I f you buy a house, you have it inspected before closing. If you buy a used car, you take it to a service station to have it checked out. The same thing is available for horses. Veterinarians will come out to your barn, or the seller’s barn, and examine the horse for you. It is called a purchase or a prepurchase exam.

Before we go over what happens in a prepurchase exam, a few words on what it is not. "There is nothing standard about a prepurchase," says Eden Bermingham, DVM, formerly in practice in rural Vermont, now a PhD candidate in veterinary pharmacology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "You can get anything from an Escort model to a Cadillac."

Knowing what you want and communicating this to your veterinarian will help him or her tailor the exam to your needs.

A prepurchase exam is not a guarantee of future soundness. A veterinarian can tell you if a horse is sound at that moment, point out evidence of past problems, and show you areas that have the potential to cause problems in the future. No one can tell what will happen over the next jump or around the next barrel. Furthermore, the results of prepurchase exams often fall into gray areas. Determining the importance of the results requires skill and experience.

Finally, there is no "pass" or "fail" at a prepurchase. You often will hear horse people say, "I’ve found a horse I like. I’ll buy him if he passes the vet." This is inaccurate. Veterinarians provide information. The decision to buy is between the buyer and the seller. Whatever the veterinarian says, the final decision is yours.

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