Navigating the Pre-Purchase Veterinary Exam 

By Steve Wolgemuth

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

By the time most serious dressage riders find the next "horse of their dreams" they've typically invested quite a bit of time, money and emotional energy. Vet check of horses leg

Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 You need a positive plan and realistic expectations.  

Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 You’ve found what could be your next dressage horse but before you write that check, conventional wisdom tells you to have a pre-purchase veterinary exam.  This part of the buying process might be an emotionally unpleasant and disappointing experience unless you have a positive plan and realistic expectations.  You may be shocked to hear the high percentage of sales that buyers back out of during the pre-purchase process – following these cases often proves the veterinarian's caution or the buyer's concern to be exaggerated as the horse in question goes on to lead a competitive career in dressage.    Turning your back on what could be the best ride of your life because of issues of concern that turn up at the vetting MAY OR MAY NOT BE IN YOUR BEST INTEREST.

The purpose of this article is to give you a leg up on navigating the pre-purchase exam so you can make a wise choice.


You are probably going to be working with a veterinarian that you don't know.

Most of the time buyers find horses that are geographically distant from their own veterinarian.  You are probably going to be faced with finding a veterinarian in a geographic proximity of the horse - and chances are you won't know this veterinarian.  This can make the situation even more complicated.  Is the veterinarian you choose as thorough as you would like?  If there is something wrong with the horse, will they find it?

Should I use the seller's veterinarian or choose another one?

The subject that often comes up is, "should I use the seller's veterinarian or should I find one on my own that is NOT the seller's normal veterinarian?"  The old school of thought was to NEVER use the seller's veterinarian because of their alleged conflict of interest.  In other words, they may be tempted to slant their exam in the favor of the seller rather than to protect you, the buyer.  

     In my experience, there has been a lot of change in that attitude especially among professionals.  Especially in the United States, fear of liability has caused veterinarians to be extremely cautious - ESPECIALLY if they are evaluating a horse that belongs to a regular client.  There is no absolute answer to the question about which veterinarian to use and there are good arguments for both sides.  

Two Points of View


Use the Seller's Veterinarian

  • He or she knows about the horse's prior health history.
  • If it's the choice of the owner, chances are its one of the better equine vets in the area. 
  • If it's the seller's vet, chances are he/she is used to working on sport horses.

Note: Conflict of interest is a non issue because veterinarians are professional enough to understand their obligation to you and their danger of liability.


Use an Independent Veterinarian

  • He or she will likely have a more objective point of view.
  • He/she won't be tempted to "help" the sale in any way.
  • It will be clearer that the veterinarian is working for you the buyer.
  • The veterinarian will be looking at the horse with a fresh perspective. 



 Decide which veterinarian to use on a case by case basis.  




The way I make this decision is on a case by case basis.  If I don't feel comfortable with the seller's integrity I will be much more inclined to look for an outside veterinarian.  In that case, I might use my own veterinarian to recommend a veterinarian in the horse's geographic vicinity.   When my customers buy a horse in Europe, I'm able to help them by making available the veterinarians that I use regularly over there. 

The vets then understand that they're not working for the seller, and my clients are connected with veterinarians that I happen to know are world class. Many times when professionals come to my farm, they'll asked which veterinarian I normally use because they assume that it's the most competent in the area.   

The seller may want to have a say in which the pre-purchase veterinarian will be.  

That's who they'll use in many cases.  I think that's also because they like the idea of having an insider knowledge of the horse, which my veterinarian can often give them.  Sometimes customers like to use their trainer to help them make this decision.

Keep in mind that the seller may reserve the right to have a say in which veterinarian examines the horse and to what extent.  As a number of veterinarians are now openly admitting that their clients often don't buy horses after they do a pre-purchase exam, and many veterinarians conduct (what seems to the seller like) a pre-purchase "witch hunt" (as opposed to a practical appraisal of health), sellers are understandably nervous, defensive and selective.  If you encounter this in a seller, don't assume that he or she is unreasonable or has anything to hide.  

Similarly, you may encounter a seller that is unwilling to have a horse hauled to a university or outside clinic for the pre-purchase exam.  Veterinary Horse flexion testing at universityThe "norm" is quite different in various parts of the country and in Europe as well.  Again, don't assume that the seller is being unreasonable with this position.  Technology has improved the ability for veterinarians to get great radiographs at a farm location.  Also, many farms have much better places to lunge, ride and do flexion tests than do equine hospitals.       

Don't ask a veterinarian questions about a horse's suitability for dressage, potential or specific gait analysis unless they've had extensive training in these areas.    

Some have recommended that the buyer finds a veterinarian that has knowledge and experience in dressage.  Unless the veterinarian has had extensive experience and training in dressage, don't assume they have enough expertise about a horse's dressage potential, the specific movements, and biomechanics specific to the sport or temperament requirements.  Use an experienced trainer with specific education and proven expertise in these areas and ask them questions regarding sport. 

