Article: Buying A Horse, Do Your Homework

by Aimee Eggleston, DVM

October 23rd, 2015


Looking for a horse to buy is exciting: it’s a time when we imagine the possibilities. Maybe you’d like a jumper prospect and dream about the show ring, competition, and winning. Or perhaps you want a horse for pleasure riding and you visualize the perfect trail in autumn . . .


It’s human nature to get caught up in the excitement, but making a decision can also be stressful. We buy a horse to do something: to show, for example, or to jump, to drive, to trail-ride, to work. When an animal has to perform, compete, or work, two important questions arise: Will this horse be able to do what I want it to do at the level I expect? Is this the horse for me?


While I always recommend a pre-purchase exam (more about that later) when considering purchasing a horse, the following advice explains two things you should do to guide you to the right horse before that -- and before you sign any papers.


1. Get the Horse’s Medical


This is crucial. I can’t count the number of times that a client has handed me only a rabies vaccination certificate and a Coggins. Those don’t constitute a medical record!


A medical record is a chronological account of a horse’s examination and treatment history: medical, surgical, lameness history, and complaints; the veterinarian’s findings and the results of diagnostic tests and procedures; what medications have been prescribed; and any therapeutic procedures performed.


This may seem strange, but make sure the medical record you get is for the horse you’re considering. Mistakes happen! This verification should be straightforward, with a digital Coggins that contains multiple pictures of the animal and detailed marking information.


Make sure the medical record is complete. It’s not uncommon for several veterinary practices to have medical records on the same horse. You need all of them to see the whole picture of the health of your potential horse.


If it’s a struggle to get all the medical records, think of that as a red flag: try to move on and keep looking for that special horse.


Once you have a complete set of records, ask a veterinarian to review them. A veterinarian is armed with expert knowledge and will be able to point out areas of concern and identify any that call for some elaboration. You have the right to question the seller about anything you don’t understand and to ask for more information.


These examples from my practice illustrate the importance of obtaining a complete medical record.


• I read that a veterinarian dispensed six tubes of Banamine paste over a several-month period. Banamine is an anti-inflammatory analgesic, so the obvious question is: Why? Is the horse prone to chronic colic? Does it have a history of gastric impaction or gastric ulcers? Does it have a lameness that’s being treated with this paste? Something significant is going on if a horse requires six tubes of Banamine in such a short amount of time.


• After reviewing the medical record of a “free” horse, I pointed out to the client that the horse had injured its left hind limb’s proximal suspensory ligament. I explained what this type of injury involves, what treatments were logged into the medical record, what to expect from this horse given this injury, and that an injury to the proximal suspensory ligament of a hind limb may very well recur.


This medical record tells some buyers to walk away. But a buyer who wants a horse for pleasure or low level performance riding — and likes this one so much that she’s prepared to deal with recurrence — may say yes. In either case, however, a buyer needs to know and understand this aspect of the horse’s medical history.


2. See the Horse in Person


This may seem obvious, but nowadays a lot of people use the internet for research — and trust what’s on a website. I’m encountering this more and more often: people who buy a horse sight unseen. See the horse in person.


Schedule a visit and arrive early. Go several times. On at least one occasion, if possible, arrive unannounced. Watch the horse as it’s being ridden or while it’s doing its job, depending on what you want it for. Ride the horse yourself, multiple times. A single visit isn’t enough to understand the nature, temperament, abilities, and health of a horse you intend to buy.


Take in its current lifestyle. Observe other horses, or other animals, on the property. Check out the hay, the pasture, and the fences. Look in the barn, at the stall walls, at the feed and water buckets. What does the pasture look like? Does the barn smell of ammonia (from urine) or show evidence of manure splatter on the stall walls? Do you see teeth marks anywhere, chewed wood, or clues to other vices? How does this environment compare to the one in which you’ll be stabling the horse? If there are significant differences, how do you think they’ll affect the horse when you bring it to its new home?


During every visit, talk to people around the barn and ask about what you learned.


• What is the horse’s ownership history?

• How often are the hooves trimmed/shod and by whom?

• What is the deworming regimen?

• What does the feed room look like?

• Does the horse receive any supplements? Which ones and why? (The supplements an owner gives her horse may give you insight into what issues she thinks are present in the animal.)

• Who rides the horse? An amateur? A professional? A child?

• Does this level of riding differ significantly from what you intend? Will that matter?


This “homework”—that is, research and then seeing the candidate in its home environment — in combination with a careful review of the medical record, will help you develop the fullest picture you can of the horse that could be yours.


The Pre-purchase Examination


Earlier, I promised to explain this. A pre-purchase examination is an excellent investment! A pre-purchase exam is conducted by a veterinarian, a professional with the knowledge and experience to help you with the important decision you’re about to make. Working for you, with your interests at the forefront, she or he will objectively evaluate the horse. The veterinarian is the professional with the knowledge and experience that can best aid you in making a better, more informed purchase decision.


The road to buying a horse is an adventure, but it’s also one you must approach coolly, rationally, and honestly. Too many people get the wrong horse: one with the wrong temperament for them, for example, or one that can’t do the very thing it was purchased to do. I’ve seen a lot of them, and so, probably, have you.


To ensure a happy partnership, get a prospective horse’s medical records. Go see the horse. Then, if everything seems to be checking out, schedule a pre-purchase examination. Following these suggestions, you’re most likely to be able to answer both of our original questions with a resounding yes, yes.