Rookie Mistakes & Lessons from a Real Pre Purchase Exam
When you think you’ve found your perfect new horse, be sure to pause and prioritize a pre-purchase exam (PPE). Even then, it’s critical to enlist the help of experienced professionals to help you make a logical, educated, and unemotional decision.
When I decided I was ready to purchase my next horse, I spent hours perusing Facebook ads, watching YouTube videos, texting my trainer, and messaging sellers. And then it happened!
A gorgeous 2-year-old Quarter Horse popped up in my news feed, located only 30 miles away from my house. His ad had JUST been posted. Was it fate?!
I immediately messaged the seller, asking the normal basic questions “Video? Price?” and quickly got a response. “How soon can I come try him out?”
I was sitting on that horse only four hours later. I watched the seller warm him up for a few minutes, and then hopped on without any hesitation.
This 2-year-old was exactly what I was looking for. Beautiful, calm, slow, and quiet.
It was like I’d ridden him a hundred times. He quickly and easily responded to all my aids, without spurs. I was easily able to slow down and move out in all his gaits.
He had zero spook and easily navigated traffic, including six barn dogs zooming around the arena. His trot was a little bumpy to sit, but if that was the biggest fault I could find, I could certainly live with that!
After no more than fifteen minutes, I announced:
“I want him.”
But first, he needed to pass a PPE (pre-purchase exam).
Finding A Vet
I didn’t have a local equine vet in the area, so I agreed to use theirs—a reputable clinic located about fifteen minutes away. The seller offered to haul him in and set up the appointment for me, less than a week later.
My anxiety was through the roof for the next few days. I really, really wanted this horse. I had allowed myself to get my hopes up and had already planned out the next year of this horse’s life.
Allowing Emotions to Take Control
I’d leave the horse in training where he was for the next 30 days, then we’d go to our first show. From there, my trainer would haul him to his new home, where I’d board him.
Since he was still so young, we’d give him the winter off to just be a horse and keep growing. In the spring, I’d put him back in light training and we’d hit the AQHA shows within 3 hours from my house. (I’m fortunate—there are quite a few!)
As if that wasn’t going overboard enough, I also pulled out all my old tack that had been in storage, anticipating what could be reused vs. how much shopping I needed to do. The Quarter Horse Congress was coming up, and I’d already booked a trip with friends. How perfect! I could buy everything I needed in one place.
I was in deep. I REALLY wanted this horse.
The Pre-Purchase Exam
The day finally came for the pre-purchase exam. I arrived a few minutes early and got all the paperwork filled out. Shortly after, the seller and horse arrived. I watched him unload, marveling at how calm the horse was in a new environment.
“That’s exactly what I am looking for.”
The vet came out and introduced himself. I identified myself as the potential buyer and answered a few basic questions about what I planned to use the horse for. The seller answered questions about the horse’s known history.
First, the vet conducted a quick scan of the horse. He immediately identified a lump on his hock that I hadn’t noticed, along with some fluid in the joint. (That’ll come into play later.)
The vet completed a physical, checking his eyes, teeth, tongue, temperature, hooves, and body, all of which the horse handled well, especially for his age and limited experience.
Evaluation for Lameness
Next, the vet had an assistant walk and trot the horse around on a hard surface (asphalt). While I’m not perfect at identifying lameness, I’ve got a decent eye and this part seemed to go well. I didn’t see him take any off steps.
In fact, I loved watching him trot around—he has a beautiful floaty trot with the flat knee we look for in hunter-under-saddle horses.
Then came the flexion tests. I had recently read an article challenging this part of a pre-purchase exam. So, when the horse trotted off noticeably lame for a few steps after a hock flexion test, I was a little dismissive.
“If you did that to me, I’d probably limp, too!”
The vet completed flexion tests on both front legs, hocks, and stifles. The horse had a positive response (i.e. displayed lameness) for the flexion test on one of his hocks and the opposing stifle.
Next came the X-rays. At this point in time, I was still thinking “I am buying this horse.” I should note, this was my first time ever getting radiographs on a horse. In my mind, we were getting a baseline for my new horse so I’d have them to compare against in the future.
I asked for X-rays of the front feet, hocks, and stifles. I figured we could start with that and if anything was questionable, we could do more.
My initial request equaled 14 images. After the team completed them, the vet said “We have some things to discuss.” We headed to another room where he pulled the images up on a bigger screen to show us his findings.
