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A Guide to the Equine Pre-Purchase Exam

Katie Navarra

Learn what should make it on your horse pre-purchase exam checklist.

You’ve found the perfect horse!

Before sending the money, you wonder, should the horse have a pre-purchase exam? Julia Gloviczki, an ambulatory veterinarian at Rood & Riddle in Saratoga, New York often sees buyers decide based on the horse’s selling price.

“The price tag on the horse is the cheapest part of the investment,” she said. “You’re on the hook for costs as long as you keep the horse.”

A pre-purchase exam establishes a baseline for the horse’s health at a specific point in time. It gives buyers as much knowledge as possible about the horse they are about to purchase.

“I don’t ever pass or fail a horse,” she said. “It is not my job to tell you to buy the horse or not. It’s my job to tell you everything I can about its health and wellness at that point in time.”

Equine pre-purchase checklist

Dr. Gloviczki begins all pre-purchase exams with a physical evaluation where she:

  • Looks at the eyes for cataracts
  • Listens to the heart, gut, and lungs
  • Feels for swelling, scars, or joint disjunction

Next, she performs a flexion test and:

  • Watches the horse jog in-hand to look for discomfort
  • Repeats on hard and soft surfaces when possible
  • Observe the horse working on the lunge line and under saddle when possible

“The clinical exam is the most important part of a pre-purchase,” she said. “It is a good rule of thumb to have somebody say the horse is sound today, doesn’t have heart murmurs or signs of cataracts.

An equine drug screen

After the physical exam, Dr. Gloviczki encourages a drug screen to check for anti-inflammatories and long-term sedation.

“I especially look for long-term sedation for a kid or amateur friendly horse. I want to know the horse is not under influence of any drugs,” she said.

A drug screen also protects sellers. It’s not uncommon for a horse to behave differently after it’s bought from a professional or experienced horse person. Buyers sometimes claim the horse was drugged when changes in diet, training, and the environment are to blame. In this situation, a drug screen protects the seller.

An inside look

X-rays are standard practice in racehorses and high-dollar performance horses. The flexion test and the buyer’s goals determine if only a handful of images are needed or if extensive images are needed to see every joint in the legs.

“The horse may be perfectly sound on the day of the exam but if a cyst shows up in the stifle, I can make certain predictions about the future lack of soundness,” she said. “But we don’t ride x-rays.”

A 15-year-old horse may be clinically sound and have a multitude of imperfections on x-rays. That doesn’t mean it’s unable to perform as a lesson horse. X-rays may also reveal a young prospect is unlikely to remain sound for its chosen discipline.

Cost of a pre-purchase exam

Prices for pre-purchase exams varies geographically and based on what is included.

These are estimates for a starting point only:
Physical exam: $200
Drug screen: $150 to $400
X-rays: $200 to $2,000+ based on needs

Three real-life experiences

Paying for a pre-purchase exam comes down to the buyer’s choice. Here are three horse owners' experiences.

Buyer beware

Upstate New York western pleasure competitor CharlieAnne Huffam found a 3-year-old that fit her competitive goals and she asked for a pre-purchase exam.

“When the vet asked for his papers, the trainer started fumbling,” she said. “The vet knew he wasn't three by looking at his teeth. He was four. During the flexion test, he was off on one of his fronts.”

Huffam declined the purchase deciding not to invest in additional costs for x-rays to explore lameness issues in a young horse that did not meet her needs. Instead, she continued her search.

Seller protection

A pre-purchase exam protects the seller as much as the buyer. Hammond, Wisconsin rider Hannah Schreck advertised a 3-year-old barrel racing prospect and the buyer requested x-rays. The horse wasn’t lame and the x-ray revealed joint spacing that wouldn’t hold up to concussive events over time.

“The buyer spent around $500 but it saved her from bringing up a young horse that would have a short career and us from selling a horse they wouldn’t be happy with,” Schreck said. “We then knew how we needed to advertise the horse—for trail riding.”

Passing on the pre-purchase exam

Westfield, New Jersey horse owner Heather Wallace opted out of a pre-purchase exam twice. She and her trainer knew the horses and were aware of the pony’s history that the thoroughbred would not pass a flexion test.

“I have a team of wellness professionals I work with as colleagues to help me, as well as my own expertise in musculature and anatomy,” she said. “When I rescued the thoroughbred from a bad situation, I focused on rebuilding his foundation so that the pressure is off his hocks and he will be better than before. I only plan on using him for trail riding and hunter paces rather than show jumping like he was being trained to do.”

Conflict of interest

Hiring a veterinarian that is not associated with the horse’s care eliminates the possibility of conflict of interest. When Dr. Gloviczki has a client selling a horse she only agrees to do the pre-purchase exam if the seller allows full disclosure.

“If I knew I injected hocks and then I’m looking at two weeks later to sell to somebody else that could be a problem,” she said.

Finding an independent veterinarian in rural areas may be challenging. In these cases, Dr. Gloviczki encourages buyers to request the release of the horse’s full medical history. If the seller is unwilling, it is probably something to think about.

Requesting a pre-purchase exam may feel like you’re doubting the seller. Having as much information about the horse up-front can help determine if the horse is the right one.

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