Get the skinny before you own with pre-buy exam

Exam starts at $400 | Horse examiner determines soundness and serviceability

Buying a horse is a lot like buying a used car, says a senior clinician at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon.

“The one thing in the horse world they always talk about is buyer beware,” said Sue Ashburner of the college’s equine field service.

“When people are buying horses without a prepurchase (exam), they have to take the seller’s word totally,” she said.

“Once you buy that horse, you own it.”

Investing in a prepurchase exam may save the buyer time, money and heartache. However, like used vehicles, there are no guarantees, and problems may surface down the road.

As the equine industry grows in Saskatchewan, so does the number of prepurchase exams.

“It’s a growing practice to have prepurchase exams. There’s a lot of higher end horses out there now,” said Ashburner.

Ashburner said she works for the buyers who pay for the exam, whether they are high-end jumpers that sell for $100,000, trained ranch horses in the $4,000-$10,000 range or a beginner’s first horse in the $1,000 to $1,500 range.

Basic exams start at $400 per horse and take about half a day.

She said extra services such as X-rays and other specialized tests increase costs into the thousands of dollars, but it’s all relative to the horse’s market value and purpose.

“The bulk of them we do in this practice are $30,000 to $40,000 animals,” she said. “In general, on the high-end horses they want a whole series of X-rays of hocks and stifles and front feet and fetlocks. You could easily take the price up.”

Ashburner said suitability, serviceability and soundness are the three S’s of pre-purchase.

Determining suitability is up to the buyer and needs to be done before the exam. Potential buyers should compare the horse to the rider to see if they’re a good match.

She recommends that beginning horse owners talk to experienced people about horse-rider suitability.

“Even take it for a period of time if the seller will let them and try it and see if the horse suits them before they bring it to me.”

Ashburner said it’s her job to determine the horse’s serviceability and soundness.

“I look at how the horse is today and try to look at his physical,” she said.

“Then I want to look for any shortcomings, any abnormalities, any blemishes or conformation that may affect him.”

She said she never uses the word soundness during the exam.

“There’s no such thing as a sound horse because soundness implies there’s nothing wrong with the horse now. It may show up at a later date.”

Ashburner said she puts significant effort into communicating with the potential buyer, verbally during the physical exam and after with a four page report, including a summary.

“In the end, after I’ve gone through the horse and detailed everything and put it through flexion tests and stuff, it’s up to them to make the decision,” she said.

“I don’t pass or fail the horse. I will tell them if I have real concerns about the horse.”

The evaluation format starts with a distance exam, followed by a standing physical exam with emphasis on the feet. Hoof testing involves looking for heal pain. Hock issues are common.

“Any horse that’s worked any degree will have hock issues because like our ankle, it’s really intricate,.”

A moving exam involves lunging the horse in both directions and watching it at the different gates while keeping an eye out for possible lameness during up and down transitions.

Flexion tests, including the controversial fetlock flexion, are performed to look for possible arthritis.

Ashburner said a thorough prepurchase exam will go a long way to de-termine the real cost for the horse, which may include medications, additional therapies and ongoing corrective work.

“In general, the higher end the horse is going to be, like a high-end jumper, the more serious the shortcomings or problems we find in the horse.”

Ashburner said she likes the seller to be present for the exam, as long as they don’t interfere. She said some horse sellers can intimidate buyers, especially a new horse person.

“Sometimes they’ll haul it two to three hours in and basically they’re saying to the person, ‘I’ve gone to all this work to bring it in and your vet is saying it’s sore in the front end and it’s not. I’ve been riding it for three years and it’s not,’ ” said Ashburner.

Information collected during the exam, including X-rays, belong to the buyer, who may or may not disclose to the seller.

“Sometimes the next morning I’ll have an absolutely irate person come into the clinic wanting to know what the heck I found wrong with their horse. I can’t tell them,” she said.

However, most buyers do share the information with sellers, even though they sometimes pay $1,000 for the report.

“There’s a lot of stressful things and there’s always grey areas,” she said.

Prepurchase exams are a potentially contentious area of veterinary medicine, which many veterinarians avoid because it’s fraught with emotion, miscommunication and litigation.

“If you look at the U.S., the area of second highest litigation in equine practice is prepurchase exams,” she said. “It was often communication , a vet that could see something but they weren’t really sure of it and didn’t disclose it well enough to a client, or they thought they did and maybe didn’t put it in writing.”

Many veterinarians, particularly small town vets, refer their clients to somebody who works more with horses or to a teaching centre where there is a lot of back-up resources and specialization.

Ashburner said the work is seasonal and is beginning to ramp up this time of year. Show season will soon be here and people are thinking of changing horses or upgrading.

“We’re quiet in the winter and come summertime we’re crazy busy. And summertime starts about now.”