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Equine prepurchase exam

When buying a horse, many buyers ask for an equine prepurchase exam. This serves to identify any preexisting problems which may hinder a horse’s future performance and reduce buyer risk. The inspection usually consists of four phases in which a veterinarian examines all aspects of the horse’s health.[1]


The role of the veterinarian

Veterinarians play a crucial role in prepurchase exams. To best assess a horse’s current and future soundness, it is imperative that the veterinarian be familiar with the particular horse’s breed, prospective use and have a working knowledge of competition rules.[1] According to Pavord & Fisher, veterinarians are to determine the relative ‘soundness’ of the horse; they are really assessing “...the health status of the horse together with medical abnormalities”.[2] This being said, veterinarians are expected to explain and record any medical abnormalities/concerns revealed while performing the exam. They are not, however, guaranteeing the soundness of the horse. It is also recommended that veterinarians remain neutral to both buyer and seller to avoid any future discrepancies.[1]

The importance of being "Sound"

Upon completion of the prepurchase exam, the veterinarian may utilize a variety of terms to describe the horse’s current health status. The ultimate goal for horse buyers is to purchase a horse classified as “sound,” or “...one that cannot be faulted in any physical way, from the inside out”. A horse may be categorized as “serviceably sound” if it has some structural problems, but is able to perform its intended purpose. If a veterinarian deems a horse unfit for its intended use, the horse will most likely be considered “unsound”. An unsoundness usually refers to any condition which will severely inhibit the horse from performing. Examples of unsoundnesses include dental diseases, blindness or other eye problems, founder and tumors.[3]

Phases of the exam

The first part of the exam involves thorough identification of the horse. This includes documentation of color, age and any distinguishing characteristics/scars/brands/tattoos the horse may have. Vital signs of the horse will also be assessed along with an examination of the horse’s eyes, teeth and manure. A urine sample is usually required of competition horses to ensure the absence of performance-altering medications. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, “The date, time and place of the examination should also be recorded”.[1]

The second phase of the exam begins with a general assessment of the horse’s body and skin condition. It is customary for the veterinarian to assign the horse a body condition score ranging from 1 to 9, with 1 being emaciated and 9 being obese. Scores of 4, 5, or 6 are within the acceptable range for performance, breeding and halter horses.[1]

After a visual assessment of the horse has been made, the veterinarian will then begin palpation of the limbs. By watching the horse perform a variety of movements on different surfaces, a veterinarian is able to get a good idea of the horse’s general soundness. Riding the horse may or may not be incorporated into the exam, according to the intended use of the horse. Asking the horse to move in straight lines and circles is also helpful in revealing any blemishes. A passive/active flexion test is commonly performed along with a thorough hoof examination. A basic neurological exam may also be part of this third examination phase.[1]

The fourth and final phase of the exam is known as the ‘diagnostic’ phase. Radiography, nuclear scans and ultrasonography may be necessary to determine soundness with special emphasis placed on the examination of the navicular bone and distal phalanx. Higher radiographic grades of these areas are usually indicative of lameness and should be noted in a prepurchase exam.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Kahn, Cynthia (2005). The Merck Veterinary Manual (9th ed.). Merck. pp. 1385–1387. ISBN 0911910506. 
  2. Fisher, Rod; Pavord, Tony (1987). The Equine Veterinary Manual. The Crowod Press. pp. pg. 10. ISBN 0876058632. 
  3. Cernik, Sheridan Lee (1977). Preventative Medicine and Management for the Horse. A.S. Barnes and Co. Inc.. pp. 71–72. ISBN 0498019258. 


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