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Dr. Nancy Loving Explains Pre-Purchase Exams...

by Emily Kitching 
photos by Valerie Cromar

Maybe you have decided it's time to buy a horse, or the fella down the street has a horse he wants to give away. In either case, before you make the decision to take on the responsibility of owning a horse, you should have your veterinarian give the horse a thorough, pre-purchase exam.

"We are looking to eliminate obvious problems, said Nancy Loving, D.V.M., "We are addressing concerns seen at one moment in time, and screening for conditions that might be there.  But, there are no crystal balls."

Dr. Loving demonstrates a flexion testA pre-purchase examination is not magic.  There are no guarantees that a veterinarian will catch everything or that something they see as a warning sign will develop into a problem.  It is a chance for you to learn about conditions or potential problems that may be hidden from even the seasoned horse-owner's eye.

You should seek the help of a vet because they are trained to evaluate horses on a variety of levels. Not only can they look at a horse's general health and pinpoint lamenesses, they can also look at conformation issues and help gauge the horse's ability to excel in a discipline. A pre-purchase exam is a collection of information and data. There is no pass or fail. Every horse has faults; the exam is a process by which they are uncovered for the prospective buyer to evaluate.

Loving recalls an older horse that was given away, and the recipients ended up having to spend thousands of dollars in caring for a chronic lameness condition. The management such as shoeing and medication for lameness or respiratory problems can be costly A pre-purchase exam can help to weed out horses that might have such conditions.

"When I do a pre-purchase exam am completely open-minded, and look at the horse as an empty slate to which I'll find information as I proceed in the exam" said Loving. I look at the horse as if I were buying him. I want to know every little detail: who he was trained and handled by, what he is being fed, and if he is up to date on his worming and vaccinations."

Loving is careful to point out that there are no perfect horses in the world. There will always be compromises made when buying a horse. With the exam, you can make an informed decision as to what compromises you can live with.

Every vet will approach a pre-purchase exam in a different way.  Loving starts in the barn or stall where the horse is kept. Here she listens to the horse's heart and lungs, takes the temperature and gauges the respiration rate. She looks at the horse's skin and eyes, and makes an evaluation of the horse's general physical state and condition. This also gives her a chance to develop some rapport with the horse, allowing him to develop some trust in her before she moves on to more demanding parts of the examination.

Next, Loving moves the horse outside where the horse can be put to work, watching for potential problems in each of the horse's gaits. All through the exam, Loving asks questions about the horse's history, and what will be asked of him in the future.  After the horse has moved through the walk, trot, and canter, she will again listen to the horse's heart and lungs. She watches the horse move before palpating body parts or doing any flexion tests.

Palpating is a gentle probing over the horse's legs and body. The vet is feeling an area to make sure it feels normal, and looking to see if pressure causes an abnormal response, such as pain.

A flexion test is where a joint is held tightly flexed for a minute or two and then the horse is asked to trot off. He should be able to move without limping. If there is lameness, it is given a grade from zero, which is normal, to five, which is non-weight bearing.

Dr. Loving demonstrates the use of hoof testers.Loving would then palpate the horse's back, spine and pelvis, apply the hoof testers to the feet, and look for abnormal swelling or enlargements over the entire horse. if there are abnormalities, she would then X-ray that particular area.

"Some people expect X-rays to tell all," said Loving, "but many times there is a poor correlation between Xrays and performance." If the horse in question is being worked regularly and looks sound and able, Loving is less concerned with changes seen on X-ray film. X-ray film doesn't reveal problems with cartilage in the horse's joints, and doesn't always correlate with a horse that shows up as having navicular disease.

"I put the whole clinical picture together," said Loving. "Sometimes too much is read into X-rays. Not all horses read the book."

Before you have a vet come and look at the horse, spend some time with him yourself. Do not waste the vet's time and your money by doing a pre-purchase on any cute face that comes down the road. There are some things you can do to help narrow your choices before you call the vet.

Spend some time with the horse both on his back and off. Watch him in his stall or paddock. Look for vices such as pacing or chewing. If he goes out with a herd, evaluate his social behavior and determine if he will fit in with your horses at home or at your barn. Bring your trainer to evaluate the horse. Your trainer can help you to decide if the horse fits your abilities and needs. Ride the horse off the property. Is he confident and comfortable in new surroundings or nervous and bothered? These simple measures will help you decide what horse you want to pursue.

"I did five exams for one woman," said Loving. "On the third horse I never got past examining the eyes because the horse had cataracts. But we finally did find a horse that she was happy with. She just had to be patient."



This copyrighted article originally appeared in the December, 1997 issue
of the monthly magazine,

The Trail Less Traveled

("A Resource For The Horseman")

and is used by permission.

Click on title above for web link or see below for contact details.

Editor's Note: 
Dr. Nancy Loving, D.V.M.,  is the author of:
"The Veterinary Manual for the Performance Horse,"  
"Go the Distance: The Complete Resource for Endurance Riders,"
and coming soon, "Conformation In
Performance: A Guide."

Click on active book titles above to order from the Equerry Bookstore


Have everyone there.
So that buyer, seller and veterinarian can ask necessary questions. The owner should bring all medical records as well.

Have the horse prepared.
Flexion tests require that the horse stand with a joint flexed and then trot off. The horse should be halter broke so that he is able to stand for the test and trot off when asked.

Have yourself ready.
Someone needs to have shoes on that they can jog in during the flexion tests. Someone, preferably the prospective buyer, should be ready to ride, and put the horse to his intended use. Here the vet can hunt for potential problems while working.

Have the proper footing.
The horse should be asked to move on a hard-packed area, where subtle lameness' will be revealed. A sandy arena alone is not acceptable, because it can hide potential problems.

Put your emotions aside.
They will get in the way of rationally evaluating the findings of the exam.


Muscle asymmetry.
The horse's muscles might be unevenly developed from one side to the next.

Shape of the foot.
The Vet could find problems that may lead to lamenesses in the future.

Everything else.
Your vet has special training and tools such as a stethoscope, ophthalmoscope, and hoof testers to find irregularities and pinpoint lamenesses you might miss.


  Copyright 1997 Winsor Publishing

The Trail Less Traveled  is published monthly by
Winsor Publishing LLC

Winsor Publishing
P.O. Box 187
Boulder, Colorad 80306
Phone:   303-444-6879

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