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In addition to a physical exam where the horse is looked at from nose to tail with heart, lungs, and GI tract evaluated with a stethoscope, a pre-purchase exam looks deeper. An effort is made to figure out if the horse is going to be able to physically accomplish the job that the potential owner is intending to use the horse for. This starts out with an evaluation of the structure of the horse. No horse is built perfectly. Some horses have a foot flight that puts them at risk of striking their other foot when under work, some horses are very round over the withers making it a challenge to fit a saddle during long rides. An evaluation of the structure of the horse does not mean that a horse could never be used for some jobs, but if you know likely challenges when adapting to a new job, a few small adjustments can be made. For example, you could make sure to put boots on the horse prone to interfering and choose the most appropriate pads and saddles for the round backed horse.
After the horse is evaluated for structure, it is essential to find out if the horse is lame. Obviously there are very few times when a buyer sets out to acquire a lame horse, but it is really quite common for us to find a subtle lameness during a pre-purchase exam. A horse that appears sound moving around an arena may demonstrate lameness when asked to travel across a hard surface or moving in a circle. Low-grade lamenesses can often not be appreciated until flexion tests are performed on the joints. Flexion tests require the veterinarian to hold the horses joint in a specific flexed position for a standard amount of time before watching the horse move off. Horses that have mild arthritic lesions or some compromise to the cartilage of the joints will often show a lameness for the first several steps after a flexion test.
The horses back should also be evaluated. Horses can develop soreness in their back due to intensive workload, incompatible tack, arthritis, or injuries. Horses with sore backs tend to resent their job, and even gentle horses will act out of character and buck if their back is making them uncomfortable enough.
The veterinarian will then gather all of the findings from her physical exam, orthopedic exam, myofascial exam, joint flexion tests, and evaluation of movement and discuss her findings. Just because a horse shows an abnormality during the pre-purchase exam does not mean that the horse may not be a good choice to purchase. Dr. Panning may recommend X-rays to see if the reason for the abnormalities in the exam could be managed, or she may recommend joint blocks to further diagnose the problem so a more educated decision could be made before purchasing the horse.
Many horses that have been through training, or have been used heavily will have some abnormalities simply due the wear and tear on a body; however, those same horses are often the most sought after due to their training and abilities. The pre-purchase exam should be used to identify what problems exist with a horse and to help formulate what a likely management plan would look like to keep that horse comfortable to do his job. Knowing the challenges facing each horse before he is purchased allows you to decide if you and this horse can work together.
Owners that invest in a horse only to find out shortly after purchase that the horse in unable to do the job he was purchased for are often very frustrated. We strongly encourage you to learn as much as possible before making a decision about which horse is best for you. A pre-purchase exam is essential to getting you the information needed to make the best decision possible.
The pre-purchase exam is arguably the most underutilized tool available in equine medicine. In our area, horses are routinely bought and sold with no examination at all as to the health of the horse. When we consider the financial investment buyers are making, it seems that an assessment of the horse would be prudent.