Better your odds with pre-purchase exam insight from Charlie Buchanan, DVM.
By Danika Kent
So far, so good. The potential buyer is smitten with the horse, tickled by the pedigree, and prepared to pay the asking price. But before this show is over, both buyer and seller wait with anticipation for the veterinarian’s verdict on the pre-purchase exam. When that wheel of fortune stops spinning, the door may open to a hopeful journey glittered with cash and prizes. Or at the wrong string of words, the prospect is voted off the island and the very vivid imagery of the aspiring team’s potential goes up in smoke.
“Come on Down!”
When a horse is changing hands, a pre-purchase exam is commonly in order in attempt to rule out any existing or potential health and soundness issues. You’ll often hear of a horse passing or failing the exam. But is it really that cut-and-dry? Charlie Buchanan, DVM, of Brazos Valley Equine Hospital in Stephenville, Texas, says no, and we’re about to explain why. But first, he walks us through his typical pre-purchase protocol.
Familiarizing yourself as much as possible with the horse’s history of injury, illness, and other issues prior to the pre-purchase exam will prepare you with an arsenal of well-informed questions to ask the veterinarian examining the horse. With permission from the owner, obtaining medical records from the vet who has previously worked on the horse is a great place to start, Buchanan says, but he advises using judgment.
“History is important, but sometimes you have to take that with a grain of salt,” Buchanan said. “It depends on the vet and the owner. Some people are very proactive about injecting their horses—the horse doesn’t necessarily have a problem, that’s just what the owner’s program was.”
Buchanan starts every pre-purchase exam with a general visual inspection of the horse’s conformation, looking for any structural issues that may weaken the horse’s functional movement and predispose him to injury.
“It’s a little bit of a difficult area to deal with because everybody has a different opinion on conformation,” Buchanan acknowledged. “So I don’t make a big deal out of it unless something is grossly wrong.”
From there, he assesses the horse’s overall wellness with a physical examination.
“We check the eyes for cataracts, listen to the heart and lungs, and make sure the teeth are okay. It’s also important to verify age, which can be done by mouthing the horse if there are no registration papers. We look for scars or evidence of surgeries that may have been done. We also look for things like popped splints or swollen joints,” Buchanan said, mentioning just a few potential scenarios that may warrant a closer look.
A lameness exam follows, which gives Buchanan an opportunity to watch the horse at motion, in-hand. Here, he’s looking for any indication of soreness or neurologic dysfunction, first without and then with flexion of the legs. He also uses hoof testers to identify any sensitivity in the feet.
“When we flex the legs, we’re trying to see if we can accentuate a lameness,” Buchanan explained. “Some people spend more time flexing them up than I do, but that can make a subtle problem that’s not clinically relevant appear very lame. For example, if you flex the fetlock up three times for 90 seconds, they’re going to be lame and that’s not really fair to the seller or the purchaser of the horse.”
Buchanan notes that it may also be appropriate for a veterinarian to watch the horse ride under saddle at this point, as well.
If any flags arise during the lameness exam, it’s up to the buyer to decide how to proceed—or not—with the pre-purchase exam.
“If the horse is lame, the purchaser can give the horse back to the seller or we can take some x-rays and possibly ultrasound,” Buchanan said. “At that point, we’ll talk about how many x-rays we want to take and how much money they want to spend. That all depends on how extensive you want to be. You can spend a couple grand on a pre-purchase if you want to, or you can spend as little as a couple hundred bucks.”
Even without a lameness issue, Buchanan recommends a series of x-rays to examine the inner condition of a few key joints.
“The hocks, stifles, and front feet are the typical radiographs I would want to look at on a barrel horse. That will probably cover 80 percent of potential problems. It wouldn’t hurt to take two x-rays of both knees; then you can rule those out and that probably gets 90 to 95 percent of the problems you’re going to have,” Buchanan said.
Cause for Concern?
And now, the million-dollar question.
“What are your plans for the horse?” Buchanan will ask the buyer.
The results of the pre-purchase exam, combined with the planned use of the horse, amount of competition, and projected length of career all play into whether or not he gives the go-ahead to put the money down.
