A Horse Buyer’s Guide to the Prepurchase Exam

By Lisa Gift Krauter, DVM, DACVS, Pilchuck’s Equine Department

What’s the Point?

The prepurchase exam provides the buyer of a particular horse with enough information to make an informed decision about whether the horse will meet his/her needs. It is a fact-finding mission to try to identify pre-existing conditions that might affect the horse’s use by a buyer. The prepurchase exam is an assessment of the horse’s health and soundness for that particular day – not a guarantee for future soundness, a value appraisal or a certificate for suitability for the buyer. 

Most horses have some physical weaknesses – the prepurchase examination helps to identify these weaknesses so that buyers can decide if they are willing to manage these areas of weakness.

Elements of the Prepurchase Exam

A prepurchase examination will typically occur in the following sequence:

Basic health evaluation

This includes obtaining a health history; evaluating the temperature, pulse and respiration; listening to the heart, lungs and intestinal sounds; examining the eyes, ears, mouth and skin; and getting a general overall impression of the horse’s condition and conformation.

Additionally, the hooves and shoeing will be assessed, and hoof testers will be applied to the sole/frog as an aid to identify areas of sensitivity from inflammation or bruising. Many veterinarians try to get as much history as possible about the horse from the seller, including previous medical records.

A lameness assessment (including limb palpation, movement evaluation and flexion tests)

Initially, the veterinarian will palpate the horse’s limbs to identify areas of swelling, heat or pain associated with the joints or the soft tissues (such as tendons or ligaments). The examination proceeds to watching the horse in hand at the walk and trot on a straight line on firm, level ground. The veterinarian evaluates the horse’s foot fall and alterations in limb movement, looks for obvious signs of lameness, and checks for asymmetry of limb or body movement.

The horse is then asked to move in a circle both directions on hard ground and then on soft ground. On soft ground, the horse is asked to circle at the walk, trot and canter, which can accentuate a subtle lameness or shortness of stride, demonstrate the ability to undergo gait transitions, and may uncover a potential respiratory problem.

Finally, under some circumstances and for some riding disciplines, the veterinarian asks that the horse be ridden. This allows the veterinarian to see the horse performing the job that the buyer desires, and in some instances reveals issues that may not be apparent on the longe line.

Throughout the initial lameness evaluation, the veterinarian also watches for any abnormal movement that could result from an underlying neurologic problem.

Following the initial lameness evaluation, the veterinarian performs a series of “flexion tests” to stress joints in a sequential fashion. The joint being stressed is flexed for 30 to 90 seconds, and then the horse is immediately trotted when the limb is released. As the horse is trotted, the veterinarian looks for signs of lameness. Although the test is subjective in its interpretation, it can help point out a potential problem area. Most horses will have a transitory, mild painful response to one or more flexion tests; a consistent, significant lameness would be a potential cause for concern.

Ancillary diagnostics

Not all prepurchase examinations proceed to this step. Typically, ancillary diagnostics (such as radiographs of bones and joints, ultrasound examination of tendons and ligaments, endoscopic examination of the upper airway, evaluation of reproductive potential, and/or blood work) are done if an area of question was identified in the health or lameness examination, or if the buyer desires to obtain as much information regarding the horse’s health as possible to make an informed purchase decision. 

After the Exam

At the conclusion of the prepurchase examination, the veterinarian will summarize the results of the examination and ancillary diagnostic tests. Most veterinarians no longer “pass” or “fail” the horse, but will try to help the potential buyer understand the overall condition (both strengths and weaknesses) of the horse, allowing the buyer to make an informed decision about the purchase of the horse.

Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital offers comprehensive equine services, including prepurchase exams. For more information, call 360.568.3111 or visit www.pilchuckvet.com.

A board-certified large-animal surgeon, Lisa Gift Krauter, DVM, DACVS, has been a member of the Pilchuck team since 1992.