Tried and tested: Why a pre-purchase examination on a new horse remains vital *H&H Plus*

  • Business may be brisk, but a pre-purchase exam remains a must if you’re planning to buy. Andrea Oakes reports

    While good horses reputedly changed hands “unvetted” during lockdown, experts are keen to stress the importance of a veterinary pre-purchase examination (PPE) now that travel restrictions are being lifted. Equine vets are reporting a flurry of sales activity, with demand high for both two- and five-stage exams, so what advice can they offer about this critical part of the buying process?

    “A PPE exam only offers a snapshot of the horse’s health on that day, so do not narrow this insight further by opting for the two-stage exam,” advises Gil Riley MRCVS. “The majority of horses should have the five-stage PPE. Unless you only want to work the horse slowly in straight lines, he should be ridden or seen moving on a circle and his respiratory system tested and observed for response and recovery.”

    Kieran O’Brien MRCVS agrees, adding: “Saving money with a two-stage vetting is a false economy. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve discovered something either during, or after, the exercise phase.

    “The additional cost of the five-stage PPE is a fraction of the purchase price. There may be exceptions in the case of unbroken animals, but if the horse is used to being lunged and destined for an athletic life, listening to his breathing at canter to detect airway abnormalities is useful.”

    Kieran adds that additional diagnostic tools, such as X-rays and tendon scanning, can only form part of the overall picture.

    “These are often required by insurance companies for high-value animals, but for the ‘average’ horse may not provide the expected answers,” he says. “An example would be hock X-rays, taken because a horse has given a positive flexion test. ‘Normal’ X-rays do not somehow nullify the positive test and provide no further reassurance to the prospective purchaser.”

    Digging deeper

    Since a PPE is not a guarantee against future health problems, it can pay to do some detective work. “Be wary of any horse who’s not in full work or has a gap in his performance history,” says Karen Coumbe MRCVS. “Problems such as suspensory injuries or sacroiliac disease settle down with rest and flare up with exercise.

    “Attend the vetting, if you can, so that you can see and discuss any potential issues that arise,” she adds. “If it’s not possible to use your normal vet, don’t rule out using the seller’s own vet. They are obligated to release the horse’s full health history, which could provide information of which you may be otherwise unaware.”

    Gil agrees: “This may seem counter-intuitive, but remember that the examining vet is a professional person appointed by and therefore working for you, as the purchaser. There should be no conflict of interest.”

    Issues are uncovered: what now?

    A PPE offers no straight “pass” or “fail”, but an opinion of the horse’s suitability for intended use. If you find yourself with more questions than answers, what might influence your decision to buy?

    “You may need to consider how any problems found may affect a horse’s resale value, in case he turns out to be unsuitable and needs to be remarketed,” says Lesley Barwise-Munro MRCVS, who explains that the examining vet is responsible for observing abnormalities and explaining their implications. “Any conditions listed on the PPE certificate are also likely to affect insurance cover.

    “The perfect horse is hard to find, however, so it’s worth looking at the whole package,” she adds. “If he is considered suitable in every other way, certain compromises may be made.”

    Alongside other factors to weigh up, Lesley lists possibles for the “compromise list” as:

    • Cataracts: minor changes in the eye constitute low-grade cataracts. Consider how likely these are to progress and at what point they may affect vision, perhaps seeking a further opinion from a specialist equine ophthalmologist.
    • Sarcoids: take the amount, size and location into account and bear in mind treatment costs and possible loss of working time. There are no guarantees that sarcoids won’t recur or new ones grow in another place, but this is also a risk for the sarcoid-free horse.
    • Heart murmur: while minor heart murmurs are often of little consequence, consider potential effects on performance and safety issues. A specialist opinion can be of value.
    • Inspiratory noise: a slight noise or whistle while breathing in is unlikely to affect a horse’s ability as a hack or leisure horse, or at low levels of eventing, but may worsen over time. Overground endoscopy can reveal more about the cause of the noise and extent of the problem. Surgery may be an option, offering potential to negotiate on the buying price.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 30 July 2020