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Pre-purchase examinations

Trot up for the vet check with Gordon VD Riloo © Jacqui Ridley

 © Jacqui Ridley

Issue 16_p92_vet1


By Annie Lever

The idea of vet checks with a pass–fail scenario is from a past era. These checks are now referred to as Pre-Purchase Examinations. The culture of pre-purchase examinations is to allow the prospective purchasers to analyse health issues that may be present, find out ways in which to manage these and weigh them up against the horse’s suitability for the purchaser’s intended use.

Equine Veterinarians Australia discuss Pre-Purchase Examinations stating: ‘The veterinarian’s job is neither to pass or fail a horse. It is to provide the purchaser with information regarding any existing medical problems and explain the possibility for future problems, especially in light of the horse’s intended use. Your practitioner can only advise you about the horse’s physical condition, including conformation, and explain how it might affect performance from a health standpoint.’

If the horse suits the purchaser’s requirements in terms of rideability, temperament and suitability then a pass or fail attitude to vetting may leave those purchasers never finding the right horse. Whilst saying this, a buyer needs to be aware that the pre-purchase examination is a snapshot in the life of that horse and doesn’t provide any guarantees – it’s a risk assessment. Who knows whether the horse will start to develop health issues post vet and purchase. There have been many cases where horses have started to develop navicular or other such lamenesses or health issues in very short timeframes post purchase. This is unfortunate and unlucky and often there is no sign of anything in the vet examination even with x-rays. Remember that the examination can protect both buyer and seller.

At what point does the vendor disclose information in regards to behavioural vices or physical issues such as windsucking, allergies, etc., or for that matter any previous vet history? It depends whether, in the circumstances, non-disclosure or only partial disclosure would misrepresent the horse. Vet Checking can often be as scary a prospect for the owner as the purchaser. Most owners do not have the horse vetted regularly in their own stables, especially not x-rayed from head to foot on a yearly basis to see if any changes have occurred. Many vets prefer buyers to be present at the vetting, to discuss concerns or findings and assess how they may relate to the purchaser’s specific requirements. A two hour assessment of a horse is brief and the physical detection of problems such as sweet itch, mud fever, soft soles etc can be seen, but as these are often seasonal issues it is important to ask the person selling the horse about conditions such as allergies, coughs etc.

Firstly do your own homework. Before you try the horse ask the vendor if the horse has any vices, (or any serious behavioural problems which might stop short of being vices in a technical sense) and go through each vice and make note of what you are told. Ask about them by name: wind sucking, box walking, weaving, bucking, rearing, kicking, biting, napping, crib biting, bolting, rug tearing, behaviour with other horses. Determine if the horse has phobias such as cows, men, flags, noises etc. Then move onto questions about previous medical history such as lameness, allergies, coughing, and make sure that you ask about feet and farrier issues as well as checking the dental history. Not many people can afford to insure horses, but check if it is insured and whether there are any exclusions in the insurance policy. You may wish to seek some legal advice about purchasing. Companies like Horseforce in Australia can provide assistance in the way of Purchase Contracts.

Once you have tried the horse and like it, ask the purchaser about their idiosyncrasies in behaviour, stable and paddock behaviour, floating, tying up, their social behaviour to humans, other horses and animals, i.e. dogs and cats, etc., as well as children.

Arrange the vet check and make sure that all parties are aware of what is required. The owner should have paperwork, registration, worming, teeth, farrier and vaccination records available and be there to discuss any issues if required. A seller with nothing to hide will be happy to disclose any previous relevant veterinary treatment information on request. Reputable trainers and dealers want to protect their business at all costs and have the sale work for all parties. It is vital that the vendor can provide adequate facilities – including a hard trot-up area and room for strenuous work.

Vets are very busy people and often emergencies do take precedence to vet checks (greatly appreciated by those who need the vet immediately). However, time frames need to be flexible. Ask the vet to call you (the purchaser) if the time you have set with the vendor needs to be changed and make sure that you call them (the vendor) with any time changes as their time is also very valuable.Issue 16_p92_vet2

Discuss the intended purpose of the horse with the vet before the examination – it will be assessed against these criteria. Talk through the process – many vets follow the five step process for examinations but you may wish to only go so far in those steps. If you are not sure here is a guideline:

STAGE ONE The horse’s heart, lungs, eyes and teeth are examined at rest in the stable. The animal’s general condition and any behavioural abnormalities are noted. Asymmetries will be noted.

STAGE TWO The horse is taken out into the daylight and observed standing square. It is then trotted-up on an area of hard, level ground. Some vets may lunge the horse on a circle at this stage, and initial flexion tests may also be performed.

STAGE THREE The strenuous exercise stage at which the horse is ridden or lunged, and observed in circles and straight lines on both reins. The horse will usually be cantered or galloped to assess the heart and wind. The vet will often want to see the horse under saddle. Under saddle may show any back problems. .

