Buying the less-than-perfect horse: pre-purchase vetting decisions

  • A pre-purchase examination can throw up a number of issues to consider before buying a horse, but the vet can help the potential purchaser weigh up the results...

    Few horses tick all the boxes when it comes to health and temperament; a degree of compromise must usually be made.

    Experts agree that a five-stage pre-purchase examination (PPE) is a sound investment before buying, rather than the shortened two-stage exam, but how does a vet assess a horse with an obvious or suspected problem? And how does a potential purchaser weigh up the findings to make their decision?

    Lesley Barwise-Munro MRCVS and Malcolm Morley MRCVS discuss three typical scenarios…

    Safe and sound?

    This horse has a good competition record, but doubts have been raised about his behaviour. Is it the vet’s responsibility to protect a buyer from being over-horsed?

    “The PPE centres around a veterinary check list, but at the same time observations are usually made about the horse’s behaviour and suitability to protect the buyer,” says Lesley. “What is considered acceptable is very much driven by the level and experience of the buyer, the prospective rider and the horse’s future job.

    “Being head shy, bargy or sharp in terms of threatening to kick can be revealed during the early stages of the PPE. The vet must try to ascertain if the horse is just a worrier and slowly settles, or if he has a temperament issue that could affect suitability – before describing what has happened and alerting the buyers to see if the issue concerned them when they tried him.

    “A horse with a tendency to nap may not produce this on the day of the exam. As a buyer, it is always worth asking to ride the horse away from others when you try him, and, if possible, hacking him out alone.

    “As the PPE progresses, a vet will get a feel for a horse in terms of his manner and behaviour. Watching the horse over the stable door while filling in the initial paperwork may reveal any abnormal behavioural traits such as weaving, box walking or wind sucking.

    “Keep in mind that an experienced handler or rider presenting a horse for sale can disguise issues. Blood sampling at PPE is a safeguard to fall back on if it is suspected that drug administration has been used to modify behaviour. Remember, too, that you may not be able to ride a horse in the same way as a professional and produce the same results at home; support from a good trainer is worth putting in place.

    “Ultimately, the vet can only advise about temperament, so that at least any potential naughtiness is flagged up.”

    Wonky, but otherwise wonderful

    He seems sound and sensible but this horse has is noticeably asymmetrical. What should a potential buyer consider?

    Lesley explains: “As part of a PPE, the horse should be stood on a firm, level surface so that the vet can carry out a distant appraisal of his overall conformation – from the front, side and behind.

    “The hind feet should be together as he is viewed from behind, so the vet can assess pelvic symmetry by looking for height differences of the tuber sacrale (or TS, the bony prominences at the top of the hindquarters). Palpation of the TS helps confirm levelness or identify any small differences. Viewing from behind also allows assessment of muscle symmetry, highlighting any swellings and whether one hind limb is rotated more than the other.

    “From the front, the shape of both sides of the neck, the shoulder muscling, front limb rotation (toe in or toe out) and the size and shape of the front feet are assessed, and the fetlocks and knees checked for being an equal height from the ground.

    “Why is symmetry so important? The relationship between conformation – especially of the lower limbs – and lameness is well recognised. Horses come in all shapes, sizes and types, so conformation will vary, but certain conformation faults produce predictable problems.

    “Since biomechanical efficiency of movement is thought to stem from good, symmetrical conformation, correct movement will create the least amount of abnormal strain. The more degrees away from “perfect” conformation, the greater the strain or “torque” in the affected parts of the body.

    “This is all proportional to the level of work that the new horse will be expected to do. The higher the level of performance in each discipline, the more emphasis is put on being as close to the “gold standard” symmetrical conformation as possible. While it is important to recognise desirable conformational traits in horses suited to a particular discipline, however, a vet must also learn to overlook a minor fault that has little clinical relevance.

    “After a visual assessment of the conformation and any lumps or bumps, the vet will watch the horse move to evaluate the impact of any limb deviations or asymmetries. Where one forelimb “toes in” more than the other, for example, that leg will have a different flight path and land on the outside of the foot – causing uneven loading which transmits through all related joints. Good farriery may rectify the problem, allowing the foot to land flat and protect the coffin joint, navicular apparatus, fetlock joints and related soft tissue structures in that leg.

    “A difference in TI heights is the most common pelvic asymmetry detected at PPE. This is often presumed to be subluxation (partial dislocation) of the sacroiliac (SI) joint, but it may also be caused by asymmetrical muscle forces acting on the pelvis, rather than direct SI ligament injury. Only a few of these horses actually have pathology of the SI ligament or SI joint laxity.

    “Studies have revealed, however, that TS height asymmetries of more than 1cm are often associated with poor performance and should be scrutinised carefully for SI pain on palpation, hindlimb lameness and back stiffness.

    “As with any other asymmetries, this abnormality, if detected, must be carefully interpreted. Is it likely to affect the horse’s performance for the purpose for which he is being purchased? The vet should give an opinion of whether the horse is currently sound in all aspects of the PPE and likely to stand up to his intended job, as well as discussing any implications for resale value.”

    Maintained on medication

    The occasional joint injection keeps this horse performing at his best. Is he a wise buy?

    “It is not uncommon that an older schoolmaster horse who has had a successful competition career is not entirely sound without medication, such as regular phenylbutazone (known as “bute”) or joint injections,” says Malcolm. “As part of the PPE, the seller signs a form declaring whether the horse has received any medication within the last 30 days. While we would prefer to examine the unmedicated horse, it is not necessarily a problem if he has received something – provided that the seller declares this and the potential purchaser is made aware.

    “Some buyers feel that it’s not worth investing in a PPE with a horse on medication as they know it will “fail”, but this is missing the point of the exam. The PPE is designed to do so much more; by looking at the bigger picture, the vet can offer a balanced opinion of the horse’s suitability for intended use. What’s important is to use a vet who knows you and your values, and vice versa.

    “Many of these schoolmasters still have so much to offer. Consider the implications, such as ongoing costs and potential insurance issues, but don’t rule out buying a horse that requires medication if he seems otherwise suitable.”

    The vets

    LESLEY BARWISE-MUNRO MRCVS oversees a busy caseload of performance and leisure horses at Alnorthumbria Veterinary Group, Northumberland.

    MALCOLM MORLEY MRCVS, of Stable Close Equine Practice, Hampshire, has chaired the British Equestrian Veterinary Association (BEVA) PPE committee.

    Ref: 28 January 2021

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