The ultimate guide to the five-stage vetting

You think you have found your perfect equine partner and it’s time to have the horse vetted, but what does a pre-purchase veterinary examination involve and how important is it?

Jeremy Mantell, MRCVS and chairman of the British Equine Veterinary Association’s current review of vetting procedures, says: “Always ask for a full five-stage vetting, as well as a blood sample to check for drugs. Don’t be tempted to save money by asking for a two-stage version — it is a limited examination that may not reveal all problems.”

In outline, the pre-purchase examination follows five stages, takes about an hour and a half and consists of a series of thorough checks in the stable, in-hand and under saddle.

It is important that you brief your vet fully beforehand so that he or she knows what your needs are and what the horse is intended for, as the examination will take place based on these criteria.

Stage one is observation of the horse at rest in his stable. The vet notes his breathing rate, listens to his heart and if the horse points a toe at rest or crib bites, this will be in evidence.The horse is then taken outside for a full surface examination of the skin, limbs and teeth in good light. The inspection of his teeth is simply to confirm age – a full dental examination will only be conducted at your specific request.

Any lumps and bumps denoting old injuries, or sarcoids on the body, should be apparent at this stage. The vet should view and preferably palpate every inch of skin to check for abnormalities, even under the belly. Any conformational defects should be observed at this point.

Stage two should be carried out on a hard surface and involves walking and trotting up the horse in a straight line, looking for signs of lameness and then conducting flexion tests on the joints of the lower limbs.If all these tests are passed, the horse should be reined back and trotted on a circle each way – this will exacerbate any subtle problems.


Stage three requires strenuous exercise, preferably ridden or lunged. The vet will check for a dipped or cold back when mounting, and coordinated movement once mounted. If the horse is unbroken he should be loose-schooled. The vet will then listen for abnormal heart and wind sounds after exertion.

Stage four is a period of rest for 20- 30 minutes, to elicit any stiffness when the horse is re-examined at stage five.

Stage five involves trotting the horse up, listening to the heart and looking further at any areas of concern. A blood sample will also be taken and stored.The vet must then give his or her best opinion “on the day” to the buyer. He is not obliged to reveal his thoughts to the vendor, although many will if there is an obvious problem.

Further tests may be required to insure expensive horses, such as ultrasound scanning of the tendons, or radiography of the distal limbs and feet. These tests are expensive and are unlikely to be recommended unless there is cause for concern.