Jul 12, 2021

Pre-Purchase Examination 101: With Dr. Shauna Spurlock Pt. 2

Dr. Shauna Spurlock presents on conformation management. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo

Dr. Shauna Spurlock recently explained the basics of pre-purchase examinations, commonly known as “vettings” - what they are, why they’re carried out, and what happens, with particular relevance to horses bought for amateur riders to compete at a relatively low level. Now, Dr. Spurlock discusses pre-purchase examinations of more advanced event horses, where the costs - and the stakes - may well be much higher.

“Everyone’s definition of substantial investment is different,” says Dr. Spurlock. “It could be anything from $15,000 to millions. Really, it’s about what their sensibilities are as to how much they want to risk.

“We don’t always ask the purchase price of a horse, but if the report on the pre-purchase examination seems out of balance with what can be estimated, we might enquire - we want to know what the motivation is for the purchase.”

Big-money horse purchases are often, but not always, accompanied by very detailed veterinary investigations as part of the pre-purchase examination.

“The depth which we investigate is really driven by the individual buyer and how much they want to know, and how that translates to protecting their investment,” Dr. Spurlock says.

“And successful event horses are a unique slice of the pre-purchase picture; they are high-level athletes in a sport which requires a great deal of fitness, there is a relatively high risk of wear and tear and injury, and they often progress into advanced years.

“We will try to work out how much wear and tear has taken place and what injuries may have occurred that might affect career length and soundness.”

She points out that there is unlikely to be the same pressure regarding saleability with an event horse past the Preliminary stage, as opposed to, for example, a six-year-old show hunter who could be expected to increase significantly in value.

“If you are buying a nine- or ten-year-old eventer, you are more likely to be looking at it from a personal standpoint - you want to know what YOU are in for, not the next person.”

Some purchasers want “a whole battery” of X-rays and lab work done; some - even with a very high-value horse - will do the minimum amount. There is no right or wrong approach.

“The basics are X-rays of the front feet and hocks, and any hind-motion joint, such as fetlocks and stifles,” says Dr. Spurlock. “Knees are less common, and anything high up in the front limb, such as shoulders and elbows, are uncommon.”

A lot of people get X-rays done of horses’ backs and necks.

“What people focus on does go in cycles and evolves,” she says. “Ten years ago, navicular was a big concern, but much less so now. Similarly, we are beginning to understand that some changes in necks and backs can have minimal clinical problems associated with them. There is a greater range of acceptance now of some degree of pathology in the back.

“Vets are always working to understand more about what they can see means, and that is why choosing a vet with a lot of experience in diagnostics in large numbers is very important. Having that breadth of knowledge means that a vet can say, ‘In my experience, when I see this, this is what the future might hold. Selecting the right person to advise you is so important.”

Modern communication methods mean, of course, that the vet doing the pre-purchase examination can send X-rays to another vet anywhere in the world and can consult people with endless experience in certain areas of expertise.

“It’s hard to know what something present in one individual horse might mean in the future, but experience gives you perspective and an understanding of the odds,” she says.

Lab work most commonly involves screens for drugs: “A lot of people assume that if you take blood and run a drugs screen, then [if nothing shows up] then nothing is amiss,” says Dr. Spurlock. “That’s not true. You are submitting a sample to a lab that will screen it for particular medications. If it is not on the list, it is not tested for.”

She continues: “In this part of the US, a test for Lyme’s Disease, for example, will probably come back with some level of positive, so a test is only a starting point, not a clear reason not to buy a horse. I would tell people that when you do a lab test, you have to be asking a question - or as a baseline for something like a blood count or serum levels.”

She points out that a pre-purchase examination of any horse is a picture of a moment in time, like a photograph, and should only be treated as such - and that context must always be considered.

“Based on that and the horse’s history, you try to guess what might happen in the future, but we can never be sure.”

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