Pre-purchase exams are an incredibly important part of buying or selling a horse. A horse sale is a lot like real estate in which the pre-purchase exam is the home inspection. The seller should be upfront and straightforward about the horse’s health and performance history, but the buyer should never simply take the seller at their word. Even well-intentioned horse owners may have an implicit bias when it comes to the health and value of their horse. The same goes for the horse’s long-time veterinarian who is likely advising the seller in these cases. As such, the buyer should look to hire an independent veterinarian with plenty of experience and expertise in performing pre-purchase exams.
You should also know that pre-purchase exams are anything but infallible. Experienced horse owners will tell you that even the healthiest horses can suddenly fall ill or sustain a serious injury without any warning signs. However, just as often, there are subtle signs that can be detected during a thorough pre-purchase examination. Even when it doesn’t directly affect the sale, an exam can still provide valuable information about caring for the horse moving forward. A benign heart murmur, for example, might not disqualify the sale of an average pleasure horse, but it is something that should be monitored over time for changes in the nature of the murmur and heart functioning.
Choosing a Veterinarian for Your Pre-Purchase Exam
Be sure to personalize your pre-purchase exam for the type of horse you’re looking to buy. If you’re managing a horse breeding operation, you’ll want to look for a veterinarian with a background that focuses on equine reproduction and breeding operations. The same thing if you’re a new horse trainer looking to buy a young foal, raise and train the horse, and then resell it at a profit, you’re going to prioritize veterinarians with a background in evaluating performance horses.
More generally speaking, experience and education/training are the biggest factors. Ideally, you want someone who’s been around enough horses to have “seen it all” but also someone who’s received recent training and knowledge of the latest examination and diagnostic technologies for evaluating horses. But that’s ideally. Someone looking to buy a typical pleasure riding horse probably doesn’t need to wait several weeks and pay top-dollar for the state’s preeminent equine veterinarian. In many states, there are dozens of qualified veterinarians to choose from including a small handful that are a good fit for your personal horse-buying prospects.
What’s in a Pre-Purchase Exam?
Depending on how you slice it up, there are roughly 6 parts to a comprehensive pre-purchase examination for an equine animal.
- Consultation: There are countless scenarios for which it may be critical that you are clearly communicating with your veterinarian. You want to be on the same page in terms of what your intended use and goals are for the horse, any specific health or performance concerns you may have, and what the expected healthcare and boarding costs are for this particular horse.
- Identification: Don’t overlook the importance of the first step in accurately identifying the horse being examined is the horse of sale. Whether through malfeasance or an honest mistake, the veterinarian should verify and describe all identifying marks and color patterns with existing records to ensure the right horse is being examined.
- Physical Exam: There are several standard procedures for evaluating the horse’s basic health characteristics. This includes things like taking the animal’s temperature, palpitating the head and jugular vein/groove, and listening to the horse’s heart, lung, neurological, and digestive functioning. It also typically includes a dental, ear, and eye exam.
- Dynamic Movement Exam: This includes a wide range of specific muscle and joint flexions. Basically, the veterinarian will examine all the ways the horse should be able to flex their muscles and joints into various positions. This part of the exam also includes a general evaluation of gait and movement when the horse trots in a straight line, doing figure-eight patterns, backing up, and a number of basic coordination tasks.
- Diagnostic Testing: At this point, you and your veterinarian will decide on any diagnostic testing and imagery that may provide helpful information in making a final report. X-rays are the most common diagnostic test to look for abnormalities, but the question is how many images are warranted. Do you need a minimum number of views of feet and knee joints, or do you need a comprehensive set of 36 X-ray images? Other more specialized testing might include ultrasound, endoscopy, bone scans, or MRI.
- Report and Follow-Up: Whether electronically or in paper form, the veterinarian should provide you with a full and official report. You should also be given the opportunity to ask any follow-up questions concerning elements of the examination report or what this information means for the overall health and market value of the horse. Finally, many veterinarians will hold blood samples from the horses they examine so that if the horse becomes ill shortly after the examination, follow-up testing can be completed to determine if the illness was present in the horse at the time of sale.
Average Cost of a Pre-Purchase Exam
The average veterinarian cost for a pre-purchase exam will usually run around $250-$500—or even more for examinations from the best-known veterinarians. But the base cost for the veterinarian doesn’t usually include the cost of diagnostic testing and imagery. The total cost of a pre-purchase exam is likely to fall between $500-$1,000, but for advanced imagery and specialized testing on high-level performance horses, the total cost may be several thousand dollars.