Our vets are happy to carry out pre-purchase examinations (PPEs, often referred to as ‘vettings’) on behalf of our own clients and on behalf of non-registered clients, either at the seller's yard or at Rossdales Equine Hospital in Newmarket, if suitable facilities are not available.
The PPE is based on a recognised examination carried out in five stages (although all stages may not be completed if the horse fails the examination at one of the early stages). Sometimes a two stage examination (‘limited examination’) may be requested - for example for a young, unbacked horse or for a broodmare. This consists of only the first two stages outlined below and the vet will form an opinion based on a restricted set of findings. Prior to the examination the prospective purchaser will need to sign a 'Limited Prior to Purchase Examination Form', which confirms that you understand and accept that a limited examination may not reveal certain conditions which may have been discovered during the course of a full five stage examination (for example about the horse’s ability to exercise, being lame when ridden, difficulty breathing at faster paces and how the heart responds to exercise) and can have implications on insurance cover.*
(*Note: the buyer should confirm that they are able to obtain suitable insurance cover before purchasing the horse).
A full Five Stage examination comprises:
Stage 1: Preliminary Examination
This stage usually starts by examining the horse at rest in its stable. Sometime vices, such as weaving, box-walking or crib-biting can be observed. Then the vet carries out a full physical examination. The horse will be checked carefully against the passport and scanned for a microchip to verify its identity. The eyes are examined in a darkened stable with an ophthalmoscope and the heart is listened to on both sides of the chest. The front teeth (incisors) are checked to ensure the approximate age of the horse matches that of the passport. Estimating age from a horse’s teeth has been proven to be unreliable and so is no longer advised. It may be possible to determine whether the horse has “wolf teeth” present and whether there are any gross abnormalities in terms of conformation of the teeth. It is not a requirement to put a dental gag on the horse for assessment of teeth but most vets will do this for safety. The horse is checked over for any abnormalities, such as lumps and scars, and these will be recorded.
Stage 2: Walk and trot, in hand
This phase includes assessment of the horse standing square, walking and trotting in a straight line, being backed up for several strides and performing tight turns on both reins. This should all take place on a on a firm, level surface.
Flexion tests are commonly performed during PPEs, where the leg is held up for 45-60 seconds and the horse is trotted away in a straight line. A flexion test is considered positive if the horse takes more than 3-5 steps to return to a normal gait. A positive flexion test could indicate a problem with a joint and/or soft tissue structure and will be considered along with the rest of the examination.
Lungeing on a firm surface is also a common test performed during PPEs. While it is a tough test for most horses, it can show up lameness that may not be evident elsewhere. However, if the ground is overly smooth or slippery, or the horse’s temperament is not suitable, it may not be possible to perform this test.
Stage 3: Exercise Phase
This phase is usually ridden and the aim is to give sufficient exercise to assess the horse when it has an increased breathing effort and heart rate. The horse’s gait should assessed at walk, trot, canter, and if appropriate, gallop. Any abnormal behaviour seen during this phase should also be noted and discussed with the buyer, for example if the horse appears cold-backed or shakes its head excessively.
Whilst the horse is being pushed on in canter or gallop (depending on what the facilities allow and what is appropriate for the horse’s fitness and purpose) the vet will listen to the horse’s breathing. Abnormal breathing sounds may indicate an airway problem that could impair athletic ability. When the horse has completed the fast work, the vet will listen to the horse’s heart to check for any abnormalities as a result of the exercise.
This stage needs to be tailored to suit the horse and its intended purpose. For example, a racehorse should be seen galloping for a suitable distance, whereas a child’s lead rein pony would not require assessment at speed.
Stage 4: Period of Rest and Re-examination
The horse is returned to the stable and the tack removed. The heart and lungs are listened to as the horse recovers from the exercise phase. The horse’s normal behaviour in the stable can be observed again and some vices are displayed after exercise so may be observed during this time.
Stage 5: Second Trot Up
The final stage involves trotting the horse up in hand again. This is to assess any changes or lameness that may have arisen from the exercise or recovery phases. Some vets repeat the whole of stage 2, including the flexion tests and lungeing in order to satisfy themselves of a thorough examination.
It is usual for a blood sample to be taken at all PPEs, even limited or two-stage examinations. The sample is stored for six months then disposed of if no request for testing has been received. The sample can be tested for certain medications, for example sedation, painkillers (e.g. bute) and steroids.
In some cases it may be necessary to perform additional examinations - for example, limb x-rays, performing an ultrasound examination of certain tendons or ligaments, or carrying out endoscopic examination of the upper airways. These procedures can be requested by the insurance company the owner is planning to insure the horse with (usually depends on how much the horse is being insured for), or the vet may advise them based on findings of the PPE. These procedures may only be undertaken with the consent of the current owner and will incur additional costs to the buyer.
The results of any additional procedures carried out should be reported and recorded on the certificate or in an addendum to it. The original records of these procedures (such as radiographs, ultrasonographs, photographs) should be retained by the examining veterinary surgeon.
The Pre-Purchase Examination Certificate
After the PPE the vet and buyer should discuss the findings in order to establish whether anything else needs to be examined or repeated. The vet then writes the PPE certificate which includes a report of the relevant clinical findings and/or history.
The report may include a ‘seller’s declaration’, which is obtained at the time of the examination and includes questions about previous veterinary history. However, it is the buyer’s responsibility to obtain a 'seller's warranty' with respect to vices, height, previous conditions or surgery and this should be arranged directly between purchaser and seller, and not involve the vet.
The certificate concludes with the statement “In my opinion, on the balance of probabilities, the conditions reported above DO/DO NOT prejudice this horse’s suitability for purchase to be used for ……………”. This is, as it says, the opinion of the vet and not a guarantee that the horse will be suitable for purchase for its intended use.
The PPE report will note all aspects of the PPE and any significant findings. These not only influence the decision to purchase the horse, but can affect how an insurance company views the horse in terms of risk. They may consider certain findings in the report to represent an increased risk for insurance, which could result in them placing exclusions on the policy. It is advisable to determine with the chosen insurance company any exclusions that will be placed on the insurance policy before completing the purchase. This will not affect whether the horse is suitable for purchase for its intended use, but allows planning and budgeting for ongoing care if the insurance is going to exclude specific issues or parts of the horse’s body. Understandably, insurance companies will not usually provide insurance cover for a pre-existing condition (e.g. Cushings, colic, or an arthritic joint).
Whatever the type and level of activity a horse or pony is being purchased for, it is recommended that a five-stage PPE is carried out to try and avoid purchasing a horse which is not suitable for the intended use.
Rossdales Hertfordshire regularly undertakes pre-purchase examinations, for pleasure horses and high value competition horses. Call us on 01462 790221 if you’d like to discuss one of our vets conducting a pre-purchase examination.