Before you buy…The Pre-Purchase Exam

Very few savvy horse people would consider buying a horse without a pre-purchase exam. But what is included in that exam, who conducts it and what it all means are less clear. Midge Leitch VMD, DACVS is a staff veterinarian in the Section of Sports Medicine and Imaging at New Bolton Center, the large animal campus of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and former US Equestrian team veterinarian. Her professional experience has taken her around the world - and given her the opportunity to perform hundreds of pre-purchase examinations on sport horses at all levels of athletic endeavor. A pre-purchase exam cannot predict the future, says Dr. Leitch, but should provide the buyer with information to determine if the purchase makes sense for them. Considerations, she says, include the veterinarian you choose, the elements of the exam and what the findings mean in your decision making process. 

Choose the right vet

Most vets will tell you that they don’t have a crystal ball and a pre-purchase exam can only provide information about the horse on the day of the exam. The reality, however, is that a buyer engaging a professional to examine a horse for potential purchase is looking for information that will determine how well the horse will serve his or her future purpose. The accuracy of that information starts with the right choice of veterinarian. Engage a veterinarian who is not only experienced, but also experienced with the type of horse that you are considering and the discipline for which you are considering him. If you are dealing with a vet with whom you don’t have a long-standing relationship, make sure that your expectations for the examination, your experience, your hopes for the horse and your training plans are part of a discussion you have with the vet before the examination takes place. It is also to the benefit of both the buyer and the veterinarian for them to be able to be in contact during the examination.

Avoid conflicts of interest. The horse to be examined should not be owned by a client of the veterinarian performing the pre-purchase exam. The veterinarian should also be free of financial interest in the horse or private knowledge of the horse through previous examinations or consultations.

What to include

Discuss what should be included in the pre-purchase exam of the horse you may be buying, along with the estimated costs, up front, says Dr. Leitch. There is a broad menu of components that can be included. A drug screen including both plasma and urine is an essential if the horse has not been under the care of the buyer for the month preceding the exam. “I insist on both,” says Dr. Leitch, “as only one or the other can result in a false negative screen; some illicit substances are not well tested for in one or the other, or substances may have cleared the plasma by the time the testing is being performed.”
As far as blood work is concerned, age should be a significant factor in determining whether or not liver and kidney function tests should be performed.

A basic pre-purchase exam includes a physical examination of the horse in motion, either in hand, under saddle, in harness or on a lunge line. “Following a thorough physical examination, I like to observe the horse in hand, walking and trotting on straight lines and in circles, usually on both hard and soft surfaces, followed by flexion tests, a neurologic exam, and then on an incline.” Leitch then listens to heart and lungs again after exercise.

Special testing

Appropriate imaging options should be discussed before the exam is started, the decisions guided by the age, breed, history, intended use and value of the horse in question. But abnormal clinical findings may indicate the need to perform imaging that was not in the original plan. If you are not going to be on site during the pre-purchase exam, make sure that you are available for consultation with the veterinarian during the time of the exam, so that you can give consent for further testing, should the veterinarian recommend it. Sometimes these tests require the permission of the seller as well: for example if the horse requires sedation or if the hair needs to be clipped for a good ultrasound image.

An endoscopic exam to assess the airways may be appropriate and will need to be done in a specialty hospital.

Assessing the flaws

It’s a sure bet that no one wants to continue a pre-purchase exam after it becomes clear that the horse is not an appropriate choice for the buyer. But it’s also certain that no horse is going to be without its imperfections. So what is tolerable and what is not? That is something for the buyer and veterinarian to ascertain. Minor flaws, particularly if the horse being considered is a schoolmaster with a history of work, may be something the buyer is ready and willing to cope with. On the other hand, serious deficits may cause the vet to advise the buyer to discontinue the exam before incurring additional expense.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion on the seriousness of certain imperfections. Any veterinarian performing a pre-purchase exam who requests a second opinion should be applauded for his commitment to doing the best possible job for his client.

What does it all mean?

The veterinarian should not be expected to warranty the medical/surgical history, age or height of the horse; Dr. Leitch suggests these issues should be negotiated between the buyer and seller. She also likes to discuss with her clients the option for resale should the horse not turn out as hoped.
It is worthwhile to note that the records of the medical examination are legal medical records and the property of the examining veterinarian, who is required to hold on to them for 10 years. The potential buyer should receive a written evaluation from the veterinarian, which is either a presentation of findings and conclusions or may consist of a copy of the actual examination record.

Says Dr. Leitch, the pre-purchase exam is a challenge for the veterinarian, who has to sort through the observations and test results to determine what they will mean to the buyer. Yes, it is an evaluation of the horse on that given day, but the information gathered on that day can provide valuable clues that will allow the buyer to make a reasonable prediction about how well the horse will serve his future purpose.


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