Finally you have found the horse of your dreams. Now, it has to pass the vet, whose full five-stage clinical snapshot should reveal whether your chosen one is fit for purpose.

In a 2hr examination, the vet is expected to gaze into a crystal ball and predict the future of the creature under his stethoscope. Many vets try to explain to the novice that “no horse is perfect” but, in some cases, they are now so fearful of litigation that they straddle a fence as wide as an Aintree hedge.

All too often, within the space of an hour, a horse that has gone happily and soundly for years may be denounced as lame, arthritic or about to fall victim to some impending disaster.

Since the end of the 1990s, the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) has advised its vets not to pass or fail a horse but, instead, venture an opinion as to the suitability of the horse for the job intended, based on a clinical examination and an expert opinion.

Jeremy Mantell, who since 1998 has headed BEVA’s working party on vetting, says that flexion tests and lungeing in a small circle on hard ground are common bones of contention.

In 2005 he wrote: “These techniques should be more to exacerbate or confirm a suspicion of abnormality that has already been detected than solely to act as a screening technique in an otherwise normal horse.

“That said, there will inevitably be variations in the degree of acceptable normality with these techniques depending on the age and type of horse involved and it will be up to the attending vet to make a balanced judgement on their acceptability, rather than to take an all or nothing view.”

And it is no longer just the vet who influences the sale. The prospective insurers are now a huge factor, too. They interpret the vet’s certificate and put their own exclusions on the policy. These are the people who can make or break a purchase — in many cases, without even intending to.

Large insurers’ spokesmen claim to apply “common sense”, but that does not explain anecdotal evidence that exclusions seem to be applied in a haphazard manner.

Exclusions on insurance policies based on vettings can cause a price to plummet or even a sale to fall through, while the horse with the offending lump, bump or wolf tooth will probably be sound or able to do the job for which it was advertised.

“If an insurance company puts exclusions on a horse, it can stop the sale regardless of whether this is likely to have any impact on its performance,” confirms Susie Pragnell, who sells top-class event horses all over the world. “It still doesn’t mean the horse isn’t going to put its foot down a rabbit hole the next day.”

Our vetting system was once the envy of Europe but now it seems it’s increasingly under fire from all sides.

Horse & Hound’s consultant vet Karen Coumbe says: “With a vetting, there really is no other commercial transaction in which it’s easier for the vendor to offload all responsibility for defective goods on to the poor examining vet,” she says. “Sometimes you feel like piggy in the middle, caught between the buyer and seller.

“It can be doubly difficult when the would-be purchaser is new to horses. I used to say I deal with horsey people, now I deal with people who buy horses.”

Vets are all too aware of the risk of missing things at vettings that could land them in court; a sarcoid hidden under a thick coat is all too easily missed, for example.

But contrary to the fear that the higher the cost of the horse, the bigger the stakes, Karen believes this can help.

“The rising cost of horses at least is a plus factor. The high-value animal is now much easier to trace because it will have a proven competition record,” she explains.

She believes this type of horse is much easier to evaluate than one with no record, which is often at the cheaper end of the market. But it is not just a problem stoked by novice horse owners, who often purchase cheaper horses.

“Even experienced horse owners buying a valuable horse may be looking for a guarantee of soundness for the future,” says Karen.

More and more vets are being asked to take on the role of adviser.

BEVA’s Henry Tremaine says: “People are hoping to get a yes/no answer from the vet as to whether they should buy the horse. Some people new to horses think the vetting is a bit like buying a car with a warranty. But no one can guarantee whether a horse is going to develop arthritis or throw a curb.

“What the buyer is getting is a movie frame of that horse’s health on that day, combined with an expert opinion.”

This news feature was first published in Horse & Hound (3 May, ’07)