, a prepurchase exam is only as good as the information you obtain. I always say I’d rather look at the horse than its radiographs, but money put toward such diagnostics is generally well-spent. It might uncover a significant condition that isn’t bothering the horse yet but could affect soundness down the road, such as ringbone. It also gives you a valuable baseline for the future. 

Purchasing a horse can be stressful for everyone involved, but with open and detailed communication, it can also be an exciting and fun time. Go into your horse search having carefully thought through your situation, goals, and how much risk you’re willing to assume, and you will find it much easier to navigate the choppy waters of horse-buying. 

About the Author

Liz Arbittier, VMD

Liz Arbittier, VMD, is a clinical assitant professor of Equine Field Service at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's New Bolton Center, in Kennett Square.

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