You have found a horse that suits your needs and you’re interested in moving forward with the purchase.

You dream of galloping across the cross country field, completing a 4th level dressage test, cruising around a 3ft hunter course, or riding at home for pleasure.

Whatever your goals, buying a horse is a large investment and it’s important to make sure this potential new partner can stand up to your needs.

To ensure you are making an educated decision, you should contact a veterinarian and book a pre-purchase examination (PPE). Pre-purchase exams shed light on current or potential health and soundness issues. [1]

The goal of a PPE is not to tell you whether you should buy this horse or not. Instead, the pre-purchase exam aims to provide you with as much information as possible so that you are aware of the needs of any prospective horses.

Pre-Purchase Exam

If you are considering moving forward with a PPE, you have likely met the horse and ridden them at least once. You’ve decided their temperament, current level of training, and rideability are desirable.

Before you book a pre-purchase examination, it is a good idea to ask yourself the following;

  • What do I want to use the horse for?
  • How long would I like the horse to perform at this level?
  • What issues am I willing to live with?
  • What are my absolute deal-breakers?
  • What is my budget for the PPE?
  • What – if any – additional diagnostics am I willing to pay for?
Mad About Horses
Join Dr. Chris Mortensen, PhD on an exciting adventure into the story of the horse and learn how we can make the world a better place for all equines.
Apple Podcasts Spotify Youtube
Mad Barn Equine Nutrition Consultants

Responsibilities of Buyers and Sellers

As the buyer, you have several key roles to play in a pre-purchase exam, starting with the decision to move forward with a PPE and determining what exam components you would like included.

Most veterinarians will offer a standard PPE with optional add-ons to provide further diagnostics. It is your choice whether to include those add-ons. [1]

The seller also has a very important role during the PPE process. The seller must work with you to book a time and place for the exam, and most sellers will handle the horse for the exam.

In good faith, the seller is should disclose any current or past issues to the vet.

Selecting a Veterinarian

The next step is to find a qualified veterinarian and book an exam. Depending on location and availability, your current veterinarian may be able to travel to the seller’s facility to conduct the PPE.

If you do not have a current veterinarian or your vet is too far away to travel to the seller’s facility, you will need to find a vet to complete the exam.

Use a vet that does not provide routine care for the seller to protect yourself from possible bias. [2] Your current vet may have suggestions for reputable clinics in the seller’s area. You can also call around and talk to vets in the area or ask for recommendations from other horse owners.

When choosing a vet for the PPE, consider these key questions:

  • Will the new vet talk to your current vet about the PPE findings?
  • Does this vet have experience with the type of horse and discipline you would like to use this horse for?
  • Does the vet have access to a portable digital x-ray machine?
  • What does this vet usually include in their PPEs and what is their cost?
  • What is the cost of any additional diagnostics?

Conducting a PPE

Once you have found an experienced veterinarian whom you trust, discuss with them what you plan to use this horse for and what your disqualifying considerations are.

For example, a disqualifying trait for a potential Grand Prix jumper may not be a deal-breaker for a low-level hunter.

A dialogue with your veterinarian about your intended use of the horse will allow them to provide appropriate guidance on what to accept versus what not to. You can also discuss potential issues with your coach or trainer to get their feedback on disqualifying issues.

If the seller is highly experienced in conducting a PPE and is comfortable handling the horse, you may not be required to attend the exam. However, if the seller is inexperienced or uncomfortable handling a horse for a PPE they may require you to be there.

There are several benefits to attending the PPE, such as getting more time to interact with your prospective horse and observing their temperament while under veterinary examination. If you are present for the exam, you can also stop the exam at any time, potentially saving you money for unnecessary diagnostic tests.

Standard Pre-Purchase Exam Checklist

Most veterinarians will recommend a standard PPE for pleasure and mid-level competition horses. A standard exam will investigate most aspects of lameness that could indicate the horse is not well-suited for the intended use.

If the veterinarian finds an issue considered a deal-breaker at any time, the seller can terminate the exam.

