Prepurchase Exams: A Health Care Must

Before you get emotionally and monetarily invested in a horse at the point of purchase, always schedule a thorough prepurchase exam with your veterinarian.

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Before you get emotionally and monetarily invested in a horse at the point of purchase, always schedule a thorough prepurchase exam with your veterinarian.

The horse’s future use will determine a number of the services needed during the exam, but all horses, regardless of whether they are destined to be a child’s pony or a million-dollar stallion should be evaluated for health and soundness.

Performance Horse Prepurchase

Regardless of intended use, all prepurchase exams should begin with a background check. Past health concerns and performance records should be shared with your veterinarian to help provide a more inclusive understanding of the horse’s overall health and history.

After the horse’s past has been reviewed and discussed, most veterinarians will begin the prepurchase exam with an overall health assessment. This includes a thorough physical examination, which may include taking the horse’s vital signs, and assessing body condition, body systems, hoof health, dental condition, and vision. Veterinarians may also collect blood for whole blood counts, blood chemistry evaluation, and potential drug testing.

After examining the horse at rest, most veterinarians will move into a soundness exam to assess locomotion and ensure the horse can physically do the task he is expected to complete without use of medication. During a soundness exam horses will be asked to do the following:

  • Walk in a straight line;
  • Trot in a straight line;
  • Walk circles each way; and
  • Trot circles each way;

After the veterinarian is able to see the horse move, he will manually flex several regions of each leg to see if the horse remains sound after stressing the joints. The horse will typically go through the same process after each flexion–trotting in straight lines and turns to assess soundness.

After identifying potential areas of concern, veterinarians will palpate, or feel, the area to determine if there is pain and what the potential source of pain may be. In addition to the limbs, the pelvis, back, and/or neck will also be evaluated.

After assessing the horse visually, veterinarians often turn to diagnostic tools like hoof testers, radiographs, ultrasound, MRI, and others to help them see beneath the skin and provide prospective owners with a more definite diagnosis.

In addition to musculoskeletal soundness, performance horses may also undergo endoscopy to determine respiratory and gastrointestinal health, as well as a neurologic exam if clinical signs are present. If the performance horse is a mare or stallion that will, or could be, used for breeding stock, a thorough reproductive exam should be conducted as well.

Recreational Horse Prepurchase

Just because your horse is set for the trails and not the Kentucky Derby, doesn’t discredit the value of a prepurchase examination. Recreational horse owners should also provide their veterinarian with as much background knowledge as possible to help them approach the horse’s health holistically, instead of just how he appears on the day of the exam. Recreational horses should also receive an overall health assessment to evaluate their vital signs, blood work, body condition, hoof health, dental condition, and vision.

Additionally, recreational horses should also undergo a basic soundness exam—visual evaluation and flexion of the limbs, as well as palpation of each limb, neck, back, and pelvis. Based on the veterinarian’s findings from the basic exam, they may need to utilize further diagnostic tools.

The bottom line is “lame is lame” regardless of a horse’s intended purpose. Your veterinarian can help identify existing and potential problems before your purchase investment is made.

Take-Home Message

As you know, horses are an expensive hobby. Working with your veterinarian to ensure any prospective horses are healthy before you purchase them will leave you money ahead in the long run.

For more educational information and record-keeping tools that can keep your horse’s health and nutrition on track, talk with your veterinarian about the Horse Care for Life program.


Written by:

Earl Gaughan, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, is an equine technical services veterinarian with Merck Animal Health. He graduated from the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine and completed a residency in large animal surgery at Cornell University. Gaughan is a board-certified surgeon and has been in private equine practice in Maryland and Colorado. Additionally, he’s served as professor of equine surgery at Kansas State University, Auburn University, and the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. He has been active in the leadership of the North American Veterinary Conference and the American College of Veterinary Surgeons. Gaughan is an equine technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.

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