Veterinary Horse Tests and Examinations

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Veterinary Tests and Exams

excerpt from  Horse for Sale, How to Buy a Horse or Sell the One You Have

  2008 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information

There is no standard pre-purchase examination. Inform your veterinarian of your intended use for the horse and any special concerns you have. Then together, with economics relative to the horse's price in mind, you can decide what tests will be necessary to make such a determination. The exam will take from an hour to several hours or more. Costs for an exam can run from $100 to $1000, depending on the number of radiographs required, what lab tests are ordered, how many miles the veterinarian must travel, and how much time is involved in the exam. The findings of the exam should be made in writing.

General Clinical Exam

An overall health check is the minimum that should be performed. First the veterinarian must identify the horse using markings, brands, and registration papers. Then he should get a thorough history of the horse from the owner including such information as vaccinations, deworming, previous illness or injury, surgeries, previous x-rays taken, breeding records, and any vices or unique problems. If you recorded this information during your buyer exam, you can provide the information to your veterinarian to save time and money. The seller may be asked to sign the report.

Some veterinarians make an examination of the horse's pen or stall for clues to general eating habits, fecal consistency, and telltale signs of such vices as cribbing, wood chewing, pacing, pawing, stall kicking, and weaving.

The veterinarian next performs what is often called a general physical or clinical examination: the vet looks at, listens to, and touches (palpates) the horse. After palpation and observation, the veterinarian can provide a report or continue with more specialized tests as requested. The following are often included:

  • Temperature, pulse, and respiration before and after moderate exercise. The resting heart rate can be a general indicator of temperament: a high rate might indicate a nervous horse or it could indicate an ill or unconditioned horse

  • Gastrointestinal exam with a stethoscope to determine if there is normal gut function.

  • Heart exam both before and after exercise with a stethoscope to detect murmurs or irregular rhythm. Arrhythmia could indicate heart disease, infection, or hereditary defect. Such a horse could have decreased stamina.

  • Lung exam with a stethoscope to evaluate lung sounds. Some veterinarians might ask the seller to place a plastic bag or a special re-breathing bag over the horse's nose to cause the resting horse to breathe more deeply and make irregularities easier to detect. (It is important that the horse is familiar with a plastic bag near his head before this exam or his respiration rate will not be the only thing that will rise suddenly!)

  • Dental exam checking the teeth for bite alignment, missing teeth, the presence of wolf teeth, and any sharp edges on the molars that may need to be floated. It can usually be determined if the horse is a cribber by the condition of his incisors. If the horse's age is in question, the veterinarian can determine the age by the teeth. While near the upper respiratory area, the vet also checks for abnormal odors (tooth abscess), sounds, or discharges and looks at the tongue for signs of lacerations.

  • Capillary refill time (general circulatory indicator): the finger is pressed on the horse's gum and it is noted how long (number of seconds) before blood returns to the circular spot.

  • Eye exam includes checking for inflammation and scars on the retina, cloudiness of the cornea (the clear covering at the front of the eye), cataracts on the lenses (loss of transparency in or on the lens) or other abnormalities. Also the pupils' response to light is tested. This is best performed in a dark stall: normal pupils will dilate in darkness and will constrict in the presence of light. Usually an eye doctor's flashlight (transilluminator) is used.

  • A magnifying device is then attached to the transilluminator, making it an opthalmoscope for checking the interior of the eyeball. The vet looks for various problems including uveitis (mood blindness) which is a chronic disease that has an active and non-active phase and that often leads to blindness. If a horse has a history of excessive tearing or blinking in bright light, it is possible he may suffer from mood blindness. This condition may occur in one or both eyes. It varies in severity and the length of time before blindness occurs.

  • Skin exam for scars, fungus, or other skin conditions.

  • Back palpated for any soreness or swelling. The horse's spine should be evaluated from head to tail. A normal horse dips his back from palpation in the saddle area and pushes upward on palpation of his croup.

  • Lymph nodes palpated to check for swelling that indicates problems.

  • Tail checked for any alterations.

Examination of the limbs

Horse For Sale by Cherry HillLameness is one of the most important portions of the exam especially for a performance horse. For a thorough discussion of limb examination and lameness diagnosis, see Guide to Lameness in Horses in the appendix. Some lameness can be managed with regular, preventive shoeing and medication while other lameness is hopeless.

  • Conformation Evaluation: Although a veterinarian rarely gives an opinion on the potential of a horse as a halter prospect, he or she does want to look at the horse from all angles to assess symmetry, balance, and to spot any potential problems.

  • Movement: Usually before specific limb tests, the veterinarian watches the horse move in-hand in a straight line, on the longe line in a circle, and under saddle. Gait defects show up more markedly in the circle required by longeing and under a rider's weight than they do when the horse is merely being led. Often a vet requests that the horse be worked on both a hard, flat surface as well as in deep, soft footing.

