Farm Ireland

Monday 22 January 2018

Horses: Putting health at the heart of the purchase

A basic medical is essential when buying a horse

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

Owning a horse is a major investment in time, money and emotion, regardless of whether the animal is a potential race winner, a show pony or simply a family hack.

Unfortunately, horses seldom come with money-back guarantees so it is important to investigate all aspects of the horse before you buy.

There are numerous professionals you can consult to determine the horse's suitability for your needs -- experts on ability, behaviour and pedigree.

However, only an accomplished equine vet can help you to determine the horse's overall health and condition.

Knowing about the health and condition of a horse before completing a purchase is one of the most significant factors in deciding whether that animal is going to be a wise investment.

Whether you want a horse as a family pet, a pleasure mount, a breeding animal, or a high performance athlete, you stand the best chance of getting one that meets your needs by first investing in a pre-buy examination.

The expense of the exam is well worth it, particularly compared to the long-term costs of keeping and caring for a horse with health problems.

The Ballybrown Equine Clinic in Clarina, Co Limerick, is on the pre-sales veterinary panels for Goffs, Tattersalls, Goresbridge and Cavan sales' companies, and the vets there are well-versed in the requirements for any prospective horse buyer.

Also Read

Veterinary partners Bill Murphy and Liam Flynn have some sound advice to offer buyers, the first of which is to tailor the pre-buy examination to your needs and the horse in question.

Buying examinations can vary, depending on the intended use of the horse and the vet doing the examination.

For example, a mare being bought as a brood mare may require a thorough reproductive evaluation along with a routine clean bill of health, whereas a gelding intended for use as a show hunter may need a comprehensive physical exam that includes a battery of lameness tests. Close inspection of the upper air passages may be required for racehorse prospects.

"Deciding exactly what should be included in the buying examination requires good communication between you and your vet," says Liam.

He also has some useful guidelines to help prospective buyers:

  • Choose a vet who is familiar with the breed, sport or use for which the horse is being bought.
  • Explain to your vet your expectations and primary uses for the horse, including short and long-term goals (for example showing, then breeding).
  • Ask your vet to outline the procedures that he/she feels should be included in the examination and why.
  • Establish costs for these procedures.
  • Discuss with your vet his/ her findings.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions or request further information about your vet's findings.
  • It is the buyer's responsibility to pay the vet for the examination done on his/ her behalf.


Buyers must remember that the vet's job is neither to pass nor fail an animal.

Instead, it is their job to provide you with information regarding any existing medical problems and to discuss those problems with you so that you can make an informed buying decision.

Your vet can only advise you about the horse's current physical condition, which may include things such as evaluating its conformation, its eyes and vital organs and, most especially, its limbs for signs of disease or injury.

"Your vet can discuss how these things might affect performance from a health standpoint, but he or she cannot predict the future," warns Liam.

"The purchase exam is like a still photo. It provides information about an individual horse on a given day at a particular moment.

"How accurate and complete that picture is will depend on how comprehensive the exam is and what the problems actually are. But remember: the still photo cannot provide the whole story.

"Many factors contribute to a horse's past, present and future health; and these factors may not be apparent at the precise moment of the examination.

"Still, the information contained in this portrait is very valuable. Ultimately, avoiding the purchase of a diseased or lame horse will save much disappointment and many euros."

There is a standard five-stage protocol recommended by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons for all purchases. Equine practitioners routinely evaluate the following:

  • The horse's medical history, including vaccinations and worming schedules, feeding and supplements or drug use.
  • The heart and lungs.
  • The nostrils, ears and eyes.
  • Limb and body conformation.
  • The body and limbs for signs of previous injuries or disease.
  • Blood samples for diseases, such as equine infectious anaemia, or for overall health.
  • The teeth and mouth.
  • The horse's feet, both visually and with hoof testers.
  • The horse in motion, travelling in a straight line, in small circles, etc (these evaluations might be performed at the walk, trot and canter before and after the horse has been warmed up).
  • Joint flexibility and response of the limbs to flexion testing.

A thorough clinical examination should alert the vet to any of the above problems.

"If the vet suspects something that may interfere with the horse's intended use, he or she might recommend additional tests," says Liam.

Additional tests, such as X-rays, blood analysis for the presence of drugs, endoscopic and ultrasonic examinations, and others, can be chosen by the buyer or recommended by the vet, based on the clinical findings of the examination.

The extra tests can be used to help confirm a diagnosis or provide a clearer picture of the seriousness of the problem.


"While many purchase exams include radiographs of the horse's limbs, they are not a substitute for a thorough, systematic examination by your vet," says Liam.

"X-rays can give you a picture of how things are at the time that you buy the horse, but they can't be used to predict the future. Rely on your vet's judgment regarding any radiographic findings."

Stallions and mares being bought for breeding often require special tests to determine their reproductive status.

"For example, a stallion's libido and fertility should be tested by observing his response to a mare and collecting a sample of semen," says Liam.

"The collected semen should then be evaluated for sperm count, motility and viability."

A prospective brood mare should undergo rectal palpation so that the vet can evaluate the mare's reproductive tract for signs of normal activity or for the presence of structural problems. The vet may also recommend additional testing, such as ultrasound or a uterine biopsy and culture.

"Such tests help determine the health of the mare's uterus and help establish probability of her conceiving and carrying a healthy foal to term," he says.

A thorough understanding of your vet's findings will help you make an informed decision about your prospective buy.

"If you don't understand what your vet is telling you, you should ask questions until it becomes clear."

However, the horse vet advises prospective buyers to bear in mind that no horse is perfect in every respect.

Liam adds that some medical conditions or conformation faults are manageable or may never seriously affect the horse's performance.

"If specialised shoeing, exercise or nutrition are necessary, decide whether or not they are practical for your needs and your budget," he advises.

He adds that if a buyer or owner is in doubt about the findings, they should seek a second opinion.

"Finally, make your own determination as to whether a horse is a good investment," Liam insists. "Your vet cannot tell you if you are going to like the horse, whether you can ride it, handle it or get along with it.

"The purchase of a horse should be based on all the available data, and you are part of the team that does the data collection. The decision to buy is yours alone but your equine vet can be a valuable partner by giving you objective, health-related information."

Irish Independent