Breaking Down the Prepurchase Exam

Photo courtesy of Mark Donaldson


The prepurchase exam (PPE) can be daunting for both the buyer and seller. The buyer is so excited about the possibility of this new horse that they love, that the thought of the horse “failing” fills them with dread. Meanwhile the seller is just as nervous because they want their horse to have the perfect home. 

PPEs can be confusing, especially for those who have not experienced many, as each vet has a slightly different method so that parts of the exam may not be familiar to the buyer and seller. However, if all involved in the process understand what is being done, why, and how they can make the examination run smoothly, a PPE does not have to be scary. 

Before a buyer schedules a PPE on their hopeful new horse, it is important that they understand that although many horses are beloved pets, they are essentially an investment. While it is not a guarantee, the exam can reduce the buyer’s risk in this investment. Dr. Mark Donaldson of Unionville Equine Associates notes his thoughts on the importance of the PPE saying, “I think if you’re going to invest in the taking care of a horse, then you’re going to want to make sure that the horse is useful for your intended purpose.”  It also allows the owner to compare their budget of what they want to spend on the horse in the future to what the horse may realistically need monetarily. 

The veterinarian completing the PPE will generally speak to both the buyer and the seller to gain information which will guide them in their recommendations. The buyer should discuss their future goals for the horse with the vet, as well as any concerns that they may have. If the horse is intended for resale, this should also be noted, as Dr. Donaldson notes that this can affect how he evaluates the horse. The seller has the responsibility to be forthcoming with medical and performance history because these will help indicate if an abnormality will cause an issue for the buyer in the future, or if the horse has lived and competed with it. For example, if a horse has been successfully competing at preliminary level eventing with a flaw, and is being sold to a rider whose goal is to compete at the novice level, the prognosis for this new pair is positive. With proper management, the horse may continue to be successful; therefore, Dr. Donaldson urges buyers to mimic the seller’s practices as closely as possible. 

When Dr. Donaldson begins a PPE, he always leaves the horse in the stall by themselves, which gives him time to talk to the seller (or seller’s agent) about the horse, while watching their behavior in the stall. This is a safe, comfortable environment for the horse, so they should appear to be fairly quiet and pleasant. Dr. Donaldson also utilizes the stall for his examination of the eyes and mouth with a bright light, as well as the heart, lungs, etc. 

Photo courtesy of Mark Donaldson

Once this is completed, he asks that the horse be brought out of the stall so he can inspect the horse’s skin and symmetry. This is the time when Dr. Donaldson may notice any scars or minor blemishes in the skin, as well as ensure that the horse is symmetrical from both left to right and front to back. He adds that if a horse has asymmetrical muscling throughout its body, it may be indicative of the horse working unevenly, potentially due to pain or a conformational abnormality. The tendons, muscles, and joints are also palpated at this time to check for any swelling or pain. 

Possibly the most precarious portion of the exam for buyer and seller is the evaluation of movement, which can include walking/jogging in hand, lunging, and riding, as well as flexion tests. Dr. Donaldson refers to the importance of watching the horse walk at the beginning of movement evaluation saying, “If there’s a limb or joint that is crooked, when you put that limb in motion, the crookedness will cause the horse to wing or paddle, and the repetitive motion will cause your eye to go to an area that has unusual conformation.” He then likes to watch the horse jog both in a straight line and on an 8-10 meter circle before moving to the flexion tests. Dr. Donaldson mentions that flexion tests can be an area of difficulty because they are not always an accurate representation of how sound the horse will be when doing its job.

 “I try not to overinterpret flexion tests because many athletic, successful horses might not like having the limb put through that range of motion and it might bother them a little bit, but it doesn’t necessarily simulate what they’re doing when they’re performing, so it may or may not be relevant to their ability to do their job.”

After the flexion tests, Dr. Donaldson likes to see the horse lunged and ridden if possible because “if there’s any subtle abnormalities with the horse in hand, it’s nice to know whether or not those things will get better or worse when the horse is ridden. Many successful, athletic horses show very, very subtle, mild lameness when they’re trotting on an 8 meter circle on a hard surface, but when ridden on a soft surface, it’s not detectable, and that’s good information to have.”

Radiographs are commonly the final portion of a PPE and can be taken of almost any part of the body; however, the front feet and hocks are two of the most common areas to radiograph in a PPE. If an abnormality is found during the physical examination or evaluation of movement, they may also be explored further during this time. 

If the horse is intended for resale, the buyer may handle abnormalities that are found in the radiographs differently than one who is purchasing the animal as a personal horse. When the horse is to be resold, Dr. Donaldson says “I will try to help guide the buyer on areas where I think there is a consensus among veterinarians. If there’s a problem that I find that’s really contentious and every vet has a different opinion, like a navicular abnormality or back radiograph, then I’ll let them know that the future interpretation of this abnormality is variable.”

Dr. Donaldson also refers to the ways that he makes a recommendation based upon an abnormality saying, “How much will that abnormality impact the horse’s future? Sometimes that’s hard to predict. A lot of it has to do with the horse’s temperament, willingness, and the heart that they have to work through the problem, and the buyer’s willingness to manage it.”

Though a PPE is not a guarantee, it is a protection on the investment which the buyer is making; therefore it is important that it is done thoroughly, and in conjunction with a professional trainer who knows your abilities, as well as what the buyer needs in their next mount. Dr. Donaldson continued to stress the importance of having a professional to work with throughout the entire process, including the vetting. “Working with a professional trainer is really helpful. For a living that’s what they do. They look at horses, ride horses, train horses. So there may be things that a professional can really be helpful with in the process of buying your horse.”

If the buyer, seller, and veterinarian each have an understanding of what is to take place in the PPE and what is expected of each party, the entire process can run efficiently and be beneficial for all involved. 

Haylie Kerstetter is currently attending Centenary University, where she is the captain of the Hunter/Jumper Team and is majoring in Equine Studies: Communications for the Equine Industry. She has been riding for 15 years and enjoys showing Centenary’s horses during the school year, but particularly appreciates riding Off the Track Thoroughbreds as they make their transitions to their second careers. Following her graduation, she hopes to work as a writer for equestrian-focused publications. 

Mark T. Donaldson received his Bachelor of Science from Villanova University and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine in 1993. After completing an internship at the University of Georgia he returned to the University of Pennsylvania for a residency in Internal Medicine. He is a member of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. Before joining Unionville Equine Associates in 2005, he was an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. He is currently a partner at Unionville Equine Associates. His clinical focus is sports medicine.  In his spare time he enjoys photography and spending time with his wife, Emily and daughter, Lucy.