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Use a variety of factors in deciding whether or not to buy a horse.

What you must realize is that there are often other factors that need to be brought into the picture in deciding whether or not to go ahead with a purchase.  Some of these may be as important or even MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE VETERINARY FINDINGS.  Wise and experienced horsemen use a variety of criteria in deciding whether or not to buy a horse after the pre-purchase exam. 

First of all, consider what the horse has done. 

Many excellent veterinarians will tell you that the greatest prognosticator of whether a horse will stay sound is his performance history.  If he's been doing the job for any period of time, chances are he can handle that job, even if his radiographs might not look so good.  It is great if you have past radiographs to compare, so you can see that the horse has been able to work with his "imperfections."  But don't get too alarmed if they've changed.  Of course they've changed.  What do you expect?!?  Horses are like us.   We're aging and deteriorating - but we've still got a lot of performance in us!  It is often helpful to use the horse's clinical picture and past performance to help you determine the significance of any  imperfections.

A proven performance history is an extremely important factor.

Dressage Horse Performing PiaffeOn the other hand, just because a horse has great radiographs and is clinically sound doesn't mean he's a sound horse.  How many times have veterinarians seen sound horses that look great on xrays but still are unsound.  A proven performance history is an extremely important factor to weigh in to the decision about the HORSE'S TRUE SOUNDNESS PROFILE and likelihood to keep performing.

Of course, this is more difficult to consider when shopping for a young horse, especially with unbroken horses.  While this is not an entirely safe aspect, it can be helpful to know about the reputation of the pedigree of the young horse.  Any knowledgeable horseperson will tell you that certain bloodlines produce "tough" horses and others produce "unreliable" and "unsound" ones.  You might want to do a little research.  

Sound horses are not always the ones that fare well in a pre-purchase exam.

Wise and experienced horse people know that "some horses are prone to be sound and others are not."  We all have our stories about horses that went on forever.  Of course your goal is to buy a sound horse that will hold up for your intended purpose.  But "sound horses" are not always the ones that fare  well in our standard vet checks, and ones that are not prone to be sound may check out just fine.  That's where it gets tricky.

Often unsoundness issues pertain to soft tissue.

There are several reasons for this.  One of the biggest reasons is that often unsoundness issues pertain to soft tissue; strains, sprains, tears and bruises. Pre-purchase exams do a "that day" check on how the soft tissue is reacting (using flexion tests, palpations and hoof testers, etc.) and then focus ALOT on xrays.  But radiographs don't give you a read on soft tissue for the most part.  And nothing in the pre-purchase exam really tells you how the horse will hold up over hard work; and that's what you REALLY want to know.  

Most of the time when a dressage horse is lame it is related to a strained or pulled suspensory ligament, a sprain, bruise, tear or neurological impairment.  Certainly one would argue that arthritis in the lower hock joint is a "dressage disease."  In other words, it's quite common in dressage horses.  At the same time, it often not a career stopper, is quite manageable; and here again, radiographs often don't directly correlate to the soundness condition as they should.

Some horses want to be sound.

Another reason is that soundness is strongly determined by a horse's temperament.  Sound crazy?  Any wise old horseman will agree.  There are some horses that will go three legged lame if the smallest scratch comes their way, while other tough old battle axes will trot along well into their twenties with sidebone, ringbone, bone chips, arthritis and you name it.  Some horses want to be sound and its a factor that you'll never see in a pre-purchase exam.  It's a quality  that great horses have and horse masters recognize and appreciate it.

Soundness is something you manage, it's not something you can just buy.

A third reason that pre-purchase findings often don't correlate to future soundness is because soundness is something you manage.  It's not something you can just buy.  There are some barns that never seem to have unsound horses, while others seem to be plagued with trouble.  Turnout is a common area where horses injure themselves by playing.  Many dressage riders don't understand that a trained horse is extremely fit with incredible muscle strength from all the training gymnastics we put them through. 

