A few years ago I bought a horse for my husband that I was convinced was the perfect horse – a big, beautiful, well-trained, smooth-gaited, and super-calm Quarterhorse gelding. He had been used extensively in the mountains both as a riding horse and as a pack horse...so he had just about seen and done everything that would be encountered on the trail. What I didn’t know then was that he also had ringbone, an arthritic condition of the fetlock. My veterinarian said that he most likely had the beginning stages at the time I purchased him – would a pre-purchase exam, which I did not do, have discovered this? Maybe, but maybe not. Am I still glad I bought him? Yes, he’s a wonderful addition to our herd, but he’s also an expensive addition to keep sound.
In looking back, I probably should have had a pre-purchase vet exam done as the horse was not cheap and the Adequan we keep him on for his ringbone is also not cheap. I have never had an exam done on any of the horses I’ve bought over the years, but it would be a fairly inexpensive insurance to make sure that the horse is sound and in good health.
What constitutes a pre-purchase exam and what should be expected out of the findings? The first thing, before even scheduling the exam, is to try out the horse (whether it's riding, driving, or for whichever purpose you're looking to use the horse). Do you like his temperament, manners and gaits? If you have a trainer, or a very experienced horse friend, have that person take a look at him and try him out, too. Scheduling a vet exam should be the last thing you do when making a decision to buy or not to buy.
You should get a complete medical history from the seller which would include any surgeries, colic episodes, worming and vaccination schedules, and types of feed. When scheduling the exam with your vet, explain what your expectations and goals are, the use you are planning on with that horse, and what tests you would like done.
A basic vet exam will include a complete physical – eyes, ears, teeth, skin, temperature, conformation, and heart and lung rates both at rest and after exercise. There should be a soundness exam – watching the horse at all gaits and doing flexion tests to determine joint issues and lameness, including using hoof testers to look for problems in the feet. And the vet should also palpate soft tissues to check for swelling and/or soreness.
Your veterinarian will then present his findings and it’s up to you to make your decision based on those findings. You need to keep in mind that the pre-purchase exam, basically a collection of information and data, is based on that particular day; it is not a guarantee of future health or soundness of the horse.