What to Expect in a Pre-Purchase Exam

Learn what to expect from a pre-purchase exam so you can be prepared for the vet's visit and choose the right things to test for.

A pre-purchase exam is when you have a veterinarian give a horse you are considering purchasing a thorough examination. During this exam, they will check for any potential issues that you would like to know about before buying the horse. While it’s not a guarantee that your horse won’t have any issues if their pre-purchase exam (PPE) comes back clean, it can help you make an informed decision and give you some peace of mind when making such a big purchase.

When you ask for a pre-purchase exam, the vet is going to ask what specific things you want to check for. You might think that you should test for everything, but that would be an unnecessary and extremely expensive veterinarian’s visit. Keep reading to get an idea of what you can expect during your pre-purchase exam and which tests are worth springing for.

What to Expect

Usually, the potential buyer will schedule and cover the expenses of the PPE. If the horse you’re thinking of buying is local to you, it’s possible to use a vet you are familiar with. But if you’re looking at a horse outside of your area, you’ll have to go with a vet in that location.

PPEs are a common request for equine vets, and they most likely have a standard routine that they follow. In most cases, the vet will come to the barn where the horse is located and perform the exam. Depending on the situation, you can choose to be present at the exam or have the vet give you the results after.

Read More: 7 Essential Questions to Ask Before Buying a Horse

Before you call to schedule your exam, it’s a good idea to know what things you want the vet to test for and check. Here are some common pre-purchase exam tests that you might consider:

Lameness Evaluation

For performance horses, a lameness evaluation is an important part of the PPE. The vet will watch the horse move in-hand at the walk and trot, in a straight line, on a hard, level surface.

They’ll be watching for:

  • How the horse’s feet land
  • Alterations in limb movement
  • Abnormalities in the footfalls
  • Obvious signs of lameness, pain, or weight-shifting when the food lands
  • Asymmetry with the way the body or pelvis moves
horse pre purchase exam, lameness exam
The vet will watch the horse move at a walk and trot. Photo by Terri Cage.

Then, the vet will usually watch the horse go both directions in a round pen or on a longe line.

They’ll be looking for:

  • Highlight a shortness of stride, particularly in the hind end
  • Allow the horse to move more freely at faster speeds than traveling in-hand allows
  • Show the horse’s movement at the canter, including any difficulty in picking up a particular lead
  • Demonstrate fluidity (or lack thereof) in transitions
  • Accentuate a lameness, because the circle puts more pressure on the inside legs
  • Uncover potential respiratory issues, such as if a horse makes noise while traveling at speed, gets out of breath easily, or recovers slowly. Plus, the veterinarian will be able to assess the heart and lungs after exercise.

The Stress Test

Joint flexions are often considered to be one of the central elements of a soundness assessment. During this test, the vet will flex a single leg joint tightly and hold it in place for a set period of time, usually 30 to 90 seconds. As they release the joint, the handler immediately trots the horse off. Then, the vet will look for any signs of lameness.

Joint flexions are a common part of a lameness exam. Photo by Terri Cage.

Red flags to look for:

  • Resisting of even holding the limb during flexion
  • Remaining sore for the duration of the exam after being flexed

It’s important to remember that this test has a lot of variability depending on who is performing the flexion. An individual’s strength, how tightly they hold the joint, and even slight variations in how they hold the joint can all make a difference to how the horse reacts to the test.

Read More: Be the Dream Buyer when Horse Shopping

Soft Tissue Palpation

A typical pre-purchase exam also includes thorough palpation of the horse’s soft tissues. Here, the vet is feeling for any evidence of current or past injuries, such as heat, tenderness, or unexpected thickness.

Veterinarian examining horse leg tendons

X-Rays to the Bone

Radiographs are probably the diagnostic aid most commonly used as part of a prepurchase exam. It’s never a bad idea to have a baseline set of X-rays for your new horse. Plus, X-rays will show things like bone chips, potential foot issues, and many other possible problems.

Learn More: Horse&Rider OnDemand

Other Tests to Consider

Whether you have a specific reason or you just want to be extra thorough, there are more tests you can ask for. An ultrasound can identify any tendon or ligament inflammation. A Coggins test and a standard wellness profile are the most common blood tests done during a PPE. These give an overall screening for organ function and overall health. Drug testing can also be done during a PPE blood test. There are a number of other things you can ask your vet to test for, but the ones listed above are a good place to start. Preparing yourself in advance means you’ll go into the PPE knowing what to expect. You should also have an idea of what you’re willing to deal with as a horse owner. Always have an in-depth conversation with your vet about the results, any concerns, and questions you might have. Once you fully understand the results of the PPE, you’ll be able to make an informative decision when deciding to buy your dream horse.

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