Four years ago, before putting pen to paper and signing a bill of sale indicating I'd waived my right to have a prepurchase exam performed on a 5-year-old gelding, I hesitated briefly. It wasn't too late to call the vet out to give Helios a once-over. But impulse got the best of me. I had "vetted" many horses over the years before buying, and none had ever presented with a significant issue. The cost of a full veterinary work-up on this young "failed" dressage horse would nearly equal his purchase price, so I passed. Besides, I had been riding him for six months and he had yet to take a bad step.

Bypassing a prepurchase exam on a jumper prospect led to some unwelcome surprises a few years down the road.

Photo: Erica Larson

Fortunately for me, Helios stayed healthy and sound for several years as he transformed into a nice show jumper. When it came time to sell him, however, a prospective buyer's prepurchase exam raised several questions: When did he have hock surgery, and why? Has his early stage ringbone ever bothered him? What about the arthritic changes in his front fetlocks?

This was all news to me. Maybe these brewing issues had not yet affected my young horse's performance, but had I known what was going on in his limbs and joints I could have managed them accordingly and taken steps to slow their development.

Helios still went on to a great new home, but his sale price plummeted and I learned a valuable lesson: When buying a horse for performance, always cough up the extra cash for a prepurchase exam.

How much money might that be? Well, I checked in with one of our veterinary advisors, Duncan Peters, DVM, MS, director of the Clinical Equine Sports Medicine Program and associate professor of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, for an estimate: "The basic physical evaluation with a summary report, which can include body systems health assessment and musculoskeletal exam, may range from a couple hundred dollars to $800 depending on the location in the country," he explained. "The add-ons to the initial physical evaluation are what may significantly add to the cost of the prepurchase. Radiographs (X rays), ultrasounds, bloodwork (CBC, Chemistry, drug screen, hormone levels, Coggins, other lab tests), endoscopy, nuclear scintigraphy (bone scan), MRI, and possible consultations with other specialists can push the cost into the multiple thousands of dollars ($2,000-7,500)."

Based on the results of this exam, it's then up to the buyer (with the trainer and vet's guidance) to decide whether to purchase that horse in his present condition. There's no need to pass on the horse of a lifetime because you find he has a few blemishes here and there. Rather, the veterinary exam results can help guide your management and training choices. Better to know now whether your horse will need specialized shoes or periodic joint injections.

Because I've never had to pass on a horse for health reasons, I also asked Dr. Peters what red flags should give a buyer pause. These include:

  • The discovery of undisclosed items such as medications administered, multiple treatments to the horse within a couple weeks of examination (e.g., joint injections, neck/back injections, shock wave therapy, etc.), or past surgical treatments;
  • An overt lameness;
  • A significant variation in the horse's supposed age and his dental age (greater than ~5 years variation);
  • Conformational changes that might manifest future lameness problems for specific disciplines (e.g., straight hind limbs with dropped fetlocks for jumpers, severe sickle hocks for reiners); and
  • Evidence of a chronic problem.
Six months ago I bought another failed dressage horse--this time to retrain as a hunter. And I had my veterinarian radiograph what seemed like every inch of her body and evaluate everything from her bloodwork to her vision (News Editor Erica Larson just wrote a great piece on eye evaluations during prepurchase exams). Lily passed her exam with flying colors. In my opinion, the extra money spent is well worth the peace of mind each time I head into the show ring.

Feel free to share your own prepurchase lessons in the comment section below!