By Harry W. Werner, VMD
I’m in the market for my first horse. I’ve seen people at my barn buy horses, and they always have a veterinarian check the horse over before making the purchase. What exactly does the veterinarian check for and why is this so important?
For the sake of space and the amount of information available on this topic, this article will deal with the private sale of horses. The term “private sales” refers to a horse being sold by a seller to a buyer, and not to horses which are bought at auction. Buyers who buy horses at auction have concerns that will not be addressed in this article.
There will be at least three parties involved in the sale of a horse. The primary parties involved include the buyer, the seller, and the horse. However, in some cases there will be secondary parties involved which can include, but are not limited to, an agent for the buyer, an agent for the seller, a trainer, insurance agencies, or other advisors of some sort.
In a private sale, the veterinarian hired by the buyer to conduct the purchase exam may ask for full disclosure of the horse’s medical records and the name of the horse’s veterinarian. This information should be made readily available to the veterinarian hired to conduct the purchase exam.
One thing to keep clear is that the veterinarian always is working for the buyer and is embarking on a fact-finding mission on his client’s behalf. The role of the veterinarian is not to give the buyer a “yes” or “no” answer as to whether or not to buy the horse, but rather to present facts about the horse which will enable the buyer to make an informed decision as to whether the horse has any physical abnormalities that may preclude its intended use.
A reasonably provocative physical exam will be administered to the horse by the veterinarian hired by the buyer. The tests will evaluate the horse’s systems that are readily available for examination. These exams may include, but are not limited to, a neurological exam, heart and lungs examined at rest and after work, joint flexion tests, oral exam, evaluation of the gaits, exam with hoof testers, etc. Once the exams are complete, the buyer will be provided with a report of the results of the exams.
An important aspect of the whole process is keeping the channels of communication open among the buyer, seller, and the veterinarian. It is important that the client ask questions if he or she does not understand terminology or the significance of a finding. By asking questions, the client will be an informed buyer. Communication begins when the client makes the initial call to the veterinarian to hire him/her to conduct the purchase exam. Communication ends with a report by the veterinarian at the conclusion of the exam.
Clients need to understand the main point of a purchase exam is to inform them as buyers of the health status of a particular horse. To arrive at this information, the veterinarian may use imaging techniques or modalities such as X ray, scintigraphy, ultrasound, and thermography; electrocardiograms; and clinical laboratory studies that could include a Coggins test, blood count, fecal tests, and drug tests to detect mood-affecters or pain killers.
The buyer needs to be aware that no drug testing is 100% accurate. There always will be room for error. However, with quality laboratories processing the results and with proper handling of the samples, accurate results can be expected in most cases.
The buyer must understand that a purchase exam is not a warranty or guarantee for the horse or a pass/fail exam, but rather information that allows the buyer to make an informed decision before making a purchase. Another common mistake made by buyers is that they look at the purchase exam as an appraisal of the horse’s monetary value. Determining the monetary value of the horse is the responsibility of the buyer or the buyer’s agent, not the veterinarian. The purchase exam is also not to be taken as an exam for the horse’s athletic ability to perform a given job—that is the trainer’s job.
The veterinarian’s job is to interpret the results of the tests and to present facts to the buyer in terms that the buyer can understand. The veterinarian also should answer questions from his client that are within the limits of veterinary medicine.
Another important fact that buyers need to keep in mind is that a purchase exam is not a breeding soundness exam. In a purchase exam, the veterinarian can’t evaluate the mare or stallion’s reproductive status. Assumptions regarding fertility and, in mares, pregnancy can’t be made without more specialized examination procedures. With geldings this is not an issue, but with stallions or mares, breeding soundness can become an issue. If the horse is being purchased for breeding purposes, then a breeding soundness exam should be conducted.
Harry W. Werner, VMD, operates a private equine practice in North Granby, Conn. Werner has a special interest in sport horse lameness and purchase examination.
Reviewed and updated by original author in 2016.