Whether you are finally fulfilling a lifelong dream, or replacing a trusted mount, getting a new horse is a major financial and emotional investment. This means you need to discover any existing or potential health and performance issues before you make your purchase. Doing so will ensure you enter the purchase process as informed as possible.

Once reserved for high-dollar equine sales, pre-purchase physical exams by a veterinarian are now routinely performed on most horses. The purpose of a pre-purchase exam is to assess the general condition and health of the horse, and to determine if there are any current issues that could or will affect his future health or performance. It can also reveal conditions not obvious to the buyer, and which even the seller may not be aware of.

Finding a veterinarian
If you have had horses before, your current veterinarian will likely perform the pre-purchase exam. If you have never had a horse, however, you may not even know a veterinarian and will have questions concerning whom to use for a pre-purchase exam.

One question many first-time buyers ask is if they can use the seller’s veterinarian. While it may seem a logical choice, it is considered a conflict of interest for a veterinarian to represent both the seller and the buyer of a particular horse. You will therefore need to find an experienced, qualified, third-party veterinarian to critically and thoroughly examine your potential new horse.

A typical exam
In a standard pre-purchase exam, your veterinarian will perform the following:

•Auscultate the heart and lungs, both at rest and after exercise: to determine any heart murmurs or respiratory conditions that may affect performance
•Examine the eyes with an ophthalmoscope: to look for corneal scars, cataracts, retinal or other problems
•Examine the ears with an otoscope – to look for evidence of infection or fungus
•An oral exam, possibly under sedation – to assess oral health, any need for corrective dentistry, and to confirm the age of the horse
•Palpate the body and legs – to look for masses, scars, tendon or bone injury

•Assess conformation – to evaluate suitability for intended use
•Move all joints – to check for restrictions or evidence of injury or arthritis
•Examine all four feet with hoof testers – to assess frog and sole health, foot balance and to check for foot pain
•Watch the horse walk, trot, and canter – to look for balance and symmetry in movement
•Flex all four legs for one to two minutes and then trotting off – to check for joint pain
•Perform a field neurological exam – to assess balance and proprioception

Your veterinarian will typically ask for a health, behavior, and performance history from the seller, in person or in writing. You should also request that all previous medical records, including x-rays, bloodwork results, and ultrasound findings, be released and available for scrutiny at the time of the exam. Depending on the physical exam findings, bloodwork, drug testing, x-rays, or laryngeal endoscopy may be suggested at an extra cost.

Additional integrative tests
If the veterinarian performing your pre-purchase exam is an integrative veterinarian, she/he will do all the procedures described above as well as use acupuncture and chiropractic to determine functional imbalances and restrictions that may not yet be affecting the horse’s health or performance. During a holistic exam, your veterinarian will:

•Take a thorough history including information on housing, diet, supplements, social interaction and herd dynamics, behavioral concerns, subtle performance issues, environment, and intended use. •Scan the acupuncture meridians, which can reveal painful areas corresponding to joint, ligament pain, or organ problems.
•Suggest specific tests for diseases or conditions reflected by patterns revealed in the acupuncture exam, such as Lyme disease, polysaccharide storage myopathy, or gastric ulcers.
•Perform static and motion palpation to reveal any joint and postural imbalances that may not yet be evident on x-rays.

Veterinarians trained in chiropractic, acupuncture and postural rehabilitation offer the added advantage and ability to see and diagnose weaknesses and imbalances in your potential horse. They can further discuss with you the implications of those weaknesses and what it may take to correct the problems, if possible.

It’s wise to schedule a pre-purchase exam whenever you are buying a horse, and to consider having that exam performed by a veterinarian who practices both Western and alternative medicine. This approach expands the ways and means by which a full diagnosis can be made, and gives you as much information as possible about your potential new equine partner!

Dr. Jana Froeling graduated from Iowa State University in 1988. She has worked as a veterinarian for 21 years in the Northern Virginia area. Currently, she owns and operates Full Circle Equine Service in Amissville, VA. Dr. Froeling is a member of the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA ). In 2003 she completed the Equine Acupuncture course at the Chi Institute.