  • Palpation: The lower limb structures (bones, flexor tendons, suspensory ligaments) are palpated before and after exercise for any heat, swelling, hard lumps (bony growths), tenderness, or a pounding pulse. The veterinarian usually spends a fair amount of time palpating the superficial and deep flexor tendons and suspensory ligament to determine if there is any current problem or evidence of an old problem. They should be of an even thickness, without heat, bulges or adhesions.

  • Hoof Exam: Each hoof should be visually examined in a static position from the front, side, and rear to assess balance. Each hoof should be picked up and using what is necessary (hoof pick, hoof knife, Horse For Sale by Cherry Hillhoof testers) all of the structures of the hoof should be evaluated: the frog, clefts, sole, wall, heels, white line, bulbs of heel. Any sensitivity, foul odor, cracks, rings, heat, abnormal shape, or other irregularities should be noted. The quality of shoeing should be also noted as well as the presence of what might be therapeutic farriery such as full pads, wedge pads, etc. (See Horse Hoof Care).

  • Hoof Tester: Most exams include the use of a hoof tester, which administers pressure to assess sensitivity in different portions of the hoof, including the navicular area. A hoof tester must be used by an experienced veterinarian. Misapplication can give false results.

  • Flexion Tests: Flexion tests are performed most commonly to the knees, pasterns, fetlocks, and the hock-stifle-hip. First the vet watches the horse move without prior joint manipulation to establish a baseline. Then the veterinarian or an assistant holds the joint in a flexed position for one or two minutes and asks the handler to trot the horse off immediately on a loose lead so as not to constrain head movement. Lameness, stiffness, or irregularities in rhythm or stride are noted and may indicate the need for further evaluation. Some horses that have nothing wrong with their joints will trot off stiffly for one or two steps. Flexion tests uncover painful arthritis (degenerative joint disease) and other problems.
    As the vet picks up each limb to perform the flexion tests, he or she will also be checking each joint's range of motion and sensitivity to reasonable sideways movement, rotation, and pressures. Flexion tests might be performed twice: once when the horse is cold and later when the horse is warm (after exercise). Response is often improved on a thoroughly warm horse.

  • Ultrasound Examination: Occasionally ultrasound imaging is used to evaluate the condition of the flexor tendons and other soft tissue structures.

  • X-rays: If palpation, hoof testers or flexion tests raise suspicion, the veterinarian may suggest x-rays. Since the cost for x-raying each area runs between $60 and $80, x-rays are limited to joints that suggest degenerative bone problems or arthritis. Most commonly x-rayed are the front feet, all pasterns and fetlocks, and the hock. The horse's shoes must be removed for x-rays involving the foot.
    Not every unsoundness shows up on an x-ray and not every abnormal mark on an x-ray indicates an unsoundness. An abnormality on an x-ray of a horse that shows no sign of lameness may mean nothing significant. Previous x-rays of the same area may help to spot a progressive problem. The radiographs of many horses over the age of twelve show some signs of arthritis even though the horse may be perfectly usable.
    This is particularly important in considering the possibility of navicular syndrome. The x-rays of a sound horse might show evidence of "navicular changes" yet the horse might stay sound the rest of his life. For example, the x-rays of the navicular bones of sound, 3-4 year old warmbloods might show "lollipops" which could be alarming to some people. Yet practitioners experienced in warmblood characteristics often feel these are part of the normal bone development sequence in slow-maturing breeds.
    On the other hand, a horse that is very lame and shows many of the classic signs of navicular syndrome might have normal-looking x-rays. It is also important to note that two veterinarians might "read" an x-ray in two very different manners. Therefore, in certain situations, it may be wise to seek a second veterinary opinion or have the x-rays viewed by a veterinary radiology specialist.

  • Nerve Blocks are not routinely performed during a pre-purchase exam on performance horses unless requested by the buyer and permission is granted by the seller. Nerve blocks are more of a lameness diagnostic tool. If a horse shows lameness, it is assumed that the pre-purchase exam is "off" and a lameness exam, now at the seller's expense, is "on".

  • Neurological Exam: To detect the presence of certain neurological problems, the vet may perform some simple tests on horses at risk. Wobbler syndrome is common in Thoroughbreds and atlanto-occipital instability occurs most frequently in Arabians. To determine if a horse suffers from one of these conditions causing a lack of coordination, he might ask that the horse be led in tiny circles or that the horse be stepped up and down from a trailer or an elevated doorway or be led over ground rails. Horses that have neurological problems might step on their own feet or stumble and be unsafe to ride.

Laboratory Tests

  • Coggins: One of the most common blood tests is the Coggins test, which checks for the presence of Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) antibodies. EIA (also called swamp fever) is highly contagious. A positive test indicates that the horse has been exposed to EIA in the past and is a potential risk. This test costs about $20, and the results take about three days. Since a current negative Coggins test is usually required for transport in and out of most states as well as for entry in various competitions, most sellers have one on file for any horse that is for sale.

  • Blood Chemistry Panel: A variety of disease conditions can be revealed. For example, kidney and liver function can be checked.

