Prepurchase Exam Tips for OTTB Buyers
On Friday, Oct. 4, between competition days at the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover, trainers and attendees shifted their focus to horse health and owner education. The Retired Racehorse Project hosted a series of afternoon seminars, including one on prepurchase exams (PPEs) for off-track Thoroughbreds, sponsored by University of Kentucky Ag Equine Programs.

Emma Adam, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVS, assistant professor at the Gluck Equine Research Center, joined Hagyard Equine Medical Institute’s Liz Barrett, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, and The Ohio State University’s Shannon Reed, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS-LA, to answer audience questions about PPEs. Here are some take-homes from the 90-minute session.

Off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) are unique in that you can acquire them right after they retire from racing for relatively small price tags; however, many of these young athletes have already had full careers, with substantial wear and tear on their bodies. The panelists agreed that it can be difficult to justify a full prepurchase with $3,500 worth of radiographs on a $1,000 horse, but some degree of PPE (or even post-purchase exam, said Reed) can pay dividends both now and years into the future of the horse’s second career.

“We all have an idea of what we want to do with our horses, but if those circumstances change or those plans include selling the horse later on, we need to know what we can communicate in a transparent fashion with the next person,” said Adam. “Things that I would be quite happy to accept might not be something a prospective purchaser would be able to tolerate.”

Further, if you plan to sell the OTTB after he’s transformed into a successful sport horse that’s worth much more money, you must be prepared for the buyer’s veterinarian to do an in-depth prepurchase exam.

“If you’re considering buying a $1,000 horse and planning to sell it for $30,000, you’re going to need to vet the horse to the extent that someone with a $30,000 budget would,” said Reed.

Having the knowledge a PPE provides can also dictate how you retrain the horse. “If you know what’s going on with that horse,” said Adam, “you might actually change how you start out with him—whether you can hit the ground running or need to nurse them along or teach them a certain way of going. It’s being able to approach it better.”

Prepurchase exam prices and packages obviously vary. “Ask the practitioner what the basic prepurchase exam entails, and find out what options you should add on to that,” Reed suggested. “I will say that a veterinarian simply doing a physical exam in a pointed way—running their hands down their legs, taking their temperature/pulse/respiration, listening to their airways, and watching them jog—is going to catch 75% of the problems that are going to bother an amateur rider.”

The panelists agreed that hoof issues—which are common in OTTBs—don’t typically scare them off a horse. “There’s not much that worries me about the feet, because they’re just the most amazing, resilient things,” said Adam. “That hoof capsule can be remodeled, and you can end up with some really good feet.”

Hoof radiographs during a PPE are useful simply for knowing what’s going on in the foot and how to trim, shoe, and manage it properly. “The assumption is there that they’re going to have some issues, some are going to be better than others, and it’s going to take a year for the foot to grow out from top to bottom,” said Reed.

Similarly, it’s not unusual to find signs of some degree of arthritis in OTTB joints, but this condition can be managed, depending on your goals for the horse.

“One of the things that’s really cool to remember about these horses is they’re young,” said Adam. “These horses are still in an age where they still have some growth factors in their cartilage. They’re not going to grow new cartilage, but it’s going to bounce back a lot better after the things these horses have done than if they were 15 years old.”

Don’t rely too heavily on flexion test results, which are often subjective, during the PPE. “Flexion tests are a small piece of a big puzzle when you’re assessing an OTTB,” said Adam. “They’re incredibly useful, but you have to consider them in the context of the horse’s history, recent works, surface you’re on, environment, etc. How the horse behaves during that flexion test is also very telling.”

Barrett said she almost always recommends doing an upper airway scope on horses coming off the track due to the number of respiratory conditions they’re prone to. Issues the panelists said you might encounter when assessing an OTTB include a history of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH, aka bleeding), which is a manageable small airway inflammatory condition, and laryngeal hemiplegia (roaring).

“With a roarer,” said Reed, “consider what discipline you want to do. Can you tolerate noise? Has the horse had surgery?”

With time, knowledge, and good care, many issues that show up on an OTTB’s prepurchase exam can improve. Based on a survey Reed recently conducted on OTTB owners’ satisfaction with their horses, 96.6% of the problems they had encountered in the first year of ownership had resolved to their satisfaction.

In summary, said Barrett, “Every horse has a job he can do, and the prepurchase can tell you what’s realistic and equip you with useful information for managing the OTTB.”

Alexandra Beckstett is the managing editor of The Horse.

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More information on Gluck Equine Research Center and UK Ag Equine Programs.