“When something comes up, I have a conversation with the buyer about the probability that the horse is going to have issues. Some people are okay with an 80 percent chance that a horse is going to be fine, but some people aren’t. It depends on the buyer’s expectations for the use of the horse. They might be going to high school rodeos twice a month, or they might be hauling for the National Finals Rodeo. Sometimes it’s a deal breaker, because there’s only a 25 percent chance that the horse makes it more than a year and the buyer needs the horse to stay sound for 10, whereas some people are happy getting a year out of them,” Buchanan said.
While it’s important to keep in mind with a number of issues that arise in a pre-purchase exam that the spectrum ranges from manageable maintenance to more acute problems with serious deal-breaking potential, Buchanan cites two particular areas as worthy of a little extra caution and discernment.
“Knees and feet are my two main areas of concern. If you’ve got serious problems there, those are career-limiting and career-threatening problems,” Buchanan warned.
In a recent Facebook poll on the Barrel Horse News page, a common consensus named navicular issues as the No. 1 red flag on a pre-purchase exam, and justifiably so. Some imperfections, however, are to be expected.
“You’re going to have some changes to the navicular bone no matter what you do,” Buchanan said. “It’s just a bone that changes as the horse ages. It depends on their use and how much they’ve been ridden—the more you ride them, the more changes you’re going to have. You may have a horse that has what they call ‘lollipops,’ which are the enlarged blood vessels in the navicular bone. If that’s all you have, those can get pretty big and they don’t bother them.”
Buchanan is less forgiving to changes that have a higher propensity to compromise the horse’s soundness and athletic career.
“If there is some extra density in that bone or if they’ve got some irregularities on the back of the bone where the tendon slides over it, those would be problem areas,” Buchanan said. “If you have bony changes to the navicular bone, evidence of chronic soft tissue damage, or spurs in that area and the horse is lame, that would make it hard to buy that horse for two reasons. No. 1, the horse won’t stay sound, and No. 2, the resale value of the horse will be affected. When you talk about those x-rays, it’s a hot-button topic. Sometimes you say ‘navicular changes’ and they don’t buy the horse because of it. But you do need to be cognizant of the ramifications of what it will look like in 10 years and whether you can get your money back out of that horse.”
A second area he pays close attention to is the knee.
“A speed horse’s job to run hard, stop and turn causes problems, long-term, for the soundness of the horse. I look at the horse’s conformation and how they move. If they move pretty square, I don’t worry about their knees. If they swing in or out, or if they’re offset or turned out, we’ll probably take some x-rays,” Buchanan said. “Chips in the knees may or may not require surgery. You may see spurs or lesions on the inside of the knee, or you’ll have reactive bone where the ligaments attach, and those are indications that those knees are taking stress due to the horse’s conformation, and that could be a problem in the future.”
From his experience, Buchanan believes that fewer than 10 percent of the issues he sees on a pre-purchase exam are automatic deal-breakers, regardless of the buyer’s intentions for the horse. Exploring your options and educating yourself on existing conditions can help you decide whether you’ve got a dud or a diamond in the rough on the other end of the lead rope.
Hocks and Stifles
“The hock is a pretty forgiving joint,” Buchanan said. “If you have an OCD fragment in the hock, for example, it lends itself extremely well to surgical removal. I wouldn’t consider it a deal killer. We see a lot of older horses that have OCDs in the hocks that have never bothered them and are never going to bother them. I’ve seen horses with hocks that look like you ran over them with a truck, but they’re sound and have never been injected. You can have a lot of changes in that joint and get along with them. You can inject them two to three times a year and live with that.”
Years ago, joint injections came with a stigma for their own career-threatening risks. With modern medicine and a respect for the physical demands placed on the equine athlete, however, Buchanan is confident that the rewards outweigh the risks and considers it routine maintenance for most barrel horses.
“For what these horses do for a living, it doesn’t surprise me to inject them twice a year,” Buchanan said. “If you get over three times a year, we need to have a conversation about what we’re doing and then where we’re going. But if that horse gets run twice a week, every week, he’s going to be sore no matter how clean those x-rays are.”
Buchanan says the stifle joint is similar.
