The pre-purchase exam is one of the most important steps in buying a horse. Vetting not only gives clients a good picture of the horse’s health, but it helps protect the seller, too.
Reasons for Vetting
Most people assume that the vetting process is of greatest value to the buyer, who is often making a substantial investment in a horse. But pre-purchase exams can also be vital for the seller. “I recommend vetting a horse under any circumstance,” says Aimee Boyer, owner of Harmony Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Mass, a hunter-jumper facility. “Not only does it protect the buyer, but it also protects me as the seller.”
Boyer points out that with the technology available today, just a small glimpse inside the horse can provide sufficient information to judge suitability for the intended purpose. This way there are no surprises. “Also, not every horse has 100 percent clean films, particularly older horses,” she adds. “It is much better to know what you are getting into and be able maintain the horse properly.”
Jennifer Garcia, of First Draft Farms in Queen Creek, Ariz., specializing in drafts and draft crosses, encourages all buyers to have a horse examined by a veterinarian, regardless of the price of the horse.
“We encourage all our buyers to have a pre-purchase exam done prior to any purchase, whether the horse or pony is to be used for rigorous competition or just pleasure riding,” she says.
Many of her clients tell her they don’t need to do a pre-purchase exam because they only plan on trail riding, and that they trust her. However, Garcia recommends vetting the horse regardless. “I am always flattered that my clients know they can trust me, but I explain to them that, although I am capable of performing basic lameness exams on my own horses and can point out a horse’s basic conformation flaws, I am not a veterinarian and I cannot diagnose a heart murmur, eye issue, or other such problems,” she says.
Although most sale barns recommend pre-purchase exams on pricey horses, some don’t encourage the process for horses that are less expensive. “I always recommend vetting unless the horse is under $1,200 and is a known horse,” says Shelley Gray, owner of Hollybush Dressage Center in Salisbury Mills, N.Y. “In my area, a horse of that price is generally older or has issues anyway.”
Anne Sparks, CEO of Horses Unlimited, a sale barn specializing in sporthorses in Albuquerque, N.M., doesn’t recommend buyers spend more on the pre-purchase exam than they are spending on the horse. She also lets buyers know that a pre-purchase exam is an evaluation of the horse on the day of the exam only.
“The veterinarian should give an educated opinion as to whether the horse is suitable for the buyer’s stated purpose,” she says. “The vet doesn’t provide the buyer with a guarantee as to the future of the animal, and it is not a pass/fail exam. It is a good understanding of the potential health issues a horse might experience.”
Sale barns handle the vetting process in different ways, depending on the client’s physical location and experience with horses.
First Draft Farms’ policy is to encourage an exam of the horse after a deposit is placed. If the buyer does not have a veterinarian who will perform the exam, Garcia provides a list of local vets. If the buyer would rather the exam be done at an equine hospital or clinic, Garcia arranges the transportation to and from the clinic, with a farm representative present during the exam.
Garcia prefers the buyer be present during the exam if possible, although many times the buyer is out of state.
“They are relying on our description of the horse, with pictures and video to demonstrate the horse’s skill and movement,” she says. “In such cases, we realize the buyers cannot be present and ask that they at least be available on the phone so the vet can relay his or her findings.”
In cases where buyers are local, the protocol changes somewhat. Amanda Seiler of Brummel Horse Farm in Westminster, Md., says that her farm pairs buyers with pleasure and local show horses, and requires exams be performed on the property.
“In order to protect the interest of buyer and seller, we request that the pre-purchase exam be held at our farm in the presence of both parties,” she says. “The exam is to be performed by a veterinarian chosen by the buyer. If needed, we can provide contacts for local veterinarians other than our own.”
At Fairplay Horse, where everything from backyard ponies to show horses are sold, owner Lynn Ohara notes that vetting protocols are flexible.
“Buyers wishing to purchase horses or ponies from Fairplay can contract with a vet in our area (excluding our own) to have the horse vetted at our farm,” she says. “They can also opt for a trial period, during which they can take the horse home and use their own vet.”
The depth of the pre-purchase exam also varies among barns, depending on policy and the price of the horse.
Boyer states that, at the very minimum, she recommends an overall health exam and flexion tests. She also likes to see films of the hocks and front hooves on jumping horses. “This is a less expensive pre-purchase exam that can still give you an idea of future soundness and suitability for the job intended,” she says.
Garcia’s recommendation for a vet check depends on the client’s intended use for the horse. “It totally depends on what the buyer wants to do with his or her equine partner,” she says. “If the buyer is paying a low price for the animal, and the price of the exam may well exceed the purchase price of the horse, then they may wish to forgo the added expense of a full pre-purchase exam. However, minimally, I recommend the client watch the horse move, both freely and either under saddle or in harness.”
Garcia believes that a blatant lameness should be obvious to even an untrained eye, and just about everyone can recognize when an animal is limping. “Often a horse will move soundly when running about freely, but with the added weight/burden of a rider, will become obviously lame,” she says.
When clients do hire a vet for an exam, she recommends they be up front with him or her and explain their intended use of the animal, as well as expectations of the exam. “If they are only looking for a backyard pet to groom and occasionally hop on bareback, then some mild arthritis or a recovered founder may be acceptable,” she says. “But if they intend to reach high levels of competition with the animal, they may wish to have a full exam to include blood work and complete X-rays taken of all limbs.”
In the case of broodmares, a fertility check and ultrasound is a wise thing to include in the exam, she adds.
According to Sparks, the type of exam should be determined by the age and function of the horse. “With young stock, it certainly makes sense to have a pre-purchase examination without X-rays,” she says. “A full lameness evaluation at this age is not necessary, as lameness in young horses is usually very obvious. If there is a conformational anomaly, then it might be of value to take x-rays and discuss the likelihood of a lameness developing in the future.”
For horses-under-saddle over the age of two, she recommends clients use a veterinarian accustomed to viewing x-rays for the breed of horse being considered. “The evaluation of Warmbloods, Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds and other breeds for performance can be slightly different,” she says.
Whether clients are buying an expensive show horse or a backyard pony, everyone benefits when a vet takes a close look at the horse.