The Final Step

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In the complex procedure of buying a horse, one step in the process can best be described as the “moment of truth.” That moment is the veterinary pre-purchase exam. Trainers, barn owners and veterinarians have different ways of handling the all-important pre-purchase exam, with the primary goal of providing the prospective buyer with the most accurate information about the horse he is considering.

Preparation Saves Time

Long before the pre-purchase exam, the prospective horse owner must have a firm grasp on what he intends to do with the horse.

David P. Langford, owner of Calamity Jane Horse Cache, an Icelandic Horse breeding facility in Molt, Mont., and trainer Steinar Sigurbjörnsson, sit down with a client to map out exactly what the client wants from a horse.

“The first thing we recommend to clients is to create a clear idea of what they are looking for in a horse, even to the point of writing down a purpose statement,” says Langford. “Beginning buyers often know they want a horse, but sometimes haven’t given too much thought to the specifics they are looking for.”

After the client determines exactly what he is looking for, Langford then has the client ask himself a series of questions designed to help narrow the choices to the right horse. “Before you reach the point of a vet exam, these steps can save a lot of time and money. This is the pre-purchase exam for the buyer.”

What Does Price Dictate?

But, when that last step comes, should the price of the horse determine the thoroughness of an exam? Most barn owners recommend that clients have the horse vet checked, regardless of the price, but the number of diagnostic procedures performed does vary.

“The price of the horse for sale comes into play in a private sale, if the client is not looking to spend a lot of money,” says Keith Sirota, a Thoroughbred trainer in Sarasota, Fla. “If the horse was not expensive, I would take fewer radiographic shots and do an endoscopic exam.”

Earl Bimson, a reining horse trainer at Rancho Sueño in Peoria, Ariz., suggests to all his clients they have a prospect examined by a veterinarian, regardless of price. “It doesn’t matter if the horse is selling for $2,500 or $20,000,” he says. “A pre-purchase exam is certainly a good indication of the condition of a horse, regardless of price.”

For horses that are in the lower price ranges, many veterinarians wait for the results of the preliminary exam before suggesting more expensive diagnostic procedures.

“We may recommend X-rays if a horse flexed sore in a particular joint and the client wanted more diagnostics,” says Dr. Silvia do Valle, a veterinarian with Equine Medical Care in Ocala, Fla. “The most thorough pre-purchase we do includes X-rays, ultrasound, endoscopy, semen evaluation in stallions, blood work, fecal exam and a drug screen.”

Some veterinarians recommend that a horse receive these thorough pre-purchase exams, regardless of its price or intended use. “The most thorough vet exam should be carried out in any pre-purchase exam,” says Nancy Loving, a practicing equine veterinarian and author of the “Veterinary Manual For The Performance Horse.” She says, “should the examiner find areas of concern, such as scars, tenderness or lameness, these are sufficient reasons to radiograph. In some cases, it is helpful to take screening films to have a baseline of the state of the joints or hooves at the time of purchase, to be used as a later reference if some problem arises.”

Getting Involved

When it comes to finding a veterinarian to perform the exam, some barn owners prefer to stay neutral, letting the client pick.

“I don’t recommend the vet,” says Bimson. “If the client is out of state, I’ll give him a list of vets or suggest he look in the phone book.”

On the other hand, with some breeds and types of horses, involvement by the barn owner is almost necessary to be certain the horse is getting a proper exam.

“Because of the uniqueness of the Icelandic breed, we advise the client which vet to use on the pre-purchase exam,” says Langford. “The vet should be very familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the breed. Otherwise he or she may give very wrong advice.”

When it comes to providing insight into the results, many barn owners opt to get involved.

“I absolutely give advice to my clients on the result of the exam,” says Sirota. “I would let my client know what may occur or can occur if the X-rays show a possible problem as the horse matures and deals with the stress of training.”

Whether Bimson provides advice to clients is based on the situation, although he prefers to let the examining veterinarian do most of the advising. “Most pre-purchase vets will ask the buyer what the horse will be used for,” he says. “A responsible vet tries to evaluate potential use of the horse versus any problems that come up.”

In these situations, Bimson may provide some insight into the problem and how it might affect a performance horse, based on his own experience. “I might tell the client that even though the horse does have a particular problem, it should not be a big deal for what they are going to do with the horse. I try to help the client understand the variables rather than tell him what to do.”

Veterinarian’s Role

Most of the responsibility in interpreting and applying the results of any pre-purchase exam falls on the attending veterinarian, who is expected to explain the findings to the prospective buyer.

“When problems are discovered during a pre-purchase exam, veterinarians must help the client decide if the problem will prevent the horse from being used as the buyer intends,” says Rachel Bourne, a veterinarian with the Wisconsin Equine Clinic in Oconomowoc, Wisc. A horse that shows signs of hock arthritis, she says, might need daily maintenance and possibly more intensive therapy such as joint injections to maintain performance, especially if it’s a performance horse. The horse may give the owner a few good years, but could be retired as unsound when it can no longer compete. If the same horse is purchased as a trail horse that is ridden twice weekly, that same hock arthritis may never become a problem.

In situations where a horse receives a clean vet check, many buyers assume they are getting a horse that is guaranteed to be healthy, which can also pose a problem for both barn owners and veterinarians. “The first-time horse buyer needs to understand that a pre-purchase exam allows the vet to evaluate a horse for just one to two hours out of its life,” says Dr. Bourne. “It is a very small window.”

To help ensure that clients understand the scope of the pre-purchase exam, Dr. do Valle asks clients to sign an agreement stating that they understand that the exam does not guarantee the future health of the horse. “The exam just analyzes the horse ‘as is,’ at that moment of the exam,” she says. “We can’t predict the future and we also can’t make decisions for the buyer since we do not ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ any horse. It is the buyer’s responsibility to put together all his information regarding veterinary exam, farrier check, performance, suitability, temperament and price, and then decide. The veterinary exam is only part of the picture.”

Buying a horse can be a stressful and confusing process for clients, especially first-timers. By making sure the potential buyer understands the ins and outs of a pre-purchase exam and what to reasonably expect, a satisfied customer is born.