I have sold quite a few horses.

Some for a lot of money, some for a little. Some which have had training for years and are solid citizens at their discipline, others which are green and simply prospects. They differ in experience, in size and shape, and in discipline. 

But what they all have in common is the pre purchase examination. 

And it sucks.

For someone like me who gets severe anxiety over the behavior, performance, soundness, and ability of her horses, the pre purchase examination is HELL. I lie sleepless the night before and lament over the possibilities. I get to the barn an hour ahead and pull the horse from his field or his stall and take him for a jog. I listen for the rhythmic fall of his hooves and pray to the horse gods that the veterinarian and the client hear the same.

And then I place them back in the stall, knocked free of mud and dander, and I wait. For the vet to come. For the sale to either go forward or crumble to dust. For the beer (or 4) awaiting me at home. 

Most PPE’s go the same way. The veterinarian does a full physical-measuring everything from resting vitals to listening for heart murmurs. They run hands over legs and assess angles of hooves. They ask if the horse has been on any medications or if any joint has been injected. And if they are an exceptional vet, they assess the horses temperament as they do all of this. 

Assessing temperament. Maybe not a children’s horse?

A good vet knows the background of their client. Is this horse for a child? An adult amateur? Or a professional who is currently overseas contending a 4*. Will it be used as an up/down mount, perhaps jumping a crossrail or two? Or will it be going intermediate in 2 years with hopes of podiums and that red coat. Has it been raced? Does it have a competition record? Did it compete recently–whether it be in racing or the sport of choice? 

Because all of these things can help paint a picture. 

But before the picture can be painted, the vet needs to see the horse move. We jog on pavement or at least hard level ground and go through the flexion portion of the PPE. First the ankles, and then the knees. The hocks, and the stifle. And with each jog down the lane, your heart flutters a little more. You can hear the rhythmic gait, the soundness as your horses feet fall flat and sound. You move forward to lunging, to see if the horse maintains that soundness on a circle; at a bend.

And then comes the anxiety attack. If your horse is merely a prospect, many will stop here. The horse either trots or doesn’t trot sound. And if it trots sound, go forth and prosper. If it doesn’t trot sound–find a new prospect.

But if the horse is worth a bit more, and the financial gamble is a bit greater, we proceed to radiographs, or X-rays.

Depending on the price; the anxiety of the buyer; and the outcome of the flexions, the number of radiographs can range greatly. Many will recommend radiographing what flexed positive, and leaving well enough alone for the rest. 

This could mean images of just the left front fetlock and the right hind stifle. Many vets will add front feet to play it safe. And others will recommend the full gauntlet. A 40-44 image set, or heck, a 50 image set if you add the spine. 

And this is where the price range changes for the buyer, the information increases for the veterinarian, and the anxiety attack sky rockets for the seller.

Because any blemish, any flake, and you know that your chances of making this sale decrease. 

Because we are now a society that demands perfection. A society that uses Google instead of their brains. And because every buyer wants the perfect horse. The perfect set of X-rays. The radiographs that vet schools use to teach their anatomy classes.

Because we hear constantly that clean X-rays are what are important, but to a good vet they’re not.

To a good vet, and a good buyer, the radiographs are just one part of the puzzle. 

Sure, there are deal breakers in a PPE. Maybe the horse has a completely paralyzed throat and yet you are purchasing for racing or 4* eventing.

Or maybe the horse has freshly torn suspensory and you are purchasing him as your mount to pursue Young Riders next summer.

But besides this handful of deal breakers, the majority of other flaws are simply that: flaws. And need to be interpreted alongside the other information.

Take my horse Nixon as an example. Nixon ran 26 times, and consistently. I know that the one break within his race career was due to an injury to his suspensory and that he was rested for over a year and then proceeded to race for another 2 years. He won almost $500,000 and ran WELL against the best.

Nixon winning the Discovery Handicap

And now as a sport horse, in his second career, he is the soundest horse I have ever owned. He lives barefoot from October-May, and has never received an injection or supplement. He is ridden 5-6 days a week and is in active training as both a dressage horse as well as an eventer. 
He is strong. He is tough. He is the horse I don’t worry about. 

And yet when I saw his X-rays a year ago, I freaked. Nixon has osselets in both front ankles. Spurs in both hocks. He has thickened tendons, and of course that old suspensory injury.

And I called my vet that day and asked if I had invested in a horse that wouldn’t ever hold up to the future I expected of him. I wanted this horse to take me all of the way–as his mind and ability were fully capable–but now I wasn’t sure his body was.