The exact components of the examination may differ depending on the vet, but all PPE should include the following:

  1. Medical and performance history
  2. Written identification
  3. Physical Exam
  4. Movement evaluation
  5. Flexion tests
  6. Diagnostic imaging

1. Medical and Performance History

The first stage of any PPE is discussing the horse’s medical and performance history with your goals in mind. Your vet will ask the following questions to discern any red flags that may affect the horse’s future performance or health: [1]

  • Has the horse had any major medical issues requiring intervention?
  • Has the horse had any lameness concerns, either past or present?
  • What medications and supplements are the horse on and why?
  • What is the horse’s current feed program?
  • What is the horse’s current deworming and vaccination schedule?
  • Does the horse have any stereotypic behaviours, such as cribbing or weaving?

Your vet may also contact the horse’s current vet to obtain past medical records. There is sometimes an additional fee for obtaining these records, but it is well worth it to have a complete medical history.

Some horse owners may not entertain a horse with a suspensory ligament strain in their past or a horse that is prescribed a full dosage of omeprazole every day. Other owners may be fine with those issues.

Regardless of the owner’s individual preferences, it is the veterinarian’s responsibility to thoroughly examine the horse and make this information available.

2. Written Identification

The next component of a PPE is a written identification to describe the horse’s physical appearance.

The purpose of this identification is to ensure the horse being examined is the horse that is ultimately purchased. Accidents can happen and the best way to avoid a dispute is to have written and documented proof of the horse’s appearance.

Your veterinarian will carry a form with empty diagrams of a horse and areas to write notes on physical appearance. Your vet will take detailed notes about the horse’s appearance, including:

  • White markings on the face or legs
  • Whorls
  • Scars or other markings
  • Joint effusions
  • Approximate height
  • Colour
  • Age
  • Type
  • Sex

3. Physical Exam

Your veterinarian will also complete a thorough physical exam of the horse taking notes on the following: [3]

  • The overall impression of the horse, including any conformation faults
  • The current condition of the horse, including a Henneke Body condition score on a scale of 1-9, the attitude of the horse, and the current coat condition
  • The current vitals of the horse (respiratory rate, heart rate, appearance of gums, temperature)
  • The sounds of the heart, lungs, and gut, paying special attention to the presence of heart murmurs, heartbeat consistency (noting any skipped beats or arrhythmias), and any abnormal sounds in the lungs (i.e. rattling or wheezing)
  • Any palpable swelling or blemishes on the legs
  • Any painful response on palpation of the back
  • Any dental abnormalities and age as apparent by the teeth
  • Whether the horse has evidence of prior foaling (if a mare) or whether the horse has been gelded (if a stallion or gelding)
  • How the horse is weight-bearing and whether the horse has abnormal weight shifting while standing still
  • Any positive neurological signs on a brief neurological evaluation

The initial physical exam can bring to light any significant concerns, such as high-grade heart murmurs. This exam can also indicate any blemishes that may need further investigation with diagnostic imaging. [3]

4. Movement Evaluation

Next, your veterinarian will want to perform a movement evaluation by watching the horse walk and jog in hand on firm ground, both away from and towards them.

This will allow the veterinarian to observe:

  • Asymmetry in the movement of the back or pelvis
  • Movement deviations of the limbs, such as paddling or plating
  • How the horse’s feet land on the ground
  • Obvious lameness or pain

Your vet will also want to see the horse lunge on firm ground in a large circle in both directions. The vet will ask to see the horse move at a walk, trot, and canter. This will highlight: [4]

  • Fluidity in transitions (or lack thereof)
  • Gait at fast trot and canter that cannot be seen in hand
  • Any shortness of stride
  • Any lameness that is more apparent on a circle
  • Any respiratory issues that become apparent at higher rates of speed

Lunging on a circle also allows the vet to compare vitals before and after exercise.

5. Flexion Tests

If the veterinarian and buyer would like to continue with the pre-purchase exam, the vet will then perform flexion tests to simulate stress on targeted joints.

Flexion tests involve holding the limb in a flexed position (determined by the joint being examined) for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. This is intended to put the joint under equivalent stress compared to that which is experienced in a performance setting.