The Prepurchase Exam: What to Expect

During a prepurchase exam your vet will evaluate every inch of the horse and will use his or her expertise to identify previous or current pathologies.

Photo: Courtesy Tryon Equine Hospital

Finding your next horse often requires great investment of both time and money. When you have finally found “the one,” you have one more critical step to take before you sign the check and load the horse onto the trailer: the veterinary or prepurchase exam. The prepurchase exam is a thorough evaluation of the horse’s health, soundness, and suitability that veterinarians can use to provide the buyer with the most information possible to help guide their decision. The prepurchase exam includes five steps: a history, the physical exam, the moving exam, imaging, and other ancillary tests.

Step 1: Getting the History

The first step of the prepurchase exam involves the veterinarian obtaining important information from both the buyer and the seller. The buyer should be clear in the intended use of the horse. For example, if the potential owner is purchasing the horse as an investment for resale, the expectations differ from those of rider looking for an aged schoolmaster. The veterinarian will ask the seller to provide the horse’s detailed history, including:

  • Medical history;
  • Routine healthcare;
  • Current level of work/training; and
  • Performance record.

This is important to help the veterinarian assess the horse’s suitability as well as predisposition to injury or illness.

Step 2: Physical Examination of the Horse

Photo: Courtesy Tryon Equine Hospital

Next, the veterinarian will perform a comprehensive physical exam. This includes auscultation (listening with a stethoscope) of the heart, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract; an ophthalmic examination; a dental examination; and palpation of the musculoskeletal system. Essentially, the vet will evaluate every inch of the horse and will use his or her expertise to identify previous or current pathologies. The horse’s conformation, shoeing, and demeanor are all noted as well.

Step 3: Moving Examination

Following the physical exam, a moving examination should be performed in which the horse is evaluated in-hand on a straight line at the walk and trot and longed in both directions at the walk, trot, and canter. The veterinarian might also request to watch the horse work under tack.

Next, the veterinarian will perform flexion tests to identify subclinical pain that could indicate future unsoundness or complication. This involves stressing specific areas of the distal (lower) limbs for a prolonged amount of time and assessing the response to stress. At the conclusion of the moving exam, the veterinarian will discuss the findings thus far with the buyer, who will decide whether to continue on with the exam.

Step 4: Imaging

Imaging is not necessary in every prepurchase situation; however, in most circumstances, radiographs are strongly recommended to allow the veterinarian to further evaluate overall joint health, as well as subclinical disease processes.

Photo: Courtesy Tryon Equine Hospital

Ultrasound imaging is less commonly performed in a prepurchase exam, but might be advised by the veterinarian if the musculoskeletal exam reveals a soft tissue structure abnormality, for example. Endoscopy of the upper airway is sometimes included in the prepurchase exam, especially in the case of upper-level event horses or racehorses, which will be asked to perform at maximum respiratory exertion. Endoscopy of the larynx could reveal laryngeal paralysis, for example, making that horse a poor choice for the job. Additional imaging modalities include gastroscopy, nuclear scintigraphy, and MRI, which are not commonly performed in a prepurchase setting but reserved for specific cases.

Step 5: Other Ancillary Tests

Finally, there are a few ancillary tests that the veterinarian might recommend. A drug screen has become common practice to protect both the buyer and seller if the horse has been medicated in any way. Blood is sent off to a testing lab and results are typically available within one week. A Coggins test (to check for equine infectious anemia), is required by law when the horse changes ownership, so this is often submitted at the time of the prepurchase exam. Additionally, a complete blood count and chemistry analysis might be requested by the buyer to provide baseline values, but are not always necessary if no abnormalities have been identified on physical exam.

Step 6: Analysis and Report of Findings and Recommendations.

Once all the information has been gathered, the veterinarian prepares a comprehensive report of the findings. If the owner is insuring the horse, the vet can complete the appropriate forms at this time as well.

It’s important to understand that the prepurchase is not a guarantee of future soundness. Rather, it is a snapshot in time of the horse’s current health and soundness that is intended to provide the buyer with as much information as possible.

It is in the buyer’s best interest to have a frank conversation with the veterinarian about expectations, goals, and costs prior to the prepurchase appointment. From there, the veterinarian can tailor the exam accordingly.

The decision to buy a horse is a big one and the prepurchase exam is an important step in helping the buyer ensure the right match.

About the Author

Meghan Breen, DVM

Meghan Breen, DVM, is a veterinarian at Tryon Equine Hospital in Columbus, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine and completed her clinical training at the Virginia Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine with a primary focus on equine medicine and surgery. Following graduation, she completed an internship with Virginia Equine Imaging and spent the next few years traveling with the hunter/jumper 'A' circuit providing care to top-level competition horses in Wellington, Florida, and the Northeast. During that time she also completed acupuncture and spinal manipulation courses. She is a graduate of the Chi Institute and the Integrative Veterinary Medicine Institute as well as a Fédération Equestre Internationale treating veterinarian. She enjoys competing her own jumper, Armani.

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