Once a suitable horse has been found, the next step should be to arrange for it to be checked over by a vet before any money changes hands. This allows any underlying medical problems (there are few perfect horses!) to be identified, and gives you the chance to assess whether or not these are likely to prevent the horse from doing the job it is intended for.
Several types of veterinary pre-purchase examination are available, the exact format of which varies between countries. In the UK the five-stage vetting, which is equivalent to the full examination that most insurance companies will request at the inception of a policy, is the gold-standard test for the equine pre-purchase examination.
This examination follows a particular structure adopted by vets across the country, and encompasses a thorough clinical examination (Stage 1), examination at in-hand exercise (Stage 2), examination during more strenuous exercise (Stage 3), examination during rest after exercise (Stage 4), and a final exercise period after rest (Stage 5). In the USA the exact format of equine pre-purchase examinations is less rigorously prescribed; however, a thorough examination should include assessment of the same factors.
In some cases a ‘limited’ pre-purchase examination is used, which incorporates Stages 1 and 2 of the full examination. This is a less strenuous examination that is performed when examining unbroken horses for purchase, and is equivalent to the ‘mortality’ examination sometimes required by insurance companies. Whilst it can allow the identification of a number of problems, many diseases, including low-grade lamenesses, won’t necessarily show up, so a more thorough examination is usually advisable for working horses.
In either case it is important to use an experienced horse vet, not only to help recognize and identify any problems that are present, but also to assess whether any abnormalities that are discovered will or will not, ‘on the balance of probabilities‘, prevent the horse from doing the job that it is being purchased for.
A full five stage pre-purchase examination should normally start in the stable, with the horse having been kept in for a couple of hours prior to examination so that any stiffness or dust-associated breathing disease has a chance to show up. A full clinical examination, including a thorough check of the eyes, ears, nose, teeth (which allows approximate ageing), skin, heart, lungs and musculoskeletal system, is carried out.
After this, the horse may be trotted up on a firm surface in hand and lunged, before proceeding to a period of ridden exercise (for riding horses) or other strenuous exercise at walk, trot, canter and gallop on both reins. This allows evaluation of stride and lameness, breathing noise and heart performance.
Afterwards it is a good idea to rest the horse for a brief period before trotting him up again, because at this stage some lamenesses show up that are only evident after rest that follows exercise. Flexion tests that can unmask lameness may also be carried out, and some nerve function tests are employed.
Further tests that can be done include survey radiographs of the joints to evaluate whether degenerative joint disease (DJD) (Arthritis) and other joint problems are present; endoscopy if respiratory disease is suspected; and then finally ultrasonography if any potential tendon or ligament lesions are found. Other tests may also be recommended in certain cases.
In addition, blood can be taken and either submitted for secure storage for up to six months, or tested for the presence of pain-relieving medicines and sedatives, giving both vendors and buyers some protection should the horse have a problem after purchase.