Tests and Exams
excerpt from Horse for Sale,
How to Buy a Horse or Sell the One You Have
2008 Cherry Hill ©
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
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
exam with a stethoscope to determine if there is normal gut function.
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.
of the limbs
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,
- 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,
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 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.
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
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
- 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.
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.