Pre-purchase examinations valuable when buying horses

After countless hours of scrolling through classified ads, you think you’ve found your next horse.

Once an in-person meeting goes well, you may want to consider a pre-purchase exam before signing the cheque or sending an e-transfer.

Many veterinarians offer pre-purchase examinations to check over a horse.

The basic examination involves a detailed head-to-toe checkup. The vet will examine the eyes, ears, nose and mouth, skin, muscling, legs, hoofs, genitals and udder. They will listen to the heart, lungs and gut sounds and feel for pulses.

Next will be a basic lameness examination that involves observing the horse moving at a walk and trot, then flexion tests. For this, each leg is lifted and held in flexion with the joints bent for 30 seconds to one minute before the handler trots the horse off while the vet observes its movement. This is repeated for each leg and is useful to uncover subtle lameness.

Abnormalities encountered at any point of the exam are noted. Lameness and joint health may be further explored with X-rays and less often, ultrasound of tendons and ligaments.

Some purchasers request X-ray examinations of all joints, especially for high-value horses. Others may just check the joints of concern from the examination.

High performance horses may undergo a more detailed upper respiratory tract exam with the use of an endoscope, a small camera situated on the end of a long tube that provides visuals of structures in the throat and guttural pouches. This is especially common in race horses.

Another optional add-on is blood testing. Routine blood work is useful to check for signs of systemic disease. A complete blood count can identify anemia and inflammation, for instance. Serum chemistry panels are used to uncover such conditions as kidney and liver disease. A Coggins test is another useful test to include. It is also possible to test for drugs. Pain medication such as phenylbutazone may be used to mask lameness.

Nervous, spooky horses or those that act in other unappealing ways may be administered low doses of tranquilizers to mask unwanted behaviours and make them appear calmer than they are naturally. In either situation, knowing the horse is drugged would be worthwhile before purchasing.

In a pre-purchase exam, the vet is working for the purchaser to avoid any ethical conflicts of interest. The information provided about the horse is their assessment of what they saw that day — an objective assessment of the horse’s health at that point of time.

They cannot guarantee long-term soundness or health. And they can’t say whether or not to buy a particular horse — there is no pass or fail. It is up to the buyer to use the information provided in their decision-making process. Mistakes happen too. A vet may be concerned about a particular joint, but the horse could go on to have a long career. Alternatively, there could be no identifiable issues, yet the horse quickly develops irretractable lameness.

Pre-purchase exams can be fraught with emotions on both sides of the sale. And if a major issue is uncovered, it can be difficult to let the horse go after deciding it is the one.

These exams are also expensive, costing several hundreds of dollars for a basic exam and into the thousands if add-ons like X-rays, endoscopy and drug testing are included. But this amount may be a small fraction of the purchasing cost.

The pre-purchase exam could end up saving you money down the road if it reveals an unhealthy horse. It can also give you peace of mind if you go ahead with the purchase of a sound horse.

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger is a veterinarian who practices pathology and is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.
Twitter: @JRothenburger

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