The first and most glaring issue was arthritis in the horse’s hock. Remember how he had a lump, fluid, and indicated a positive response in the flexion test of that hock? Well, now we knew why.
The fuzzy image on the front of the hock joint indicates arthritis. Additionally, the three joints in this hock are in the process of fusing, apparent by the lack of a clean line/gap between the bones.
Hypothetically, arthritis in the hock could be managed with steroid injections, but this isn’t something people want to be dealing with at 2 years old.
Expect to pay $300-700 for injections in both hocks. But note, hock injections are not a one-time expense and are generally considered to be a “maintenance expense.”
The next issue the vet pointed out was in the horse’s front feet. The vet pointed out what looked like “lollipops” in one of the views. While this could “just be this horse’s normal,” this could also indicate navicular disease.
Corrective shoeing can help horses with navicular disease along with rest and anti-inflammatory medications (both oral and injections to the coffin joint)
This horse would never be able to go barefoot in the front. Proper corrective shoeing from a reputable farrier in my area would likely cost upwards of $200 every 4-6 weeks.
The third issue he noted was in the stifle, where the horse also had a positive response to the flexion test.
This joint showed signs of OCD, or osteochondritis dissecans. This is more common in young horses and is the most treatable of the three issues found.
Basic internet searches suggested anywhere from $5,000 – $10,000.
All three of these issues are major red flags that should have told me to walk away, especially in a horse this young.
But remember, I really wanted this horse. So, I called my trainer and tried to downplay it.
Getting a Second Opinion
Conveniently, my trainer’s veterinarian was coming out the next morning. She was rightfully concerned and requested that I send over all the x-rays for a second opinion.
My trainer called me the next day and tried to break the news to me gently. Any of these issues should have been enough to send me to a “no,” but I had allowed emotion to take over logical thinking. After a lot of back-and-forth, she finally said to me:
“The vet said if this was his kid, trying to buy this horse, he’d smack ‘em upside the head.”
That finally resonated. I called the seller and let them know I couldn’t move forward with purchasing this horse. I offered to email over the PPE files, including the x-ray images. While I’d paid for them, they served their purpose and I didn’t see why I shouldn’t give them to the horse’s owner.
I was absolutely devastated. It took a few days, but now I’m able to view the situation more objectively and can see where I made (very expensive) mistakes along the way.
While the cost of a PPE can vary depending on your location, veterinarian, and what you ask to have done, I’d spent $830 to not buy a horse.
Was this the right decision? Yes.
Did I need to spend that much to get to the same outcome? No.
In hindsight, this is what I should have done based on how the PPE played out:
- Vet identified visual issues with hock.
- Proceed to flexion tests.
- Flexion tests ID possible issue with hock and stifle.
- Proceed to radiographs.
- Start by radiographing the hock, as we have two red flags there already.
- Review images.
- Identify arthritis in the hock based on images.
- STOP THE EXAM.
Arthritis is enough reason on its own to walk away from buying a 2-year-old horse.
Had I followed the steps outlined above, I would have spent $430 instead of $830.
However…Had I stopped the exam there, me and my emotional-based-reasoning may have talked myself into buying a 2-year-old with arthritis and injecting his hocks every 6-12 months for the remainder of his life. I wouldn’t have found out about the navicular indicators in both front feet, or the OCD in his stifle, until later.
I would have set myself up for tens of thousands of dollars in vet bills on a horse that would be lucky to be sound 6-12 months from now.
So yes, this was a painful, and expensive lesson. But, it was necessary due to how emotionally invested I was in this particular animal. Now I have clearly defined what is acceptable vs. unacceptable when shopping and will be able to better navigate PPE’s in the future.
The moral of this story? (Try to) rein in your emotions. Get the pre purchase exam. And last, but most important…Listen to your vet (and your trainer!)
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- Peace of Mind: Pre Purchase Exam
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- Horse Conformation Terminology Made Simple
- Horse Hoof Terminology Every Equestrian Should Know
- A Handy List of 47 “Must Know” Horse Health Terms
AEC Client Education – X-Rays & the Prepurchase Evaluation
Flex Test | AAEP
A Closer Look at Flexion Tests in Lameness Examinations – Kentucky Equine Research
Flexion Test – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics
Pre-Purchase Exam Essentials
Update on Navicular Disease – Horse Illustrated