Unpacking the Pre Purchase Exam



To begin, and let me say it louder for the folks in the back—you never do a pre-purchase exam to try not to buy a horse. You only do one when you really, really want to buy the horse you are trying. However, when you are ready to buy a horse (or pony), one of the most important steps in the process is the pre-purchase examination. I wish I had a dollar for every seller who’s ever said to me, “There’s no point in doing a pre-purchase exam. I can tell you everything that’s wrong with him.” I would have…well, let’s just say a lot of dollars. 

But, here’s the thing. You don’t do a pre-purchase exam to find out what everyone already knows about the horse. You do one to find out what nobody knows. 

Let’s say the seller has disclosed that the horse has some degeneration in his hocks. You factor that information in to your decision to purchase, and the price you are willing to pay. And, of course, you will plan to radiograph those hocks during your pre-purchase exam to confirm the seller’s information and to observe the extent of the joint damage. However, if those x-rays  show a large chip in the joint capsule and a complete lack of joint spacing, then you may decide not to purchase that horse. The owner knew the horse had hock issues and rightly disclosed that information to you. However, until they’ were x-rayed, no one knew the true extent of the hock issues and damage the joints may have suffered. 

The General Physical Exam 

There will be several “decision points” during your pre-purchase involving how far you want to go and how much money you want to spend. All pre purchases begin with a general health exam and the vet’s opinion of the horse’s conformation as it relates to its suitability for intended use. If it’s severely pigeon-toed, they will point that out and let you know it might affect its ability to be a hunter or jumper.

From there, a good veterinarian shares their general findings and will ask you how much further you want to go with evaluating the horse. It’s not about their opinion of the horse—its age, or temperament, or price—and they shouldn’t offer it at this point unless asked. If you like the horse, have had a chance to try it, and are happy with how it performed in the trial and the price, you could stop right there and go ahead and purchase.  

The Flexion Tests 

If you are spending a substantial (to you) amount of money, expect the horse to do a difficult job, are purchasing for resale, or if you need the horse to last a long time, I always recommend flexion tests. This is when specific joints are manipulated under pressure and the horse’s response is noted, on a 0-5 reaction scale, as they trot away from the test. A zero = no reaction to the test, which is good. A five = dead-dog lame after the test and is not so good.

Flexions are not a definitive indication of lameness or problems, but can be an indication that something is going on in that joint. They are only one small tool you use to make your final decision. Sometimes horses flex poorly, but there’s nothing much wrong and they go on to have long and illustrious careers. Sometimes they flex very well and an x-ray will reveal severe damage to a joint. So, use caution when deciding how much weight you are going to give a flexion text.

In our neck of the woods, you will have spent around $300 to get this far into the pre purchase exam. But remember, this could be a very different amount for you depending on where you  live. 

Should You X-ray? 

Any time a joint doesn’t flex well, you have reached another decision point. Do you x-ray the joint to see what’s going on and hope it’s not something serious? Or, do you end the exam and decline to purchase based on the fact that the horse did not “pass” flexion tests? Some questions you might ask to help you make that decision (in addition to its expected use, its resale prospects, and its expected longevity at its job) are:

  • How much do you like this horse?
  • How much are you paying for this horse?
  • How old is this horse?
  • How much has this horse been used so far? 

If you really, really like the horse—get an x-ray. It may be nothing or very little and you can proceed to purchase with a clear conscience. The horse may have gotten a kick the day before and just be sore, or have twisted something running in the pasture and will be fine with a couple days of rest. It may have some very minor arthritic changes in the joint that shouldn’t pose any real problem. 

If this is an expensive horse, get an x-ray. It’s protection against spending a great deal of money on a horse that may end up having little long-term value. 

If it’s a younger horse, get an x-ray. The younger the horse is, the higher your expectations should be regarding its soundness. A young horse hasn’t had time to put a lot of wear and tear on its joints, so chances are that any soreness is not a result of the normal degenerative changes that come from aging, but rather due to some injury or more serious joint issue. 

If it’s an older horse, you may not want to x-ray. Older horses often don’t flex great. If you like the horse and are willing to put up with some creakiness to get an appropriate mount that’s been around the block and can teach your child safely, just note that the joint may need some maintenance and move on. 

You Should X-ray! 

If your veterinarian indicates that your horse is in good overall health, has no conformation issues or blemishes that would hinders its usefulness, and you are happy with all the flexion tests then there is usually no need to go further and spend any more money. However, here are a couple of instances where you may want to proceed to x-ray some joints, even though flexions were good. 

  1. If you are paying a lot of money for this horse, get some x-rays. Remember, the more you pay the more you will want to get when you are ready to sell. When you are the seller and are asking a lot, the potential buyer will probably want x-rays. It helps on resale to have a set of x rays from when you purchased so that the buyer and his/her vet can use them to compare with current x-rays. Sometimes it not the condition of the joints that is so important, but rather how much the joints have changed over time. So, if it’s an expensive horse, get a few views. It’s just insurance against the purchase price and your reasonable prospects of recovering some of it on resale! 
  2. If you expect this horse to do a difficult job, or last over a long period of time, get some x rays. In those cases, your best insurance is to radiograph the “money” joints (hocks, stifles, fetlocks, navicular – or some combination of those) to make sure there isn’t something going on that may affect this horse down the road. 

And a final word about x-rays—all of the other tests and examinations you have done up to this point are giving you a snapshot in time of this horse, at this moment, on this particular day. They don’t tell you what this horse was like last week, and give you very little information about what this horse may be like in two months. An x-ray is your best chance of knowing that history and predicting a future. A flexion may show a sore hock today. An x-ray will show changes (or not)  in the joint that might be making the horse sore. They are an excellent tool in the totality of the pre purchase exam. 

The End Game 

If the horse is in good health and has passed all the flexions (or you have x-rayed and are satisfied with the results), this is a good time to ask your vet their general opinion of the horse. You already know what your trainer thinks—you are pre-purchasing after all! Vets aren’t trainers and their perspectives are different.

In the best case scenario, your vet needs your horse to stand quietly twice a year when he vaccinates it. However, vets see plenty of horses each day and most have a good feel for when a horse is a decent type or a jerk. I always ask what they think, even if I don’t always agree! 

At this point, you can make your final decision based on how well everything went. Don’t expect perfection. It’s not out there. But, you can expect sound enough for the money and the job it’s expected to do. Buying a horse is a fairly emotional undertaking. We all tend to “love” our horses early and easily. A pre-purchase exam will help to keep you from falling in love with someone who is only gonna’ break your heart.