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The Pre-Purchase Exam: Managing Expectations

A pre-purchase exam is extremely important but often misunderstood. Knowing what to expect and maybe more importantly, what not to expect from a pre-purchase exam, can make all the difference in helping you successfully pair a horse and rider.

Vetting: A commonly used term, "to vet" was originally a horse racing term, referring to the requirement that a veterinarian check a horse for health and soundness before being allowed to race. Thus, it has taken the general meaning "to check".

Pass or Fail

The very first thing to understand about a pre-purchase exam is that it is not about passing or failing. It is about evaluating any lameness or health issues affecting the horse, understanding what it will take to manage these issues, and with that information, you can then make an informed decision on whether this horse is right for you. Keep in mind, while the veterinarian’s findings may tell you if the horse will be physically capable of doing the job, it will not necessarily tell you how well the horse will perform the job. Evaluating talent, skills, and degree of training along with general suitability of the prospective horse’s temperament should all be done prior to the veterinary evaluation.

We certainly understand that it would be much easier for horse owners (especially from an emotional and investment standpoint) to hear from the examining veterinarian: “Yes, buy the horse,” or “no, don’t buy the horse,” but this is not the purpose of the exam. The exam is a discovery process, and after performing the exam, your veterinarian’s task is to explain his/her findings with as much detail as possible in regards to how any abnormal findings could impact your outlined and intended use. For example: if it is found that the horse has a steep shoulder, the doctor may explain to you that this could inhibit or impact the horse’s ability to move out. If you’re looking for a horse with a long stride, (say for a hunter under saddle) then this horse may not be a good fit. This horse does, however, have a good mind, is easy going, and is otherwise healthy, not to mention you are planning on putting an 8-year-old beginner on it! In this situation, purchasing the horse might still be a good decision.

Remember, only you can “pass” or “fail” a horse. For each person the “fail” tag can be very different, even for the same horse. Make a checklist of acceptable issues, manageable issues, potentially unacceptable issues, and outright unacceptable issues prior to the exam (your own litmus test of sorts). This will help to guide you in making the final decision to purchase or decline. It is important to communicate these considerations to the vet doing your exam as it will help guide them on advising you.

Evaluation Is Of A Moment In Time:

Typically there is one rule that guides the pre-purchase exam: the horse cannot limp on the day it is being vetted! Remember, a veterinarian can only evaluate a horse based on the findings the day of the exam. A vet cannot predict whether a horse will go lame tomorrow nor can they tell if a horse was lame two weeks ago. Understanding the unpredictable and ever-changing nature of the horse is part of the inherent risk of purchasing and owning these animals. The examining veterinarian can only discover and present the health facts of that day so that you can make an informed decision.

If it becomes clear that the horse being evaluated will not be able to perform the task you require, the examining veterinarian should let you know that. The vet should also convey any concerns of potential problems as related to the horse’s “job.”

Communicate With The Vet:

When a veterinarian is examining your prospective horse, be as detailed as possible with them about the job this horse is going to be asked to do, and it is just as important to tell them WHO will be asking the horse to do the job. For example: telling your vet that this is a World Champion western pleasure horse and that you will also being showing the horse western pleasure is not a complete picture. What you didn’t tell your vet was that this horse was shown by a seasoned trainer, was in a 5-day-a-week training program and that you are a novice and will be doing the training at home. Communicate all the details up front. Here is some information that will be beneficial to your veterinarian during the pre-purchase exam:

  1. Job is the horse is currently doing
  2. What level/type of rider is asking the horse to do this work (age, experience, etc.)
  3. Current training program
  4. Number of hours a day the horse is stalled, worked and in pasture
  5. The horse’s diet (including supplements)
  6. How many times per month the horse is being shown/competing (put in a high stress situation)
  7. Any past health issues that you are aware of
  8. Type of riding the horse is currently doing (dressage, western pleasure, reining, etc.)
  9. At what level the horse riding (local, state, world, etc.)
  10. Medical history (teeth floating, hock injections, colic, vaccinations, worming etc.)
  11. As the horse moves to your care, which of the above will change and explain how in detail

Providing this information to your veterinarian can prove to be very valuable and help you make a more informed decision.

Set a Budget:

The level of exams determines the breadth of information you will receive. The saying “ignorance is bliss” does not ring true when it comes to purchasing a horse. Lack of discovery can lead to disappointment, heartache and unexpected medical bills. It’s important to remember it costs just as much to feed a lame or debilitated horse as it does any other horse. Once you own the animal, the responsibility is transferred to you.

Determine a budget prior to making an appointment and understand the cost of each procedure. Don’t let the emotion of buying a horse cause your pre-purchase costs to spiral beyond your pre-determined budget. Communicating this budget to your veterinarian can also help you apply the brakes throughout the process. There is nothing worse than getting a bill for a pre-purchase exam that you were not expecting, especially if you decide not to purchase the horse.

If you do not know the cost of each of the potential procedures, don’t hesitate to ask as you are setting your appointment.

Different Levels of Pre-Purchase Exam:

While there is a baseline, all pre-purchase exams are not created equal or yield the same detailed information. There are many different procedures that can be performed during an exam. Prior to your appointment, determine which exam procedures beyond the standard exam you require (if any), which ones you may want to do, and those you do not wish to be performed. It is helpful to communicate this information to the person setting up the appointment.

Standard Pre-Purchase Exam Should Include:

• Wellness Exam – The veterinarian should do a physical exam that includes taking the horse’s vital signs (pulse, temperature, and respiration), listening to the heart and lungs and examining the eyes and teeth. The veterinarian will also put hands on the horse to palpate soft tissue structures and evaluate the coat to get a good indication of overall body condition.

• Hoof Sensitivity- Hoof testers are used on each hoof to expose any sensitivity in the foot. They are a set of large pinchers that are used to squeeze the hoof. A horse whose feet are not painful should have little to no reaction.

• Lameness & Flexion Test- The veterinarian will observe the horse at a walk and a trot as the horse is moving away from them and towards them. They will be looking for lameness. Then a flexion test will be performed. The doctor will pull up the limb so that all of the joints are flexed for 30-90 seconds. At the end of the flexion period the limb will be released and a handler will be asked to trot the horse straight away from the vet. The doctor is looking for lameness and a change of gait. Any lameness will be graded on a scale of 1-5.

• Evaluation During Exercise- The doctor will ask you to work the horse on a lunge line. During the exercise, the examiner will be evaluating gait for any irregularities that could point to deeper issues. For example: does one hind leg come under the horse more than the other or does one front leg extend farther than the other? The movement will be observed going both ways. This is also a good time to discover any respiratory problems. Does the horse make noise or “roar” while at work? Does it cough or heave? These are all symptoms of underlying abnormalities. Once the horse has completed the exercise, the veterinarian will take the horse’s vital signs again.

Other Pre-Purchase Options:

Beyond the basics you may ask your veterinarian to perform any of these optional tests:

• X-Rays

• Ultrasounds

• Endoscopy

• Routine Blood Screening Tests

• Drug Screening Tests Each comes at an additional cost. X-rays will have an additional cost per x-ray (view). When taking images of the hock, you could end up with as many as 4 images per hock. Familiarize yourself with the cost of these options prior to the exam so you are prepared should you choose to utilize them.

August 06, 2014

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