Friday, May. 24, 2024

Save Some Green On Your Next Pre-Purchase Exam

A little research and an open mind can make your next horse-buying experience a bit easier on your wallet.

The pre-purchase exam can be a confusing and stressful experience for the soon-to-be horse owner. Buying a horse is not only a large financial investment but also an emotional investment.

Just like buying a new car, conducting research ahead of time and familiarizing yourself with the pre-purchase process can save you anxiety and some hard-earned cash.



A little research and an open mind can make your next horse-buying experience a bit easier on your wallet.

The pre-purchase exam can be a confusing and stressful experience for the soon-to-be horse owner. Buying a horse is not only a large financial investment but also an emotional investment.

Just like buying a new car, conducting research ahead of time and familiarizing yourself with the pre-purchase process can save you anxiety and some hard-earned cash.

In its barest form, a pre-purchase exam is a fact-finding session, evaluating a horse’s health and serviceability that can be useful to the buyer as well as the seller. It’s not an insurance policy or a guarantee of ability, temperament or merit.

“One of the biggest issues that I have on pre-purchases is that I don’t have a catalog that others seem to have that offers a crystal ball for sale,” said Thomas Daniel, Jr., DVM, with a chuckle. “I can’t project a year down the road and say, ‘Well, the horse is sound today but may break down a year from now with a suspensory injury.’ We as veterinarians can’t always necessarily project into the future. We only have today and what we find on the exam and how those hard findings might relate to the future soundness of the horse.”

But even without a “crystal ball,” a pre-purchase exam provides buyers with valuable information about the current health of the horse they are considering purchasing. Buyers who pay for a horse without first consulting a veterinarian run the risk of purchasing an animal that’s not necessarily what the seller represents him to be.

“If someone’s trying to save money on a pre-purchase exam, there are certainly ways to do that, but I would never recommend skipping the exam altogether,” advised Kenton Arnold, DVM, owner of Equine Veterinary Services in Terrell, Texas. “For example, talking with the horse’s previous vet and obtaining his health records may prevent a buyer from doing a pre-purchase exam on that particular horse.”

The “Custom-Tailored” Exam

A potential owner must bring an open mind to the pre-purchase process, which means being able to distinguish between conformation defects that are manageable or may not significantly affect a horse’s performance and those that may become detrimental and unmanageable in the long run.

“The buyer needs to be prepared to assimilate information,” insisted Daniel, whose practice, Southern Pines Equine Associates, is based out of Southern Pines, N.C. “If they go into the pre-purchase with the expectation that they need to find the perfect horse, then they’re going to end up spending more money in vet bills for pre-purchase exams than they do on the horse itself.”

Arnold agreed. “We as veterinarians aren’t looking for the pristine horse that has no hair out of place. Instead we need to quantify what we find and work closely with the buyer to decide whether the findings are a problem or not.”

To put into perspective—say, for example, you are planning to purchase a Grand Prix schoolmaster—your options may be limited because, on the one hand, not many horses make it to Grand Prix dressage, and on the other hand, due to the strenuous training involved in reaching that level, older “schoolmasters” most likely have some sort of ailment that prevents them from continuing to compete at that level. So a willingness to consider treating a horse with minor arthritis is something that should be decided before beginning the pre-purchase exam.

“Custom-tailoring” a pre-purchase exam involves thinking about several questions:

  1. What do I intend to use the horse for?
  2. How many years do I intend to keep the horse?
  3. What are my short-term goals? Long-term goals?
  4. Do I hope to resell the horse?
  5. How much money am I willing to spend to maintain the animal’s soundness?

Once the answers to those questions have been determined, the owner may turn to the seller for other vital bits of information, the answers to which, if unfavorable, may save the buyer the money and hassle of going through with the pre-purchase at all.

“As a veterinarian, it’s critical to speak with the buyer first to get an idea of what kind of horse they’re buying—for what purpose they’re buying and how much they intend to use the animal. This is vital for the exam because I won’t do the same pre-purchase exam on a 2-year-old going into heavy training like cutting as I would for someone buying the first horse for their 12-year-old daughter. It’s our job as veterinarians to find out what the problems are with the horse so that we can determine if it’s a real problem or something that can be managed,” said Arnold.