STAGE FOUR A short rest period is allowed to see if any stiffness manifests. The vet may also complete the identification or perform a more detailed examination of legs, feet and body at this stage.

STAGE FIVE The final trot-up takes place once the horse’s heart rate has returned to normal, and, again, flexion tests may be performed. A blood sample at the time of vetting can establish whether a horse has been drugged to disguise physical or behavioural problems, should a dispute arise. A blood sample is usually taken at this stage and stored pending any later disputes. Some vets recommend storing blood if the purchase price is over a certain amount; however anomalies may represent with cheaper purchases also, so this is a smart precaution. 

EXTRAS The vet may have noted an abnormality, a scar or lump which he feels warrants further investigation so he may advise an x-ray or he may prefer to routinely x-ray joints from the knees and hocks down. Pre examination you should discuss with the vet what you are paying and what you want the horse to do so that he may make the correct decision about how much of your money to spend on asessing your prospect. As well as x-rays det,ailed investigations such as a laryngeal endoscope, tendon scans and pregnancy tests may be required. X-rays of feet and joints or an endoscopy can identify potential problems and may be a wise investment for performance horses. Pregnancy or fertility tests are an option with broodmares, as is semen analysis if you are planning to purchase a breeding stallion.Issue 16_p92_vet3

Ultimately, purchasing a horse will never be without risk, and a pre-purchase examination is just one of the ways in which buyers can attempt to foresee problems. Trying the horse thoroughly under saddle and viewing in the stable, obtaining a warranty, checking its competition record and insuring the purchase are all ways to protect the buyer from loss. However no one should expect the vet to have a crystal ball. Everyone knows that sport horses are subject to different burdens than those required of recreational riding horses and the vets can take this into account. Depending on the depth of the required examinations the vet check can be an expensive outlay. If you are able to have your own vet perform the examination he /she is likely to understand some of your needs, however this is not always possible with an interstate or overseas purchase. When you are making such an important decision about purchasing a horse you are best advised to make an effort to be present when the vet carries out the examination – you then may see any issues or problems that he finds and be better able to make a correct decision. It is worth remembering that how you view the findings depends on what the horse has already done and what your future plans are. A well-raised yearling with its career in front of it should present as a very clean package. However an experienced competition horse will most likely have changes and wear and tear issues which would need to be assessed with information around its past history and your future plans in mind. If you are buying a schoolmaster for your child you need a vet who is realistic about the arthritic changes the horse may have and not immediately condemn it as unsuitable.

Vets can be very expensive and some are prepared to discourage the purchase of an unsuitable horse based on findings made. The vet should provide findings and discuss possibilities around managing soundness or issues or equally suggest that you do not go ahead with the purchase. At the end of the day very few horses are 100 percent sound. Obtaining a prepurchase exam alerts the buyers to a horse’s defects and allows them to make an informed decision on whether to buy the horse.


Overseas many inspection reports have exoneration clauses to indicate that the veterinarian is liable for damage only in the case of gross negligence or intent. When the purchaser signs this, they will then enter into a contract with the inspecting veterinarian. This is, of course, less important if you have your own vets evaluate the X-rays as well, but the latter will usually not inspect the horse clinically and both examinations are related in any case. Generally a standard set of X-rays (about 20 in all) is made of the navicular bones, proximal sesamoid bones, fetlock joints and tarsal joints. The tarsal joints and stifles are inspected for OC(D) but neck and back x-rays are not standard unless especially requested. Find out from the seller if there have been previous x-rays taken and have the vet compare them. Make sure that the x-ray equipment being used is not antiquated as readings can be marred. Digital or Analogue shots are easier to produce and send to your own vet without the risk of x-rays developing defects or going astray. Finally, a blood test is essential, don’t take chances; have the blood tests for EVA and drugs such as corticosteroids done by an accredited laboratory, or arrange for the blood to be stored for a given time.

In 1999 there was a European directive (no. 99/44 EC), a provision designed to protect consumers if a consumer makes a purchase from a professional, i.e. a ‘consumer purchase’. It is in principle presumed that any lack of conformity, which becomes apparent within six months of delivery of the horses existed at the time of delivery, unless proved otherwise. Therefore if a problem with the horse emerges, it is important that you don’t hesitate to report it to the seller in writing and let them know that you will have further investigations carried out. If a horse purchase is made through a professional agent, acting for a private individual, and the seller is aware of this, then the purchase is not considered a ‘consumer purchase’. Advice is to seek legal assistance as well as veterinarian inspections. Legalities will also help in the financial aspects whereby VAT/GST will or will not be charged for an international transaction.

‘The veterinarian’s job is neither to pass or fail a horse. It is to provide the purchaser with information regarding any existing medical problems and explain the possibility for future problems, especially in light of the horse’s intended use.’




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