You’ve spent weeks, months, sometimes even years looking through the “For Sale” ads trying to find the perfect horse just for you. He’s beautiful, rides like a dream, everything you wanted and more. Finally, your search has ended. But don’t put him in your trailer just yet. You should never purchase a horse without first doing a pre-purchase examination.

A pre-purchase examination is just what it sounds like. A veterinarian examines the horse you are interested in before you make the actual purchase to make sure that the horse is healthy and sound at the time of purchase. Skipping the pre-purchase examination because the horse is free, inexpensive, or owned by someone you know “so I know he’s doing his job,” is a surefire way to end up with expensive veterinary bills and an unusable horse in the future.

If you are one of the lucky few, the horse of your dreams will be sound and have no problems. Many buyers, and more often, the sellers, fear the pre-purchase examination because they feel it is a witch hunt to find something wrong with the horse. That is not true. The purpose of the examination is to find out what issues a horse has and if they will interfere with the horse doing his intended job and if the buyer is in a position to manage those issues. Very few horses, especially those that are competing frequently, are completely sound and many horses need veterinary interventions to keep them sound. That is not something that should automatically be a deal breaker. Again, the pre-purchase examination will let you as the buyer know if you are comfortable dealing with whatever issues the horse has. The pre-purchase examination cannot tell you if a horse will become lame in the future. It is merely a snapshot in time, on that day, letting you know if he will be suitable for your purposes. Some information your veterinarian gathers may hint at future problems, but, especially in the case of a completely sound horse on the day of purchase, future problems cannot be predicted.

Pre-purchase examinations come in all shapes and sizes. A basic pre-purchase examination may include just a thorough physical examination and checking the heart, lungs, eye, and gastrointestinal system. More comprehensive examinations include a detailed examination of every body system, a moving examination with flexions to check for soundness, a neurological examination, radiographs, ultrasounds, and nuclear scintigraphy.

The Exam

Every examination should start with the seller filling out a form detailing the horse’s past medical history, including any lameness, illness, medications he is currently on, as well as any maintenance treatments, such as joint injections or shock wave treatments that he received and when he last received them.

The most basic examination should consist of listening to the heart/lungs/gastrointestinal system, taking the horse’s temperature, examining his skin/coat, and palpating his legs for any abnormalities.

A true pre-purchase examination will consist of a thorough physical examination and a moving examination with limb flexions to check for lameness. During the physical examination the following systems should be checked:

  1. Skin/hair coat/lymph nodes — also check for any scars from prior surgery
  2. Cardiovascular system — should be checked prior to and after exercise
  3. Respiratory system — should be checked prior to and after exercise.
  4. Gastrointestinal system
  5. Eyes — should be examined with an ophthalmoscope
  6. Teeth, oral cavity — will help to age horse as well
  7. Temperature
  8. Urogenital system — especially if animal will/may be used for breeding
  9. Nervous system — complete neurological examination
  10. Musculoskeletal system — hoof test all four feet and observe shape and quality of hoof. Note if barefoot or shod and type of shoe. Palpate limbs for splints, pain, tendon/ligament abnormalities. Palpate back for soreness. Flex neck and back. Watch horse walk and trot in a straight line and in a circle in both directions on a firm surface. Repeat on a soft surface if possible. Do flexion exams of front and hind limbs to check for lameness that might be exacerbated by stressing the joint. In some cases in may be helpful for your veterinarian to see the horse being ridden as well.

Radiographs of the major joints of the limbs are usually performed to check for any abnormalities. The areas most frequently radiographed include: The front feet, all 4 fetlocks, the hocks, the stifles, the carpi, the neck and the back. Radiographs can tell you if arthritis, degenerative joint disease, OCD lesions, or mineralization in soft tissues is present.

After the examination is complete, additional diagnostics may be performed to further evaluate the horse. These include upper airway endoscopy, ultrasound of any areas of concern in soft tissue structures, diagnostic nerve blocks to isolate the area of lameness if present, and nuclear scintigraphy.

How much or how little you choose to do will depend on several factors, however, no horse should be purchased without your veterinarian seeing it for at least the most basic of examinations. Ideally, every horse would have a full exam and full set of radiographs.

These factors include:

  1. The age of the horse. Weanlings and yearlings can usually be purchased with just a basic examination. Ocular problems, such as cataracts or retinal abnormalities, heart murmurs or dysrhythmias, umbilical hernias, and angular limb deformities can be picked up on a basic examination. Two-Five year olds should have a complete examination with a full set of radiographs to look for OCD lesions. Horses older than 5 should have a complete examination and full set of radiographs. You may choose to focus radiographs just on any areas of concern if your budget is limited. Aged horses should have a complete physical examination to make sure they are physically safe for any activity, especially if they are going to be used as beginner horses for children.
  1. Yours or resale. Is this going to be a resale horse or one for your own use. A resale prospect should have a complete examination and radiographs to make sure that you are not surprised by anything when a potential buyer does their pre-purchase exam. A horse for your personal use will ideally have a full exam and radiographs, but if your budget is limited, you may pick and choose some of the diagnostics.
  1. Use of horse. A horse that is going to be used as a leadline pony will not need as extensive an examination as a horse that is going to be used as a grand prix show jumper. All horses should have a good physical examination. A horse that is currently in full work and competing and is expected to continue to compete should get a full exam and radiographs. This also applies to a horse doing a lower level than what will eventually be expected of him.

The pre-purchase examination is a way to know what the health status is of the horse you are buying. It is not a pass/fail venture. It is a roadmap to know where your horse stands from a health and lameness perspective and what you will need to know and do to keep him going for your purposes. The pre-purchase examination is a worthwhile investment when choosing your new horse and should be calculated into your budget. Even a free horse is worth getting an examination done on. Those few hundred dollars you spend now may help to save you thousands of dollars and lost riding time in the future. Knowledge is power, and by knowing what you are buying, you will be able to enjoy your new horse with few surprises.

Congratulations on your new horse. Now you can worry about other things, like what color blanket to get him!

Registered 2011 by Equestrian Collections
Author: Sallie S. Hyman, VMD, DACVIM, CVA

Information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for evaluation by an equine professional. In particular, all horse owners should seek advice and treatment from a licensed veterinarian, such as TEVA, for their horses' medical care.

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