Pre-Purchase Examinations

The pre-purchase examination of a horse is broken down into stages. There are two main types of vetting: a two stage or a five stage vetting. Some people choose to go for the shorter and thus cheaper two stage examination (includes stages one and two), risking that some things may not be picked up on. The stages are as follows:

Stage one – This occurs in the stable. The vendor is questioned about previous medical history and vices, then a full clinical examination is performed, assessing conformation, palpation of limbs and back, examination of the mouth and eyes, and listening to the heart. Surgical scars and conditions like sarcoids are looked for.

Stage two – The horse is examined outside the stable in-hand, again assessing conformation. The horse will be walked and trotted in a straight line looking for lameness. Flexion tests are then performed on the limbs. The horse may then be lunged at trot.

Stage three – This is the exercise test where the horse is ridden, usually in a sand school. It is evaluated at walk, trot, canter and gallop. Primarily we are looking for lameness but we are also evaluating the horse’s breathing for abnormalities. The heart is assessed after exercise. The horse may also be lunged on a soft surface.

Stage four – The horse is rested for approximately 20 minutes before being trotted again in stage five, to check for stiffness following exercise. We also listen to the heart as it slows down after exercise. The horse’s markings will be taken, microchip scanned and a blood sample taken. The optional (recommended) blood sample is taken to prove that the vendor had not administered any medication beforehand. The sample is stored for six months and tested if there is a problem after purchase. During this stage vets might examine the horse’s feet.

Stage five – This is a final trot up. Sometimes the flexion test may be repeated.

A pre-purchase examination is very much a legal contract between the vet and the purchaser. The vetting is done on behalf of a specific purchaser, for a specific purpose. The findings about a horse may be acceptable for the intended use by one person and so the horse passes the examination, but not acceptable for another person so the horse would fail.

Choosing between a two or five stage vetting often depends on the horse’s age, value and intended use. The same is true of whether radiographs should be performed. Sometimes a standard set of images is obtained and sometimes images are obtained of issues that have been identified on the clinical examination, such as a swollen joint. A standard set of radiographs would include the front feet, all four fetlocks, both hocks and stifles. Extra images such as of the back and knees can be taken if appropriate.

Many competition horses would undergo an endoscopic examination of the upper airway to assess laryngeal function. This would also be carried out if an abnormal inspiratory noise was heard during stage three. If on palpation, swelling in the limbs was identified then an ultrasound examination could be performed. This too can be done as a matter of routine, especially if the horses has already competed at a very high level.

Sometimes a blood sample is collected (there is an additional fee for this) and assessed. It is advisable to request that the horse has a blood sample collected and stored at a forensic laboratory, this allows the horse to be screened for some painkillers and sedatives administered by the vendor prior to the pre-purchase examination, if the horse turns out be lame or have behavioural issues when you get it home. Every horse I vet has this sample taken as it protects the vendor and purchaser if something goes wrong after the vetting. 

If the horse is to be insured, then the insurance company may dictate what they require to be done in terms of vettings and tests so it may be a good idea to speak to your insurance company prior to the vetting.

As to which vet should do the vetting, most people try to use their usual vet as they trust their judgement, however if a large distance must be covered, this can be cost prohibitive. It may be best to get the vendors vet to examine the horse as they should, with the vendor’s permission, provide you with the horse’s medical history – learning more about the horse than just what is gleaned from the examination. If you employ their vet to examine the horse on your behalf, they will be working for you with your interests in mind not the vendor’s.

Written by Dr Ed Lyall, BVetMed, CertEM (StudMed), MRCVS