  • CBC: Sometimes a complete blood count is recommended if a horse is anemic or suspected of having an infection. This test includes hematocrit and hemoglobin concentration and measures the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.

  • Chemical Test: If you suspect that the horse is under the influence of an unreported drug to make him appear sound or calm, a blood chemical evaluation can be performed for about $75. This can detect the presence of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory such as phenylbutazone or Banamine as well as various behavior-altering tranquilizers.

  • HYPP: Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis is an incurable but often manageable genetic disorder of horses with Impressive (Quarter Horse) bloodlines. For more information on testing for and management of HYPP, contact your veterinarian and see the resource guide in the appendix.

Other Tests that are not routinely done but may be requested

  • Endoscopic exam: A respiratory exam with a fiberoptic endoscope can be performed. An endoscope is a flexible tube that is passed through the horse's nostril and functions like a periscope to allow the vet to inspect the upper airway. The exam may reveal scarring or polyps in the pharynx and larynx that could interfere with the horse's breathing. Paralysis of the larynx leads to the condition called roaring which is a heritable condition common in Thoroughbreds. Roaring results from nerve damage to the recurrent laryngeal nerve, causing one side of the larynx to be paralyzed. A relatively straightforward surgery can correct the condition. An endoscopic exam would be recommended for a horse that will participate in strenuous sports such as racing, endurance, eventing, polo, or steeple chasing. Any horse that makes any unusual noise in the upper airway during exercise should be examined with an endoscope.

  • Electrocardiography: for further, more specific examination of the heart. It measures electrical conducting activity of the heart which controls the heart beat.

  • Echocardiography: is an ultrasound examination that allows visualization of the heart while it is beating (thickness, valve closure, blood flow, defects) as well as allowing measurement of heart size (larger heart, larger cardiac output).

  • Computed Radiography is an extremely high resolution x-ray for detecting subtle problems in both bone and soft tissue.

  • Nuclear Scintigraphy (bone scan) is a lameness diagnostic tool that involves the preferential uptake of a measurable radioactive substance in areas of inflammation or injury.

  • Rectal Palpation: Some exams include a rectal exam to detect abnormal growths or sensitivity of reproductive organs and intestinal organs within reach. There is the potential hazard of a rectal tear so the exam must be approved by the seller. The vet can extract fresh fecal material if a laboratory fecal exam has been ordered. The feces is also checked for consistency, odor, color, and the presence of blood, parasites, or undigested grain.

  • Reproductive Exam: If you are purchasing a horse for future use as a breeding animal, certain examinations should be performed in addition to the above.
         Mares often require a rectal palpation, ultrasound imaging of the uterus and a culture and biopsy of the uterus. Some of these tests are invasive and carry risk so must be specifically requested by the buyer and approved by the seller. A rectal examination is designed to detect any abnormalities or sensitivity in the reproductive organs. An ultrasound examination of the female reproductive anatomy gives the vet a means to visually assess tissue condition and the possible presence of fluids in the uterus. A uterine culture is performed to determine if the mare carries an infection. A swab is passed through the cervix and gathers uterine fluids. This sample is examined under the microscope and is also grown on culture medium to identify any harmful organisms and to determine treatment if necessary. A uterine biopsy gauges the relative health of the uterine tissue. A small portion of uterine tissue is snipped and examined microscopically in the laboratory. Such a test helps determine whether a mare's uterus is capable of carrying a foal to term.
         Stallions should be checked to determine if both testicles are descended because the sperm in testicles that are retained in the body cavity are dead. Stallions being purchased for breeding should go through a full stallion evaluation where semen is collected and examined for content, quality, and viability.


Remember, a pre-purchase exam is not an insurance policy. Even if a horse is considered serviceable after undergoing a thorough pre-purchase exam, there is no guarantee that the exam uncovered all potential problems or that the horse will remain sound. This is especially true of a horse that has been out of work for some time. After the results are in, be sure to discuss them with the veterinarian. Now is the time to ask questions, not two months after you have the horse at your barn.

When a horse has cleared the vet check, you will have a certain number of days (three, for example) to complete payment and pick up the horse. During this time it is the seller's responsibility to have the horse cleared by a brand inspector in states where it is required. The seller must also have the necessary transfer papers available so that at the time of sale, the registration papers can be signed over to the new owner.

If the horse passes the veterinary serviceability exam and you do not follow through with the purchase, the deposit is normally forfeited to the seller for the inconvenience and the time the horse was off the market. If the horse does not pass the veterinary serviceability examination, your deposit is refunded or the horse's price can be negotiated in light of the veterinarian's findings.

Trial Period

If everything looks good after the exam, some sellers consent to a trial period of a week to a month. However, sending a horse to live away from home while he is still technically not sold is very risky for the seller. That is why the seller will probably insist to have in writing the exact terms of the trial period agreement such as who provides the insurance, what veterinarian and farrier will work on the horse, and who foots the costs during the trial period.

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