Prior to purchase examinations
By Peter Fenton BVM&, MRCVS
There are an enormous number of things to think about when you are considering the purchase of a horse, whether it is your first ever venture into the equestrian world or it is an additional animal into an established competition yard. Once you have decided what type of horse or pony you want, an approximate age, price range and level of experience you are looking for then there is the practicality of where to keep it, what type of livery suits you (diy/part/full) and how you will transport it there after the purchase.
In the midst of all these decisions and the excitement of looking at new horses and potentially that immediate “attraction” to the one you would like it can be easy to overlook the possibility that it may be medically incapable or unsuitable for your needs.
A horse is always “sold as seen” and there is no basic warranty when buying one unless the vendor chooses to give you one and, unless there is a large discrepancy from the written advert, you will have no comeback with the vendor if you discover that the horse is unsuitable after purchase. The only way to get some warranty on the medical status of the horse is to have a prior to purchase examination performed by a vet. This is sometimes referred to as a vetting and is a standardised examination of an equine before it is bought so that advice can be given to the potential purchaser on the suitability and current health of the horse/pony in question.
The examination has been standardised so that every time it is performed it follows the same guidelines and order with some minor variation depending on the vets’ individual technique. There is a mandatory section of the examination, some parts that are not mandatory but are commonly performed and some optional elements that are included at the potential purchasers discretion. There is often some misunderstanding as to whether there is a choice between a 5 stage examination and a 2 stage examination. The prior to purchase examination is a 5 stage examination and this is the only examination that offers any warranty to the purchaser and should always be performed when it is possible to do so. A limited examination (2 stage) is just that, limited, and does not allow a full examination of the horse, therefore offering no warranty to the purchaser. These limited examinations are sometimes necessary if a horse is too young or unhandled to safely do the exercise elements of the examination and it is sometimes requested by insurance companies before they will agree a policy once you already own the horse.
There is a standard certificate that is completed at each examination and given to the potential purchaser, this contains a description of the horse and names all of the parties involved on the first page of the 2 page document and then details the examination on the second page concluding with the declaration by the examining vet regarding the horses’ suitability for purchase. There is a common thought that, at the end of the examination, the horse will either pass or fail but this is not strictly true. What actually happens is that the examining vet will create a list of findings regarding the horse and there will be a discussion with the potential purchaser who will decide if these listed abnormalities are acceptable to them, and therefore proceed with the purchase or leave it and continue looking for a suitable horse/pony.
The prior to purchase examination is in 5 stages that are performed in the same order at every examination. The stages are:
Stage 1 – examination at rest – The horse is examined in the stable from head to tail with a thorough look at all of its different anatomical areas looking at current health, conformation and evidence of historical injury that may or may not influence its use in the short or long term. There is examination of the chest using a stethoscope and the eyes using an ophthalmoscope. The sketch is drawn on the certificate and the microchip scanned and often the passport is consulted at this stage to check its content.
Stage 2 – trot up – The horse is then taken onto a hard, level surface and examined in hand at walk and trot, the horse is assessed for soundness and conformation. The flexion tests are regularly performed at this stage too. Flexion tests are often a concern for the vendor and the purpose poorly understood by all parties, performed well these tests carry very little risk of causing injury and are intended to expose early joint disease in a horse that is currently showing no other clinical signs. At this stage some vets will lunge the horse on the hard surface and some will not routinely do so – this is not a mandatory part of the examination.
Stage 3 – strenuous exercise period – During this stage the horse is usually ridden and is intended as a period of vigorous exercise to test the heart and lungs, expose any respiratory noise and expose any lameness that potentially gets worse during exercise. It is preferable to ride over lunging as it is very difficult to achieve the required performance during lunging exercise and therefore the test is not as thorough as it could be. If the horse is unbroken to ride or a jockey is not available then, obviously, it can only be lunged. This is not a test of the horses’ ability at its chosen discipline and this has to be assessed by the potential purchaser by questioning the current owners or finding previous performance records.
Stage 4 – period of rest – Following the exercise the horse is returned to its box to rest. The horse is assessed to check how quickly its heart rate returns to the level that it was at its initial examination. A horse with subtle heart disease will take an extended period of time to recover or even show additional clinical signs.
Stage 5 – further trot up and foot examination – When it has recovered the horse is taken out in hand to have a further trot up on the hard, level surface to check if the exercise has exposed any lameness, the foot examination for health and balance could be carried out now or earlier in the examination.
At the end of this part of the examination a blood sample is usually taken using a standardised kit that includes a consent form that states the horse has not received any medication in the preceding 30 days. This test is stored and will only be tested to look for medication if the purchaser finds the horse to become lame soon after purchase or if it has a significant character change suspicious of having been sedated at the examination.
This is the point in the examination where additional imaging can be done if it is requested by the potential purchaser e.g. radiography, ultrasound or endoscopic examinations.
In conclusion the prior to purchase examination is recommended to anyone buying a horse, no matter its value or intended use, as any horse can have serious disease and be potentially not suitable for purchase. The test is a thorough examination of the horse on that day and should be included in anyones budget for their next competition/hack/companion horse.