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The Pre-Purchase Exam June 2, 2011

Posted by twobitkc in Uncategorized.

When you’re looking at buying a horse (or pony), one of the most important steps in the process is the pre-purchase examination. I wish I had a dollar for every seller who’s ever said to me, “There’s no point in doing a pre-purchase exam. I can tell you everything that’s wrong with him…” I would have…well, let’s just say A LOT of dollars.

But, here’s the thing. You don’t do a pre-purchase exam to find out what you already know about the horse. You do one to find out what you (and anyone else) don’t know.

Let’s say the seller has disclosed that the horse has some degeneration in his hocks. You factor that information in to your decision to purchase, and the price you are willing to pay. And, of course, you will plan to radiograph those hocks during your pre-purchase exam to confirm the sellers information and to observe the extent of the joint damage. However, if those x-rays show a large chip in the joint capsule and a complete lack of joint spacing, then you may decide not to purchase that horse. The owner knew the horse had hock issues and rightly disclosed that information to you. However, until they’ were x-rayed, no one knew the true extent of the hock issues and damage the joints may have suffered.

There will be several “decision points” during your pre-purchase involving how far you want to go and how much money you want to spend. All exams begin with a general health exam, and the vets opinion of the horse’s conformation as it relates to its suitability for intended use. You will have spent around $100 to get that information. At that point, a good veterinarian will ask you how much further you want to go with evaluating the horse. It’s not about their opinion of the horse and they shouldn’t offer it at this point unless asked. I always recommend flexion tests – where specific joints are manipulated under pressure and the horses response is noted, on a 0-5 reaction scale, as they trot away from the test. A zero = no reaction to the test and is good. A five = dead-dog lame after the test and is not so good! With joint flexions, you’re approaching $200.

If your veterinarian indicates that your horse is in good overall health, has no conformation issues or blemishes that would hinders its usefulness, and it passes all the flexion tests then there is usually no need to go further and spend any more money. However, here are a couple of instances where you may want to proceed to x-ray some joints, even though flexions were good:

1) You are paying a lot of money for this horse. Remember, the more you pay the more you will want to get when you are ready to sell. When you are the seller and are asking a lot, the potential buyer will probably want x-rays. It helps on resale to have a set of x-rays from when you purchased so that the buyer and his/her vet can use them to compare with current x-rays. Sometimes it not the condition of the joints that is so important, but rather how much the joints have CHANGED over time.

2) You expect this horse to do a difficult job, or last over a long period of time. In those cases, your best insurance is to radiograph the “money” joints (hocks, stifles, fetlocks, navicular – or some combination of those) to make sure there isn’t something going on that may affect this horse down the road.

Any time a joint doesn’t flex well, you have reached another decision point. Do you x-ray the joint to see what’s going on and hope it’s not something serious? Or, do you end the exam and decline to purchase based on the fact that the horse did not “pass” flexion tests? Some questions you might ask to help you make that decision are…how much do you like this horse?…how much are you paying for this horse?…how old is this horse?…how much has this horse been used so far?

If you really, really like the horse, get an x-ray. It may be nothing or very little and you can proceed to purchase with a clear conscience. The horse may have gotten a kick the day before and just be sore, or have twisted something running in the pasture and will be fine with a couple days of rest.

If you’re paying a lot for the horse, get an x-ray. It’s just insurance against the purchase price and your reasonable prospects of recovering some of it on resale!

If it’s an older horse, you may not want to x-ray. Older horses often don’t flex great. If you like the horse and are willing to put up with some creakiness to get an appropriate mount that’s been around the block and can teach your child safely, just note that the joint may need some maintenance and move on.

If it’s a younger horse, get an x-ray. Basically, the younger the horse is the higher your expectations should be regarding it’s soundness. A young horse hasn’t had time to put a lot of wear and tear on it’s joints, so chances are that any soreness is not a result of the normal degenerative changes that come from aging, but rather due to some injury or more serious joint issue.

If the horse has been used very little, get an x-ray. See all the reasons above.

If the horse is in good health and has passed all the flexions (or you have x-rayed and are satisfied with the results), this is a good time to ask your vet their general opinion of the horse. You already know what your trainer thinks – you are pre-purchasing after all! Vets aren’t trainers and their perspectives are different. Your trainer has to live with the horse every day, needs to make the two of you into partners, and wants to make sure you are able to win (if you train hard and do your homework). Your vet needs your horse to stand quietly twice a year when he vaccinates it. However, vets see plenty of horses each day and most have a good feel for when a horse is a decent type or a jerk. I always ask what they think – I don’t always agree!

Buying a horse is a fairly emotional undertaking. We all tend to “love” our horses early and easily. A pre-purchase exam will help to keep you from falling in love with someone who is only gonna’ break your heart.


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