A well fed horse that is really fit when turned out will often run, buck, twist and play until he sprains something.  You have to be a good enough horseperson to understand what is safest for your horse and then react accordingly.  Many stable managers have a "one system fits all" approach.  For instance they might believe that "every horse needs to be turned out all day," or dressage horses don't need turnout on days they're ridden. Depending on the horse, you may need to be flexible.  One perspective does not fit all horses.

Riding styles have a great affect on soundness.  Correctly training the dressage horse to work with a loose and swinging back is the healthiest biomechanic for the horse's legs.  Likewise, riders that insist on keeping the horse's neck up at the expense of the back see more than their share of sore hocks.  This is one of many examples. 

An excellent training program is extremely important in keeping a horse sound. 

For instance, you would want to keep a riding session quite short if you are working in deeper footing than the horse is used to.  And you might choose to limit how many times in a week you work on extended trot.  Shoeing a horse to land flat (not always possible) can have a very significant impact on long term soundness.  Books could be written about the wisdom of keeping horses sound but make no mistake about it;  soundness is something you manage, it's not just something you can just buy.  If you're nervous about buying a horse that might not stay sound, you may wish to put your focus on improving the quality of life you're going to provide for your horse.

Your intended use should affect your decision.

Consider also your intended use.  In a perfect situation, you would purchase a horse that is already doing what you'll be expecting of him.  That's a much safer bet.  If you are probably not going to expect the horse to do as much as he's been doing in the past, that's an even safer bet.  If you have a good track record for keeping horses sound, it is also a positive consideration from which to draw encouragement.  Of course the opposite can be true.  You may be wanting to stretch the horse to new limits or buying a just broken horse.  With honest consideration, you may not be so good at managing a horse's health.  You need to consider these things in your decision.

Assemble a team to help you make your decision.

If you are an amateur or an inexperienced buyer, you may be well served to assemble a team of horse people to help you put it all into perspective and guide you into a decision.  Choose people with a lifetime of experience and remember that nearly every horse person fancies themselves an expert and "a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing."  If you know any  wise, older, and very experienced horse people, put them on your jury.

Also, don't be afraid to get second opinions.  Sometimes university veterinarians can be very helpful.  You may wish to ask your own veterinarian if he has any university contacts to which he/she can refer you for more insights.  Again, don't look for the 2nd opinion to be any more encouraging. 

There are no perfect horses!

The first and last thing to keep in mind is that there are no perfect horses.  If you are looking for a horse without issues, you should probably stay home and buy horse videos instead.  Using all the wisdom in the world and with the finest veterinary inspections, you may find yourself owning an unsound horse.  Putting a horse through an extremely thorough veterinary exam does not insulate you from that risk.  Get used to that fact. 

If you're not a risk taker, don't buy a horse.  

Every buyer has their own tolerance level for risk.  Understand that the industry has been extremely unfair to our veterinarians in making them liable for their "recommendations."  Keep in mind that no one can predict if a horse will stay sound.  Many times horses break the rules.  It is often very difficult to make a risk assessment based on a clinical finding at one particular point in time.

Unfortunately, our litigious society has forced veterinarians to abstain from being as helpful as many otherwise could and would be.  It's probably too late to change that unless we see some radical changes to our legal system.  Meanwhile, each of us needs to extend grace to our veterinary community, discourage litigation and be willing to bear our own risks. 

Use a lot of common sense and borrow from the intuitive capabilities of experts when you make your next purchase decision.  Put this together with the pre-purchase findings, performance history and your own horsemanship abilities to decide on whether or not to write the check.  Sometimes these decisions are made using mainly an intuitive sense.  Sometimes the decision to buy a horse is also a commitment to making the horse work; through medication, management and tlc.

Notice:  This article has been published for information purposes only.  Author strongly advises reader to seek out expert advice for their particular situation.

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Hi Jeff,

Just wanted to say thank you for a great webinar!. The replay should be up today. I think you covered some really important points and that horse professionals will get a lot out of it.

All the best,


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