He advised saving money on an exam by getting a good history of the horse. “In order to do this, the seller has to grant permission to their veterinarian to release records on the horse so that the buyer may review the horse’s health records and if they desire, call up the treating veterinarian and ask questions,” Arnold instructed.

Taking the time to go through this process can indicate to the buyer what type of care the horse has had in the past, how long the seller has owned the horse, what types of problems he had with the horse and how they were treated, as well as what type of health issues to expect in the future.

Internet Woes

“One problem that I see today that I didn’t encounter a few years ago is people buying over the Internet and doing pre-purchase exams on horses they have never seen in person or ever ridden,” said Arnold. “They’ll call me and ask me to do a full pre-purchase, often including radiographs, and then they’ll come down and ride it or bring it home and then decide that it isn’t the right horse for them.

“In my mind, the most important thing a buyer can do to help save money in the long run is to go and see the horse and ride him or her in the same type of environment—on a trail or in an arena—as they plan to use the animal for in the future,” Arnold said.

Daniel adamantly agreed. “I haven’t seen why in the world people are spending money on soundness exams if they’re not sure about suitability. I’m shocked at how unfamiliar people are willing to be with the horses they’re interested in buying before heading to the pre-purchase exam. I’ve even been asked to do post-purchase exams, which to me is like buying stock before doing the research!”

If, as a buyer, you only have one day to spend looking at a particular horse, it’s a good idea to schedule a pre-purchase exam with a trusted veterinarian ahead of time with the understanding that you can cancel if you ride the horse prior to the exam and decide it’s not a good fit.

“I’m happy to cancel exams,” Arnold said. “But I do advise buyers to try and look at several horses in the morning with a pre-purchase scheduled for the afternoon. That way they can choose the horse they like best and not waste an entire day looking at just one horse.”

Choosing a trusted veterinarian in an unfamiliar area can be a tricky endeavor. And while prior personal experience with a veterinarian is the best bet, this is not always a viable option. To avoid a conflict of interest, always beware of using the seller’s veterinarian.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a veterinarian for a pre-purchase exam: Does the veterinarian belong to a known organization, such as the American Association of Equine Practitioners? Is the veterinarian in general practice or does he specialize in a certain field that is specific to your intended use?

For example, hiring a veterinarian who specializes in reproduction may not be beneficial if you plan to use the horse for performance. Also, if you want your existing veterinarian to examine the X-rays before you purchase the horse, then you need to make sure the veterinarian performing the exam uses digital X-rays that are not only better quality, but also much cheaper to send via e-mail rather than FedEx.

Being present for the pre-purchase is not a necessity, but there are benefits to watching the veterinarian perform the exam.

“You get more value from being there with the veterinarian,” said Arnold. “I know when I’m performing a pre-purchase I have a tendency to say things that may not get written down in the actual report. I can point out stuff to the buyer and say, ‘I don’t think this is going to be a problem, but it’s something you need to be aware of.’ Or if the horse kicks during a flexion I may not mention that to a client over the phone, but if they see it in person, they may tell me to stop the exam because they don’t want a horse that kicks.

“There’s nothing like being there and seeing the exam done to give a buyer confidence in what they’re buying. But again, if the buyer can only be present for the exam or take the time to ride the horse first, ride it first! I can’t imagine buying a horse for one of my family members that I haven’t ridden yet,” he added.

Cutting Costs


On most pre-purchase exams, the soundness part of the exam is the most important, allowing the buyer to see what types of lameness issues affect their horse currently and what those issues could potentially evolve into in the future.

The results of a pre-purchase exam are most reliable when a horse has been in constant work and is physically fit. If the horse has been sitting idle out in a field or in an inconsistent program then he may appear sound on the exam but once put into serious work by the new owner he may develop problems.

“A setup that I frequently find questionable is whether a horse is in enough work so that it can adequately represent its soundness. Buyers need to be aware of how a horse is prepared for a soundness exam. In many barns, lower tiered horses are not a priority,” said Daniel. “You can’t pull a horse out of a field and expect the veterinarian to comment on how well it may work for a more intense training program. As a buyer, make sure the horse is prepared for the level of work it will be doing in the future so the level of soundness can truly be evaluated.”

