All About the Pre-Purchase Exam

Dr. Tim Lynch of Peterson Smith Equine Hospital + 
Complete Care performs a pre-purchase exam. Photo Courtesy Peterson Smith Equine Hospital + 
Complete Care

Peterson Smith Equine Hospital + Complete Care’s Dr. Tim Lynch demystifies the process.

By Catie Staszak

To buy or not to buy? When it comes to horse sales, the pre-purchase exam (PPE) is often the determining factor. While a PPE can lead to a yes or no answer, the exam is far from black and white.

“Pre-purchase exams are somewhat unfair. The veterinarian only sees the horse for about an hour out of its life with the goal of trying to predict its future, in a way,” says Tim Lynch, DVM, DACVS, DACVSMR, of Peterson Smith Equine Hospital + Complete Care, in Ocala, Florida. “The role of a veterinarian is to make sure you have a healthy, safe horse and to evaluate all of the physical systems.” 

Dr. Lynch has more than 30 years of experience as a veterinarian and more than 20 years of experience as a board certified surgeon. He joined Peterson Smith Equine Hospital + Complete Care in 2002 to head the Sports Medicine Program and became a partner of the practice in 2007. Over the course of his veterinary career, Dr. Lynch has performed countless pre-purchase exams. He notes that, while buyers and sellers often discuss a PPE with the terms “pass” and “fail,” those words are not utilized by veterinarians. Instead, key phrases like “serviceable” and “not serviceable” for an “intended use” are used. Another important word used by veterinarians during a PPE is “today.” 

“We have to make judgements based on how the horse is today,” Dr. Lynch says. “If a horse has been showing for three or four weeks in a row, it is likely going to have some stiffness or soreness, or something that might manifest itself, or something that might make [a buyer] hesitate. If a horse is showing and winning every class, and is a pretty good horse prior to pre-purchase, but is lame during the pre-purchase, is that really a fair assessment?” 

“You have to read it all together,” he adds. “Is the pre-purchase a true representation of the horse? It might not be, but as a veterinarian, all I can speak to is [what I see] in the hour exam that I do and how the horse is today.” 

Pre-purchase exams come at all levels, and all are acceptable, according to Dr. Lynch. A basic PPE is comparable to a physical. The heart and lungs are checked, teeth and eyes are examined and vaccination records are reviewed, among other things. Blood work can also be included in a basic PPE. Additional forms of examination are add-ons; these include radiographs—which often begin with navicular radiographs and end with the neck and back—bone scans and even MRIs. 

The more extensive the examination, the higher the cost. When setting up a PPE—which is paid for by the buyer—the length of examination should be determined based on the horse’s intended use, purchase price and other factors. 

“We have to know what the horse is going to be used for and at what level, then we can tailor the PPE to the client’s wants and needs to evaluate the horse’s athletic future,” Dr. Lynch says. “It’s a mixed bag. A PPE can be easy and simple or complicated and costly, depending on the client’s needs.” 

“The veterinarian’s job is neither to facilitate nor to derail a sale. Rather, the vet looks to achieve a meeting of the minds to help the buyer and seller agree, or at least come to a consensus on the horse as far as its suitability,” says Dr. Lynch. 

The pre-purchase exam, at its essence, is an assessment of risk and establishes a baseline for a horse. The information gathered can have different meanings for a horse depending on its intended use, breed and other factors. Buyers of a hunter or jumper put focus on suspensory ultrasounds, while Quarter Horse buyers seeking barrel racing or reining prospects often put a great focus on navicular radiographs. Racehorses receive a repository of 32 films—all four fetlocks, the knees, the hocks and the stifles—and often a scope of the upper airway. However, with more information comes more interpretation.

“We take what we find, then interpret it in an attempt to predict a horse’s future—not so much as what it will be doing, but whether it will be a suitable athlete for an event,” Dr. Lynch explains. “A buyer should evaluate how the findings fit into the horse’s athletic career.” 

Beyond the PPE, there are other factors that should be considered in purchasing, or not purchasing, a horse. According to Dr. Lynch, it is easier to examine a horse that possesses a consistent show record at a comparable level to its future intended use. Unexplained gaps in a show record can send up warning flags. 

“It is always easier to pre-purchase a horse that has a consistent show record,” Dr. Lynch says. “It shows that they can do the job and have been doing it for some time.” 

The key to navigating a successful PPE is an open mind and, according to Dr. Lynch, it is important to be realistic with regards to expectations for a horse. While knowledge is power, Dr. Lynch also acknowledges that sometimes exam findings do not line up with a horse’s performance. Ultimately, it is the buyer’s decision whether to purchase the horse. 

“The correlation between radiographic changes and lameness or performance is really poor,” he says. “Some horses have terrible looking backs, but they are good, sound athletes. Other horses have minimal changes in their hocks, but are lame. It can be all over the map, but you have to start somewhere to get a baseline on the horse, as far as radiographs are concerned.” 

It is also important to keep in mind that a PPE does not, in any way, evaluate talent. 

“A PPE does not determine whether a horse is talented or not, but whether it can be an athlete for its intended use,” Dr. Lynch says. 

“You have to be realistic about the horse, what you expect it to do and its future.” 

*This story was originally published in the December 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!