And Heather calmly, and slowly, talked me off of my ledge. She reminded me that his horse had been in HARD work for almost a year without taking a lame step. That his blemishes had been noted even as a 4 year old when he had gone through the Fasig Tipton Horses of Racing Age Sale.

And that so many horses that she sees at the upper level of the sport share the same issues.

So why wasn’t she scared of these radiographic abnormalities? Why didn’t she “fail” my horse and tell me to find another? 

Dr Heather and her favorite patient Nixon

Because as a good physician, as a professional sport horse veterinarian, and as a rider herself, she understood the bigger picture. The whole picture.

She knew he flexed clean. She knew he rode sound. And she knew that she wasn’t injecting those joints every 6 months to keep him going. And she knew that he had ran long and ran well on those same blemishes. So his abnormalities did not alarm her. 

Because there was no pass or fail. Just a chapter in the story.

I still recommend that people get PPE’s done, keeping in mind to do it at the level you are comfortable with. I ask that my vet comes and flexes all of my prospects that I find on the track or sitting in the field, and if these horses are crippled upon flexion I don’t radiograph, I just pass.

But for people investing real money and gambling their hard earned dollars, a PPE is a good indicator of a starting point. A good comparison if issues arise in the future. And a good predictor of if maintenance may be needed in the future.

Nixon is sound and happy without interference now, but at least I know what I started with. I have rationalized with the fact that with these abnormalities on his films that he might need some maintenance in the future–whether that be joint injections, an oral supplement, or maybe just alterations in our fitness plan, I do not know.

Moving out sound

But what I do know is that I have all of the information. And I have an amazing team surrounding me to help me interpret that information. I would never ask my veterinarians to pass or fail a horse because you can’t shove these animals in boxes, not to mention the fact that you certainly can’t place injuries in boxes either.

 Nixon’s torn suspensory is no longer even identifiable on ultrasound, his osselets have never caused a lame step, and the most maintenance I do is a Theraplate.

Many of the dings or nicks will never effect the performance of the majority of these horses, and when you finally do find that magical unicorn of a freak who radiographs perfectly, he will step in a hole the next day. 

So all you can do is your due diligence. Do your homework. Find a great trainer. Build a relationship with a superb vet. And at the end of the day, the most important part of that equation is YOU. 

Know YOUR needs.

Know YOUR comfort level.

Know YOUR budget.

And constantly educate and grow YOUR mind.

6 Comments on “The Pre Purchase Examination

  1. As always, well said. One thing I want you to take to heart, if you know you have a solid citizen and a sound horse, yet the buyer wants Google perfection with a 50 film set of X-ray documents to support their righteousness and the sale goes bust – good bye, c’est la vie, and why are they still in the driveway when they’re not smart enough to be your customer? They need to move on to someone with perfect X rays and no real skills “but he looks good on paper!” Doesn’t deserve your good horse and is definitely not worth losing one minute of sleep or a moment’s anxiety. The right buyer is out there, maybe not on our timeline, but definitely out there. A good horse will always sell for a good price in his own good time.

  2. Loved this. My horse is one of those old war horses with multiple problems. I bought him despite a possible issue in the front fetlocks, not exactly my smartest moment. When that niggling issue turned out to be crippling DJD, I stopped jumping him and considered full retirement. He did better barefoot. So I took his shoes off. He did better with regular riding. So I started riding the snot out of him. Now 19, the horse who should have been fully retired at 11 is not competing 4th level. He takes some regular maintenance now, and a longer and more considerate warm up. He’s not always 100%, but he is always happy to work. Would I take the chance on a horse with the same issue in the future? Probably not. But I’ll always take a chance on a horse with this kind of heart and desire to work. I’ve found that means much more than perfect legs.

  3. I am slowly learning this lesson (and hopefully continue to). I adopted an OTTB who had bilateral medial sesamoid fractures that had eight months to heal (which I was told about prior to deciding on him). His front fetlocks are definitely larger than the average and his left front continues to change shape slowly. His xrays are terrifying to behold. He has a slight positive flex test on his left front, but he’s sound. He gets ridden 5-6 days a week both in an arena and on hilly trails. He’s about as game as they come. A good horse with ugly legs and a good brain is better than a ‘perfect’ horse with no work ethic. My boy will tell me when he needs more maintenance, but so far I’m happy that I took the chance on him.

  4. A good, actionable pre- purchase exams take time and patience….. astute observation , simple focal palpating, asking the right questions… an some useful real life experience with performance horses …. All the imaging expenses can be of value / only if interpreted correctly and fairly. “Squeaky clean X-rays”.. are only one small part of the deal….and not encountered everyday!

    • Kathy, you are more than welcome to as long as you give proper credit to both me and the photographers of all photos.


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