Purchasing a horse seems to be getting more and more complicated. It is not uncommon to hear about someone that bought the horse of their dreams, only to have it turn up lame or ill several weeks later.
The veterinarians role in the purchasing process is often a critical part of protecting the buyers investment. Just as a mechanic would be useful in "checking out" a used car, a veterinarian can help the buyer evaluate a horse before a commitment to purchase is made. Of course, there are a lot of reasons to buy a horse, and it is very important for the buyer to know exactly what it is they are expecting of the animal. Some people want a horse only to observe as it meanders across the pasture; others are hoping to compete in the next Olympic Games. The clients expectations for the horse weigh heavily during a prepurchase examination.
As a rule, veterinarians try to evaluate only the medical aspects of the animal (such as general health, soundness, and reproductive capability). Color, size, attitude, expense, ridability, and general movability of the horse are characteristics that usually come down to personal preference of the buyer.
Horses are dynamic in that they are living creatures and change with time and use. Consequently, the prepurchase evaluation is designed to assess a specific animal at only one point in time. That is why you will usually see the date of examination conspicuously written at the top of the prepurchase form. Nevertheless, we believe that it is important for the veterinarian to not only accurately assess the current condition of the animal, but make the buyer aware of problems that are likely to occur in the future as a result of something that was noted during the evaluation.
At The Atlanta Equine Clinic, we don't "pass" or "fail" horses during prepurchase evaluation. Rather, we try to accurately and completely identify each abnormality and make the buyer aware of how such abnormalities may affect the performance of the animal for its intended use. Again, the veterinary medical aspect of the exam is only one part of the purchasing process. Depending on the intended use of the animal, the medical examination may be a more important part for some clients than others. It is always preferable to have the seller present for the evaluation, as they can often provide pertinent history and a list of current medications.
Furthermore, if an abnormality is detected during the exam, the veterinarian can make the seller aware of the problem immediately rather than leaving this task to the buyer. Once a horse is up for sale, it may become more difficult for the seller to justify spending time and money on general concerns such as hoof and teeth care. It is important to realize, however, that a horse not properply trimmed, shod, wormed, etc. is at a disadvantage during prepurchase evaluation. We knew one seller who contested that their mare was worth $250,000 but had not had her teeth floated in over 5 years.
We would like to take you through a typical prepurchase evaluation, step by step. Since the buyer is paying for "information", it is best for the veterinarian to put the information in a detailed and easy-to-understand written format.
The horse is visibly inspected for evidence of dermatitis and cosmetic blemishing. The heart, lungs, trachea, and abdomen are auscultated and any abnormalities are noted. Vital signs including heat rate, respiratory rate and temperature are also recorded.
The age of the animal is confirmed. In some cases, there is a considerable discrepancy between the marketed age of the animal and its "teeth" age. In such cases, we recommend that the buyer go on the advice of the veterinarian as to the age of the animal. The teeth are also checked for occlusion, sharp points, hooks, and waves. Horse missing teeth will require increased dental work. A veterinarian always likes to see a horse that has had its teeth recently floated and it preputial sheath cleaned, as it suggests that the horse has been well cared for.
The horse's vision as well as the critical structures of the eye are assessed.
The cranial and peripheral nervous systems are evaluated for abnormalities. Vision, hearing, neck flexibility, and various reflexes are tested. Some veterinarians will perform a "slap test", which assesses laryngeal function (and therefore upper airway respiration). Since diagnosis and treatment of neurologic disease in horses can be quite involved (and expensive), it is important to rule out potential neurologic disease before the buyer writes the check.
This part of the exam may be the most important for younger horses (age 0-3 years). Horses in this age bracket are rarely lame as they have not yet been asked to perform extensively in their discipline. Therefore, the veterinarian attempts to predict potential problems based on conformational abnormalities. For example, a carpal valgus (knock-kneed) conformation in a young thoroughbred racehorse will result in increased compressive force on the medial (inside) aspect of the carpus. Under extreme stress, this increased compression can result in fracture of the third carpal bone and/or breakdown of the joint(s).
Passive Lameness Evaluation:
This part of the lameness evaluation is usually performed in the stall. Various muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints are palpated and assessed for discomfort or stiffness. A lot of secondary (compensatory) problems (such as a sore back) are detected during this part of the evaluation. The presence of certain secondary problems may provide clues as to the type of primary problem(s) that may exist.
In cases where foot problems are present, AEC will usually seek the opinion of the horse's future farrier. Since the farrier is going to be responsible for the future care of the feet, it only makes sense that they should have a chance to stick in their 2 cents when possible.
Active Lameness Evaluation:
Involves viewing the horse at a walk, trot, canter, etc. Flexion tests are performed to detect increased pain in certain joints. The size, location, amount of weightbearing, and amount of motion of individual joints are usually proportional to their importance in regard to maintaining future soundness and performance.
Many buyers request radiographic examination of certain portions of the horse (e.g. navicular and hock areas) even before the prepurchase exam gets underway. Although radiographs can reveal invaluable information regarding future soundness of the horse, it is very important to realize that they provide us with only a small part of the whole picture. Pain is inevitably a result of inflammation, which is invisible radiographically. Therefore, radiographic abnormalities should be assessed in close communication with clinical evaluation. Radiographic abnormalities do not confirm the presence of inflammation, just as a normal radiographic appearance does not confirm a lack of inflammation (and pain).
Performed in mares and stallions that will be used for breeding. We recommend breeding soundness evaluation in all mares, since they frequently find a way to become future "moms". The appearance and conformation of the vulva, vaginal canal, and exterior cervix is noted. Transrectal ultrasound allows veterinarians to visualize and map the uterus, ovaries, and cervix in mares. Findings should be compared with the previous date of estrus, if known.
In some cases involving older stallions, semen is examined for number and progressive motility (denoted as a percentage) of sperm. Size and position of the testicles is noted. Complete breeding records should be provided by the seller if available. Lumps within the prepuce can represent melanoma, sarcoid, or squamous cell carcinoma. Such lumps should be biopsied if of questionable appearance. We will always check the cleanliness of the sheath, as this often provides insight into the previous care of the animal.
In geldings, the scrotum is palpated to confirm that no testicular or excessive scarring is present. It is possible, of course, for a retained testicle (denoted "cryptorchidism") to be present within the abdominal cavity. Blood work to assess testosterone levels may be warranted in geldings that exhibit stallion-like behavior. The prepuce is also examined for abnormalities.
Most veterinarians will include a "Conclusions" or "Comments" section that highlights the important findings detected during the exam. The veterinarian determines to what extent the problems detected during examintion will interfere with the future performance of the horse in its expected capacity.