It’s the final tick in the box, the rubber stamp that reassures you that the horse you plan to buy has a clean bill of health. Rarely, of course, is anything so straightforward.

A pre-purchase exam (PPE) offers no straight “pass” or “fail”, nor indeed any guarantee of a horse’s future health and soundness. Instead, you’re given an opinion of the horse’s suitability for your intended use based on “the balance of probabilities”.

“It’s one of the bigger misunderstandings about the PPE,” admits Malcolm. “People expect black and white, but horses are living animals and there’s so much more to it than that.

“There are occasions when a horse is fine, with no real problems, and others when we tell people ‘whatever you do, don’t buy this’. Far more cases, however, fall into the grey area in the middle where we find one or more health issues and grade the degree of risk. It’s then our job to help buyers make up their mind whether or not to go ahead.”

While the words “yes, this horse has passed” might be music to the ears, it’s not a phrase most buyers can expect to hear. Under guidelines issued in 2011 by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA), buyers base their decision on a detailed clinical insight provided by the examining vet.

Some have called the current system a cop-out, accusing vets of covering their backs, yet Malcolm believes that these changes provide the opportunity for a more balanced viewpoint. The PPE can be a valuable tool, he says, provided the buyer understands both its strengths and its limitations.

What to expect

It makes sense to set out with realistic expectations.

“The PPE is essentially a snapshot of the horse’s health,” explains Malcolm. “We do a very thorough exam, whether that’s the two-stage or the full five-stage version, and make the best judgement on the day based on what we find.

“What we don’t have is a crystal ball to predict how things might develop in the future. Flexion tests and trotting in a small circle on a firm surface are an attempt at this, however, because we’re looking for lameness in a situation in which the horse will never normally perform.”

The next step is to assess your own approach to risk.

“Some people are buying a horse with a very good competition record,” says Malcolm. “They’ve seen it in action and know it well, so they’re prepared to take a risk if the PPE reveals some complications.

“If it’s a first-time purchase, however, or a ‘one and only’, they probably want perfection,” he adds. “Buyers in this category, where emotions are involved, are usually the most risk-averse.

“Ideally, choose a vet who shares, or at least understands, your values. Opinions differ among vets on what’s suitable for an intended use and what’s not. Some are more critical, which is not necessarily a failing of the system.”

This relationship seems key to a happy outcome. Using a known and trusted vet is the obvious answer, but what if the horse is based some miles away? “Ask your own vet for a recommendation,” says Malcolm. “Don’t simply accept the vet the seller suggests if you’re buying outside your area.”

An examining vet who knows the horse must disclose its full clinical history, which is why some buyers go down this route. Yet Malcolm points out that you can ask for clinical records at any vetting.

“I would not advise using the seller’s vet,” he says. “As a purchaser, you don’t want potential conflicts of interest. Send your own vet if you feel that the value of the horse justifies extra expense.

“It’s essential that communication starts early,” adds Malcolm. “Flag up any worries you may have before the exam, especially if you can’t be there yourself, so that the vet can look at the horse in the context of your concerns. It’s a big mistake if the first time you speak to the vet is after the exam.”

A can of worms?

2 assessing limbs

So you’ve lined up a vet, but there’s a third factor in the equation — the insurability of the horse you hope to buy. “The most common reason that people walk away from a horse is because their insurance company won’t cover it,” says Malcolm.

“The PPE is there to help the purchaser decide whether or not to buy, yet at the vetting we often end up discussing how the insurers will interpret the report. This is very much a secondary use of a PPE. Just because the examining vet believes a horse is suitable for its intended use does not mean an insurer will cover it without exclusions.

“People should not expect a vet to omit something from the report so that it doesn’t get excluded,” he adds. “If it’s there, we have to record it.”

For the same reason, says Malcolm, accessing the horse’s full clinical history can be a double-edged sword.

“It’s a huge advantage, but it can complicate things — especially if the horse has ‘maintenance’ joint injections, for example,” he says. “Anything influential we find in the clinical history must be noted on the report, which brings the risk of exclusions. You’ll find out if the horse has had colic twice in the past five years, but your insurers may well refuse to cover a further episode.

“Asking for full medical history is a good idea if you want to reduce risk, yet the insurance issue discourages buyers from doing so. Fear of exclusions often makes people put their heads in the sand.”

Risk management

Once the exam is completed and the findings made available, you may well find yourself with more questions than answers.

“If you’re unsure of the interpretation you’ve been given, ask for more explanation,” says Malcolm. “The statement on the report is probably less useful than the discussion you’ll have afterwards with the vet.”

When you’ve gathered the facts, the decision as to whether or not to buy is yours. With luck, the way forward will be clear.

“It’s worth remembering that there will never be a totally risk-free purchase with horses,” Malcolm points out. “Preparing carefully for the PPE and keeping a relatively open mind is your best defence against making a decision you may later regret.”

Gaining insight, not answers

PPEs are not a guarantee against future problems.

• Accept that the PPE provides an insight into a horse’s limitations or maintenance needs. Don’t expect an evaluation of his monetary worth or athletic ability, or any guarantee against future problems.
• Use a vet of your choosing, not the seller’s.
• Focus on your goals. A condition may be manageable or have no impact on the work you want the horse to do, but will it prove problematic if you plan to sell him on?
• Consider additional diagnostics such as X-rays, MRI scans and endoscopy, but remember that they should form part of an overall picture and may not produce a definitive answer.
• Think positive. PPE findings that dissuade you from buying could be a blessing. The next candidate might be the perfect horse for you.

Ref: Horse & Hound; 16 June 2016