Try before you buy: pre-purchase checks

Vet Michelle Logan explains the whys and wherefores of pre-purchase examinations

(Image: Dusty Perin)

Buying a horse or pony is a very exciting time. Whether it is a first lead-rein pony, a potential Grand Prix show jumper or a horse that you want to do a bit of everything with, the search for the right one for you can be very hard work. You may find plenty of pitfalls and disappointments along the way. You often have to travel long distances to look at potential purchases and to try them out, and then you may find yourselves getting frustrated as it turns out that the horse is not quite what you were expecting. So when you do eventually come across the perfect horse or pony you can be tempted to buy them straight away and get them home as soon as possible! However, this is the point when you should consider having a veterinary pre-purchase examination performed.

What is a veterinary pre-purchase exam (PPE)?

A pre-purchase examination is a veterinary evaluation of the horse. The horse or pony is given a thorough health check and a report produced of the findings of the examination. It gives you peace of mind that you are not buying a horse who already has a health problem that might be career limiting, or expensive to treat. A PPE is, of course, not a guarantee that the horse will never have a problem, but it does mean that you start off on the right track. It would be very disappointing to get your new horse home to find out he has an existing lameness issue that wasn’t obvious when you took him for a gentle test ride. 

A PPE is recommended even for horses who don’t cost that much, as it can save you from buying a cheap horse with a veterinary problem that, for example, really needs surgery which, in fact would end up making the cheap horse quite expensive.

There are different levels of evaluation (termed stages) that can be performed depending on what the horse is to be used for, and maybe taking into account the value of the horse.

PPE examinations are classified as a part or ‘partial’ examination, or a ‘full’ examination, depending on how many stages of the exam are covered. Both include stage 1 – a clinical examination (performed at rest) looking at the body condition, conformation, skin, eyes and listening to the lungs and heart at rest, and stage 2  – an examination observing the horse moving in hand including walking, trotting, circles, flexion tests and backing up.

Full examinations also include an examination during strenuous exercise, a period of rest to evaluate recovery, and a follow-up examination after exercise. These are stages 3-5.

In addition to these stages there are many other examinations (called ancillary examinations) that can be asked for: x-rays, airway endoscopic examinations, ultrasound examinations and more. Obviously, the more stages are examined and the more ancillary examinations are performed, the greater the cost.

(Image: Dusty Perin)

What will a PPE tell me (and what won’t it tell me)?

The PPE should be thought of as a snapshot of what the horse is like at the time of examination. It examines for any lameness and the general health of the horse. However, the condition of the horse may change from day to day, so bear this in mind. Vets can only examine body systems available to them – for example, liver disease is unlikely to be determined at a PPE as the liver is not specifically examined. It also can’t tell you if the horse is going to bow a tendon in a week’s time!

What should I know as the seller?

If you are selling your horse and a potential buyer has requested a PPE, then you can help make things go smoothly by ensuring your horse is clean and the feet are shod or trimmed as usual. The vet has to record markings and scars and also needs to examine the skin for anything like sarcoids (a type of skin tumour), so if the horse is covered in mud this will be a lot more difficult and end up taking more time. If a horse turns up with only three shoes on and is uneven, it can only be recorded that the horse is uneven; it can’t be assumed that this is just because a shoe has been lost, and so the PPE will need to repeated another day when the shoe has been replaced.

As a vendor, you will also need to complete part of the documentation declaring any veterinary problems your horse may have had. It is important to be honest: it is a legal document. You have probably already discussed any previous health/injury issues with the potential buyer but it is still important to put it down in writing so there can be no confusion. This covers you as well, by documenting that the buyer has been made aware of any issues before they buy the horse.

Adequate facilities are very important, and what is required will depend on the tests required. A flat, straight, hard area is needed for trotting the horse up in Stage 2 and a paddock/arena or equivalent is needed for strenuous work if Stages 3-5 are to be performed. A dark quiet area is also ideal for listening to the heart and lungs and examining the eyes.

The veterinary clinic may be the best place and certainly if a large number of x-rays is requested, then many vets ask the horse be bought to clinic facilities where extra staff are on hand to assist. In addition, sedation is often needed where a large number of x-rays are needed, or for certain views. Be prepared for this if you are taking the horse to the clinic.

(Image: Dusty Perin)

What should I be aware of as the buyer?

Not all vets perform PPEs; vets who have a higher equine caseload are more likely to offer PPE services. If you are buying a horse from a different part of the country, your own vet may be able to give you the name of an equine vet in the area.

Where possible, allow plenty of time to organise a PPE; it is not always possible for vets to do them at short notice.

Be prepared to sign a document when you are ordering a PPE (this can be emailed). This is to clearly set out what examination you require and what other ancillary examinations (this is the name for the extra tests such as x-rays, ultrasound or ‘scoping the airways) you may like, in addition to the clinical examination.

Vets welcome the potential buyer attending the PPE and if possible you should try to be there. Being present at the examination allows you to discuss any points that may crop up and your input can be valuable in making sure specific concerns you may have are addressed. If you can’t be at the examination, then make sure you are contactable as vets often may like to call during an examination to ask for further tests eg. x-rays they think might be needed. Be aware that an examination may be halted if an adverse finding is found (eg. if lameness is seen).

Please discuss anything you want to on the report with the vet who did the examination. They will often go through with you the important findings but you may see something else you are not sure about and you are encouraged to ask.

What next?

You then have to decide whether to buy the horse putting all of the information together: how much you like the horse, is it is suitable for what you want, potential resale value (if this is a consideration), the horse’s temperament and the findings of the exam. Some of the findings in the PPE will make no difference at all to the purchase, some may call potentially for renegotiation of the price, and some will result in the sale to you at this point in time being called off.

This does not mean the horse has failed the PPE; the horse may just have been a temporary lameness at the time of the exam and is 100% sound four weeks later when you get it rechecked and you buy it, then or alternatively there may be a small issue which means it doesn’t suit your purpose but it may suit another buyer (maybe competing at a lower level).

So, have fun on your search. A PPE is highly recommended when buying a horse to give you peace of mind that you are not buying an existing problem, after all, a lot of time, effort and money has probably gone in to your search. Communication and honesty of everyone’s expectations are very important and can prevent a lot of misunderstandings. However, it is the unfortunate truth that horses can and do get themselves into all sorts of trouble and the PPE can’t help with what the horse does to himself in the paddock two weeks later ,so always keep in mind the limitations of the exam.

(Image: Dusty Perin)


You may not be aware that vets no longer ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ horses as suitable for purchase. This used to be the case, but a pass or fail category is thought to unfairly brand a horse (despite this you still hear people talking about a horse passing or failing). A PPE is only one part of a process in the decision to buy.  Many other things like behaviour, price, ability etc. come into this decision and you really should not think of a PPE in terms of pass or fail but in terms of getting a better picture of this horse for what you need it for.

It is common for vets to produce a report that lists all their findings. It is better that everything is noted than something being missed. Many of these may not be relevant to the purchase of the horse but are listed anyhow. This may include findings like scars and bony lumps – if in doubt about the significance of items listed in the report ask your vet to explain it to you. Don’t be concerned to see a list of findings. There will usually be something to find in an adult horse or pony that has done some work as, of course, they not like cars where they can be fitted with all new parts and bodywork!


  • This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony