It’s the stuff of nightmares — a hidden health problem that emerges only once you’ve handed over your hard-earned cash and taken your new horse home.
The pre-purchase exam (PPE), in two or five stages, goes some way towards reducing the risk of any nasty surprises. Yet the PPE is essentially a snapshot of a horse’s health status on that day, enabling the examining vet to assess his suitability for your intended use based on “the balance of probabilities”.
Some issues may not be obvious, or detectable, during examination. The “belt and braces” approach would be to request the horse’s health history, giving yourself the chance to uncover any previous treatment that might affect your decision to buy.
The facts you unearth, however, can complicate your decision whether or not to go ahead with the purchase and may affect your ability to insure the horse if you do. So what should you consider before opening this particular Pandora’s box?
Under the radar
The vet who performs the PPE is obliged to declare all that they know about a horse or can reasonably be aware of. Using the seller’s vet would seem the obvious answer — if it wasn’t for the potential conflict of interest.
“You can ask for a horse’s full clinical history at any vetting, so we would advise using a known and trusted vet where possible,” says Malcolm Morley MRCVS, of Stable Close Equine Practice, who has chaired the British Equestrian Veterinary Association (BEVA) PPE committee. “When you buy, it’s all about reducing risk.
Accessing a horse’s history makes every sense, but it can be a double-edged sword.
“The records kept are between the person who owned the horse at that point and the vet who gave treatment,” he adds. “They are mostly reliable, but many horses — especially those that travel and compete often — have seen more than one vet. Information may not be passed on, so records may be incomplete.
“Then there’s the interpretation of any treatment given, which may run into many pages,” adds Malcolm. “More information is not always helpful. If a worried owner kept calling the vet out, treatment may have been given ‘just in case’.”
Among the routine vaccinations and minor niggles, there are occasions when the records reveal something significant that may not have shown up upon examination. Neurectomy (de-nerving) operations and episodes of colic or laminitis are prime examples.
“We look hard for surgical scars in certain areas and we do sometimes find them,” explains Malcolm. “Often, however, you can’t see the evidence. I have discovered surgical staples at a PPE, left behind from a previous operation — I would never have known otherwise that the horse had had surgery.
“Certain medical issues, such as liver disease, may only be picked up via a blood test, which is not a routine part of the PPE,” he adds. “Neither does the PPE include any procedure requiring sedation, such as a sheath inspection or a detailed examination of the mouth with a speculum, so problems here may go under the radar.”
An honest seller may be prepared to discuss their horse’s health in detail, in the interests of finding him the best possible home. There is no legal obligation to disclose every known problem, however, as long as the seller does not mislead the buyer in any way.
“We ask questions at the PPE, but the seller may be unaware of an existing health problem if they haven’t had the horse for long,” Malcolm points out. “Sometimes we’re dealing with an agent who has no direct contact with the owner and may not know the answers.”
Vets often remind us that they don’t have a crystal ball to predict how any issues found at the PPE might develop in the future. Raking through the records will give you an insight into what has happened in the past, but you may still face some tough decisions.
“If you ask for records, you have to accept that there might be some vet history,” says Malcolm. “Many horses are OK, but not perfect. There may be evidence of a problem with a hind tendon sheath, for example, which flares up now and then. That’s not to say that the horse is unsuitable for an owner — in lighter work, this may be less of an issue.
“Even with this additional knowledge, the way forward may not be entirely clear,” he says. “It’s still a case of weighing up what you know before deciding whether or not to buy.”
Many buyers choose not to delve too deep for fear of insurance exclusions.
“Anything influential we find in a horse’s clinical history must be noted on the PPE certificate, which creates the possibility of exclusions,” says Malcolm. “It would be incredibly useful to know that a horse has had colic twice in the past few years, for example, but your insurers may well refuse to cover a third episode. And while you may be comfortable with the idea of a horse having regular ‘maintenance’ joint injections, they may not take the same view.”
Annie Bevins MRCVS, of equestrian insurers KBIS, explains that the examining vet can only make an “educated guess” as to the future implications of any findings from the PPE or the full clinical history.
“The vet gives an opinion based on the balance of probabilities, which differs from the insurer’s view where any risk outside the normal will be considered for exclusion,” she says. “Your insurer will ask you various questions about the horse’s health. These must be answered accurately, to the best of your knowledge, including information from any relevant source.”
Yet there is “no downside” as a buyer, says Annie, to accessing a horse’s records.
“There is no obligation to uncover previous health problems, from an insurance point of view, but it makes complete sense to find out all you can about your potential purchase,” she says, pointing out that an early scan of the records could prevent wasting money on a PPE. “Any reluctance on the seller’s part to allow access to the history should cause concern. It’s also worth noting that certain conditions revealed may be manageable, but could affect the horse’s market value.”
“If I was buying, I would ask for the records,” agrees Malcolm. “The history might prompt me to walk away from the purchase, or could equally put my mind at rest. Either way, I would want to know the facts.”
The “invisibility” of certain procedures, such as neurectomies usually associated with proximal suspensory ligament desmitis or heel pain, have prompted suggestions that such significant treatments should be recorded in a horse’s passport. But is this practical?
“It’s an attractive idea, but I cannot imagine accurate disclosure to be enforceable — especially when horses go through multiple owners or agents,” says H&H vet Karen Coumbe MRCVS.
Malcolm adds: “A passport basically outlines a horse’s vaccination records and declares that he is not fit for human consumption. Listing procedures such as de nerving would require a fundamental change in the equestrian industry and is a long way from where we stand at the moment. Passports are sometimes lost and the more dishonest owner may simply obtain a replacement, so it would be difficult to make this work.
“The standard PPE has very few questions that the examining vet must ask of the seller, so what would be helpful is more guidance for buyers about what they should be asking,” he says. “A standardised ‘seller’s declaration’ would mean that anyone who wrongfully filled in ‘no’ to the question, ‘Has the horse had surgery?’ could be legally liable for misrepresentation.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 9 May 2019