Once the soundness exam is completed, veterinarians often move on to radiographs, which is another area where buyers can save a little green if they, along with the veterinarian, process the information gathered from the soundness exam and apply it to the digital radiography portion.

“Digital radiography has become much more conventional and practical in terms of how we proceed in a radiographic exam. Say for example I get instructions from the buyer to check for [significant radiographic changes in the navicular bone that could indicate navicular disease] and I see a bad flexion of a front fetlock. Digital radiography allows us the latitude to pick and choose the progression of the exam before spending the money to radiograph everything. Why should I take X-rays of hocks when the fetlocks are already at risk? If you make your veterinarian aware that you’re trying to save money, make sure he or she radiographs sequentially from highest to lowest so if something up high becomes too much of a risk, you can save yourself money by not taking the remainder of the images,” Daniel warned.

As a general practice, veterinarians will not “pass” or “fail” a horse on a pre-purchase exam, so don’t rely on your veterinarian to make the decision about whether you should purchase the horse for you. Veterinarians are simply advisors as to the physical abilities and disabilities of a particular horse and how those issues may relate now and in the future to your intended use of the animal.

Buyers should always be aware of sellers who try to contract them into purchasing a horse if it “passes” the pre-purchase exam.

The AAEP guidelines for reporting purchase exams advise that, “The veterinarian should list all abnormal or undesirable findings discovered during the examination and give his or her qualified opinion as to the functional effect of these findings.”

Forcing a veterinarian to “pass” a horse poses a threat to the veterinarian who, if taken to court, could be liable if he or she called a horse “sound” during a pre-purchase.

“If at any point the buyer becomes uncomfortable in the purchase of the horse due to any factor such as age, disposition, etc., then I have no problem telling the buyer that the horse ‘failed’ the exam. If the buyer needs me to be the strong one and tell the seller like it is, then that’s part of what the buyer hired me to do,” said Arnold.

Occasionally, spending money on an exam for a horse that is relatively cheap can be a hard pill to swallow, but there are other, less expensive avenues available outside of a full-blown pre-purchase exam.

“I often see people who buy horses that aren’t registered and without doing a pre-purchase exam. Then they get the horse home and find that it’s eating OK, but it’s been losing weight for three months. If I could have had one look at that horse’s teeth, I could have told them that the horse was much older than what the seller told them and saved them not only the purchase price but the cost of caring for the animal for the past few months,” said Arnold.

“If you’re buying a relatively inexpensive horse and you don’t want to spend the money on a pre-purchase, at least have someone knowledgeable or a veterinarian do a dental exam to see how the teeth look. And while I have difficulty recommending this, I would also tell someone who has a hard time swallowing the full cost of a pre-purchase to at least have an insurance exam done on the horse in order to check out the eyes, heart rate, feet and those sorts of things,” he added.

How To Conduct Your Own Basic Ground Exam

Having a veterinarian conduct a thorough pre-purchase exam is ideal, but there are some things that soon-to-be horse owners can look for on their own that may help them zero in on which horses are worth having a trusted veterinarian inspect further.

  1. Observe the general appearance of the horse. Check that the horse is alert yet calm with no obvious swellings in any of its extremities. The eyes should be clear, without any cloudiness, growths, lumps or bumps, and the nose free of discharge. Make sure the horse is of a good weight, not too thin—as this can be a sign of systemic problems—and not too fat, which could potentially mean thyroid issues. If it’s summer, the horse’s coat should be shed out completely and unless a curly coat is specific to the breed, the coat should lay flat without any curls or waves. A curly or wavy coat can be a red flag for Cushings disease. 
  2. Run your hands down the horse’s legs, checking for any scarring, heat or acute swelling as these could signal potential soundness problems.
  3. Turn the horse in a few tight circles in each direction. He should be able to cross his front and hind legs easily as he turns. His neck should be limber and not noticeably stiff. If the horse shuffles or looks off balance, this could be a sign of a soundness or neurological problem.
  4. Check the horse’s front and lower teeth, making sure they match relatively well. Check the gums for a nice pink color, and identify any rough spots that could indicate sharp teeth edges. If you know how, estimate the horse’s age by his teeth and see if this matches what the owner says.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Save Some Green On Your Next Pre-Purchase Exam” ran in the February 26, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.




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