Pre-purchase – The Vet Examination

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Dr Peter Gillespie. BVSc MACVS.

The horse industry, be it racing, eventing, showjumping or dressage, both for business and pleasure, relies on the buying and selling of horses for its existence. Every year in New Zealand, thousands of horses change ownership, some for as little as $500, others for prices as high as $500,000.

One only has to look at the livestock section of the Saturday newspapers throughout the country, to see the number of horses for sale by their hopeful owners. Descriptions like, “lovely temperament, good conformation, “completely sound” are all used to attract the attention of prospective buyers.

But can the word of the owner be taken on trust? One would like to think the answer in every case would be yes, but unfortunately this isn’t so. It is surprising how often owners are prepared to sell an unsound horse.

A prospective buyer can eliminate the chances of buying someone else’s problems by requesting their veterinarian to carry out a Pre-Purchase Examination.

Veterinarians work to a set protocol in performing these examinations. There are 5 stages to complete, each stage follows on from the one before it.

Stage 1 : The Preliminary Examination

This involves a full clinical evaluation while the horse is standing at rest. All body systems, including the eyes and teeth are examined. Conformation, foot shape and shoeing details are also noted. During this stage, the back should be examined for flexibility and saddle fit.

Stage 2 : Examination During Walking, Trotting, Turning and Backing

During this stage of the examination, the horse’s gait is assessed while being lead ‘in-hand’. A straight, even surface is essential, preferably in a quiet area so the horse’s attention is not distracted. Any lameness or unevenness is noted. Turning and backing the horse up is designed to assess coordination of movement. Flexion tests should be carried out in this part of the examination. These involve loading individual joints in full flexion for 30-60 seconds and then immediately trotting the horse away. Attention is paid to any lameness that was not noticeable initially. The fetlocks, front feet and hock joints should be examined in this way.

Stage 3: Examination During and Immediately After Strenuous Exercise.

The aim of this stage of the examination is to assess the horse’s gait at speed and its cardiovascular response to strenuous exercise. The type of exercise will depend on the intended use the horse is being purchased for but generally the level of intensity should have the horse sweating and its heart rate up to 120 beats / minute.

Stage 4 : Examination During the Cool Down Period.

The aim of this stage of the examination is evaluate the speed of recovery. The level of fitness has to be taken into consideration when recovery is prolonged.

Stage 5 : Examination After the Cool Down Period.

During this stage the horse is walked, trotted, turned and backed to see if the preceding strenuous exercise has induced any lameness that was not noticeable during the preliminary stage of the examination.

There are several ancillary examinations that maybe necessary, depending on the results of the initial 5 stage examination.

Radiographs are often taken routinely, usually of the navicular bones, fetlocks, knees and hocks. Care needs to be taken in interpreting radiographs as it is common to find changes that do not relate to a clinical problem. Radiographs should always be interpreted in conjunction with a clinical examination. In some cases the buyer may request that radiographs only be taken of a suspected clinical problem in order to keep the cost of the examination within their budget.

Tendon ultrasound scans are a useful ancillary test to detect any small lesions in the superficial and deep flexor tendons that may not be apparent on the preliminary examination.

It is important to realise that the results of a pre-purchase examination only apply to one point in time. Although it is important to identify potential problems, it does not give an assurance as to what may happen in the future. I have had personal experience with a horse, that two days after passing a pre purchase examination, injured itself in a paddock accident. The buyer, unaware of the injury, went ahead with the purchase of the horse, relying on the initial examination report which in reality, was no longer relevant.

Not all pre-purchase examinations require the full 5 stages. Each horse should be treated individually. A child’s pony and a 4 star eventer would not need to undergo the same level of examination. The veterinarian needs to know for what use the horse is being purchased. Any relevant details the buyer knows about the horse’s past performance should be made available.

It is important to have the owner present at the time of the examination. This allows the veterinarian to ask relevant questions on behalf of the buyer and in doing so, build up a detailed history on the horse. One of the most difficult examinations a veterinarian can be asked to do is when a buyer has a horse on 2 weeks trial that has previously been turned out for three to six months. Obtaining an accurate history in these cases is difficult, in particular the reason as to why the horse was turned out.

The owner can be required to complete and sign a seller’s declaration that then becomes part of the veterinary certificate. Questions relate to the horse’s medical history, temperament and lack of vices. The owner must declare whether the horse is currently receiving medication, in particularly, anti-inflammatory drugs and also whether the horse has been examined by another veterinarian in the preceding 12 months.

Blood samples maybe taken at the time of the examination. These can be analysed for the presence of anti-inflammatory medication that may mask a lameness problem. Because of their cost, they are not done routinely.

The results of the examination are the property of the buyer. The seller may have access to the information with their consent.

The costs associated with a pre-purchase examination will obviously vary with the level of examination involved. A basic preliminary examination with a written report may cost around $150.00. A full 5 stage examination with radiographs and ultrasound may cost close to $600.00. Each case will be different. Whichever way you look at it, it has to be money well spent especially when you consider the costs in relation to the purchase price, not to mention those involved when you have to start diagnosing and treating a problem once you are the horse’s new owner.

If you are thinking of buying a horse, talk to your veterinarian first; their advice is worth following.

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