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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. 

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