Pre-purchase exams can be a valuable tool in determining whether or not you should move forward with the purchase of a horse. However, viewing them with proper perspective is vital to making the right decision.
One of my good friends recently went through the arduous task of selling a horse. The mare is finished on barrels, scopey over fences, incredibly sane, very athletic, always gives 110% effort and hasn’t taken a lame step once since my friend has owned her. In short, she is one of those once-in-a-life-time horses that people would have to be crazy not to buy. Despite all of this, the selling process, as it always is, was filled with ups and downs and plenty of less-than-sane buyers (but that’s an article for another day).
When the seemingly right buyer came along, none of us were worried that the sale wouldn’t go through (mistake number one, right?), even when it was time for the pre-purchase exam (PPE). The mare is healthy and had been seen by our vet, farrier and dentist (all of whom are knowledgeable and capable in their respective professions) regularly.
When it came time for to schedule the PPE, my friend recommended veterinarians in our area who we don’t use but who also have excellent reputations (we are blessed to have access to a number of quality veterinary practices) so that there would be no conflict of interests. The day of the PPE, the buyers were excited, seeing it as a mere formality, and all of us were confident the horse had found her new home.
And then the results came back.
The horse didn’t fail the PPE, necessarily, but the vet reported that there was something off that she couldn’t place. Wait. What?
This horse hadn’t been lame once and she was under a regular to heavy workload. She ran barrels, she jumped, she did cross country … how did this PPE come back as anything less than stellar?
This experience led me to ask myself, “What do we really learn from the PPE?”
Let me be clear from the outset: PPEs are beneficial and I recommend them, in some form, to anyone looking to purchase a horse. However, I also recommend that buyers remember that the goal of a PPE is to provide them with enough information to allow them to make an informed decision about whether or not the horse will meet their needs.
So, here is what we get from a basic PPE:
- Basic health evaluation (generally the vet will do an eye exam, check heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature, look thoroughly at the limbs and body for any blemishes or old injuries, give a body score and check feet with hoof testers)
- Conformation analysis
- Lameness analysis (typically through a flexion test, soft tissue palpation and movement evaluation)
From here, more thorough diagnostic tests can be done that will give the buyer further information.
And this is where I tell people to examine their needs. For the casual rider, a basic PPE, if it comes out satisfactorily, can provide all the information one needs. However, if something turns out to be a bit off – one joint flexing positive, for instance – more information needs to be gathered.
The next level of PPE includes diagnostic testing that can include radiographs (X-rays), nerve blocks, ultrasounds and/or bloodwork (and if you really want to go all out and you have a fat wallet, there is magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs). These more thorough tests can show us definitively what’s going on with the horses we are looking to buy – or at least what’s going on with their bones, joints and soft tissues.
Bloodwork can show if a horse has been drugged (and for this reason, a blood draw is never a bad idea) or if it has an infection, among other things. Radiographs can reveal arthritis, bone chips and fractures (both recent and healed). Nerve blocks can pinpoint the source of lameness. Ultrasounds and MRIs can show torn ligaments and other soft tissue concerns as well as cysts and tumors.
For many of us, spending thousands or even hundreds on images automatically puts a horse out of our price range. However, for riders who are shopping for performance horses, clean radiographs are a must (no matter what the flexion test shows).
But this is where the PPE becomes subjective and perspective is required. A “failed” PPE for one buyer is not a failed PPE for another buyer.
For instance, the first horse I purchased had a positive flexion in her left hind hock. Films revealed some arthritis and minor joint maintenance was recommended. At the time, I was shopping for a trail horse that could do the occasional play day show. Minor arthritis in a 15-year-old horse was not a deal breaker and soundness was never one of our limitations.
However, had I been shopping for a 1D barrel horse or an eventing partner, this would not have been the horse for me.
In order to keep the PPE in perspective, it’s important that, as a buyer, you view the exam and its results critically and through the lenses of your riding and your checkbook. Consider what you ask of your horse, your ability to keep your horse legged up and the level of maintenance to which you are able to commit.
Do you ride hard daily, hard a couple of times a week or lightly occasionally? Are regular joint injections out of the question? Can you manage a case of uveitis? Do you have the infrastructure to limit grass intake if that’s what your new equine pal needs? Questions like these are important to ask yourself as you choose whether or not move forward with a purchase.
Although a PPE can be an incredibly useful tool in helping you determine whether or not you should buy a horse, it also has its limitations.
First and foremost, the PPE is only as good as the vet performing it. If a vet is not particularly skilled at diagnosing lameness, he or she may miss something or misunderstand a horse’s way of going for latent lameness (although this is another aspect of a horse that may concern you as a buyer).
Further, a PPE is only a snapshot in time. It does not and is not designed to take into account if a horse is sore from a recent workout or a long trailer haul in cold weather. For these reasons, it’s important to invest in more diagnostic testing or at least have the vet out to re-evaluate the horse at a later date.
The PPE is only a piece of the overall puzzle when it comes to purchasing a horse. It can reveal a deal breaker or it can provide peace of mind as you move forward with your purchase.
As for my friend’s horse, the first potential buyer passed. They were worried about the horse holding up to jumping 3’ courses. That’s a fair concern. The buyer who did purchase the mare has her in regular work and is now eventing on her. The horse hasn’t taken a lame step since.