For that reason, I think that finding a veterinarian that "knows about dressage" can be a dangerous focus.  I have had surprisingly frequent encounters with veterinarians that are eager to speak authoritatively about a horse's potential for dressage, speaking about biomechanics, conformation and movement when indeed they have had only exposure to dressage sport and no extensive education to draw from on these subjects. 

For this reason I would recommend that you don't ask your veterinarian questions relating to potential, sport suitability and gaits as you may tempt them to answer outside of their realm of expertise.  Ask your trainer or a knowledgeable professional these questions.  Along the same lines, be careful how much veterinary counsel you take from your dressage trainer.       

Try to use a veterinarian that has had experience with the type of horse you are vetting.  

While I don't recommend seeking out a veterinary "dressage expert" you should certainly choose one who is familiar with and has had significant field experience with horses in the breed that you are buying.  For instance, there are significant differences of interpretation of vascular lesions of the navicular bone if you ask a veterinarian that has practiced on thoroughbred race horses than those who have looked at warmbloods.  Certain breeds have inherent weaknesses and strengths that should have a strong impact on your examination's focus and your findings.  


The unique litigious environment in the USA has changed the way everyone does business - and this is especially true in the medical profession; the veterinary world included. Veterinarians now feel the growing need to protect themselves from legal recourse and receive training on how to do just that.  Sadly, this has created a situation in which American veterinarians have a strong incentive to not act in a way that is working for your purchase.  If they err on the side of caution, they're safe.  

This is exasperating to sellers and confusing to buyers.  Understand one thing:  Most veterinarians will rarely "pass" a horse.  They will sometimes "reject" a horse but usually only if the horse is clearly unsound on the day of the examination.  Most buyers realize that much.  But what they don't realize is that there is likely to be some discussion about a bone chip, arthritis, remodeling (or whatever) that will often not have a conclusive resolve.  

Many buyers drop the sale at that point because they have the feeling that because there is a discussion about "something" it must mean that there is a problem - because there is a discussion.  That's especially true for riders that haven't bought a horse for a few years.


The exam comes at an emotionally difficult time in the sale's process.

Usually by the time the pre-purchase exam rolls around, you are primed for a big case of buyer's remorse.  In other words, you may be getting cold feet about your decision.  This might be happening without you even realizing it.  This (typical) emotion only makes it harder to be completely relaxed and lucid when you have to put a veterinarian's findings in perspective enough to make a decision.  Far too often buyers reject sound horses because thorough veterinarians refuse to advise them "don't worry about it.  It's probably not going to be a problem." Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4


Be prepared to learn about the horse's imperfections.

Brace yourself for the veterinarian to discover problems but keep in mind that most sound horses have problems.  Expect to hear about any number of issues like: radiographic changes, arthritic changes,  degenerative joint disease, bone spurs, chips, vascular lesions, OCD, heart murmurs, retinal scars and on and on.  In years of selling dressage horses, Graemont, Inc has rarely seen horses without any issues during a pre-purchase exam.  Many clients become upset in learning about these imperfections. 

Veterinarians are selling the service of an investigative process and an articulate report of their findings.  If you're looking for practical advice or assurance, then ask someone who doesn't stand to be sued by you. 


It's important for you to be prepared for what you typically hear from the veterinarian.  Here's a paraphrase of what buyers typically hear:

  • "This problem (whatever it happens to be) represents an increased risk (of some sort)."
  • "I cannot guarantee that this won't give the horse a problem down the road."
  • "There are more tests that we can do to get more information about this (whatever it happens to be)."
  • "This could be a problem if you ever want to re-sell this horse."
  • "This may not be a problem now, but later down the road when the horse is asked to work harder..."

Its normal to feel disappointed after the pre-purchase examination as there is no such thing as "perfect in every way".

Just so you are prepared for what may come, realize that most of the time it is not completely clear to buyers whether or not to make a purchase after the pre-purchase exam.  This is also normal. 

It can be upsetting, but don't be too quick to bale out of the sale if you feel this is a good horse for you.  If you are like most buyers, you had an unspoken expectation or hope of hearing at least an inkling of encouragement, reassurance or promise from your veterinarian.  This is especially true when dealing with a familiar veterinarian with whom you feel a greater "openness."  Buyers typically assume that their own veterinarian is going to be more generous with their "true assessment" of a horse and not go on a witch hunt to find problems.  Words like "practical, fair, realistic and FRIENDS" come up more often than not in buyers speaking of their own veterinarian.

So it's quite normal to be at the tail end of the pre-purchase exam and be thinking about not purchasing the horse.  This may or may not be the right decision, but there are some ways to determine what to do next. 

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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