“The stifles are kind of like a hock; you can inject them and get by,” Buchanan said. “But it can make them hard to re-sell if you have an OCD or a cyst in the stifle. Even though they’re sound, competitive and have never been injected, it will be hard to sell that horse at retail value. It’s probably worse to deal with than a hock because if it gets bad enough, you’re done, but I don’t see very many barrel horses that have career-ending stifle injuries.”
Arthritis is another joint-related condition that comes in varying degrees. The impact it has on the horse’s career depends in a large part on the mobility of the joint in question.
“It’s a moving target,” Buchanan said. “This is where the horse’s history is very important. If I see moderate to severe arthritis on x-rays, even if they’re sound, it’s going to be hard to sell the horse. The hock you can manage and get around, but arthritis in the knees, ankles, and stifles is more difficult.”
Bleeders and Ulcers
Another barrel horse plague is exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH, or “bleeders”). Unfortunately, without running the horse and scoping their lungs in the narrow time frame that follows, not much can be done to diagnose this condition on a pre-purchase exam.
“If the horse is known to be a bleeder, you need to find out what medications the horse is on and if the owner has figured out why the horse bleeds,” Buchanan said. “There are a lot of reasons that we know that horses bleed. If you know what the problem is, it may be fixed or managed. An upper airway obstruction, like a lazy flapper, a roar, or a displaced soft palate, can be surgically corrected or mechanically manipulated and you can go on and compete. A BAL (bronchoalveolar lavage) can be done to diagnose a lower airway disease, which is treatable, and something like asthma is manageable to curable. Some horses bleed for no apparent reason, and if that’s the case and they bleed through medication, that’s probably not a good horse to buy.”
The horse’s stomach can be scoped if ulcers are a concern, but as with bleeders, the test must abide by a time frame and is not a routine part of a pre-purchase. The procedure requires the horse to fast for 8-12 hours prior to the exam.
Blood and DNA Testing
A variety of blood tests are available to address additional concerns the purchaser may have. A complete blood count (CBC) will reveal information about the types and numbers of cells in the blood, and a chemistry panel can provide insight on organ function. There are other lab tests available if there is any suspicion of painkillers, tranquilizers, or other drugs in the horse’s system.
“Depending on what lab you use and how much blood you have, you can do a pretty broad-spectrum test and it can be real expensive,” Buchanan said. “If you want to test for everything, you’re going to spend $800. You can target tranquilizers and painkillers for $100 and with two tubes of blood you can cover almost all of your bases.”
DNA tests are available if there is uncertainty about genetic disorders and are particularly important when buying a horse that will be part of a breeding program.
“You can test for HYPP, but it’s pretty uncommon in rodeo barrel horses so it’s not commonly done,” Buchanan said. “You can test for PSSM, which causes the tying up muscle problems, but I’ve personally never had a horse test positive for it even though they had the disease. It’s not common to diagnose it with a test. With a Paint horse, you may want to test for the lethal white gene. HERDA is more common in cutting rejects. In many cases you can ask about the parentage and if the horse is going to be a breeding horse, you need to know.”
Heart and Mind
It is not uncommon to detect a heart murmur in a barrel horse, Buchanan says.
“There are a lot of really fit horses that have heart murmurs that are not clinically relevant,” Buchanan said. “If that shows up on a pre-purchase, probably the best thing to do is have an EKG (electrocardiogram) or an echo (echocardiogram) done so you can see for sure if it’s a structural problem in the heart. Or a lot of times you can take them out and trot them around the round pen for 15 to 20 minutes and get their heart rate up. If it goes away, then it’s not of any consequence.”
He adds that opinions regarding a horse’s behavior are outside of his realm of judgment.
“I don’t feel that it’s my place as a veterinarian to make recommendations on the attitude of the horse and whether it’s fit for the person buying it,” Buchanan said. “That’s the trainer’s job and the person buying the horse’s job.”
As we know, countless issues can crop up over the course of a horse’s career without warning, but a thorough pre-purchase exam can help to minimize the risk and distinguish between jeopardy and jackpot so you can have confidence in your final answer.
Meet Dr. Charlie Buchanan
Charlie Buchanan graduated from Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine in 1997 and went straight into practice at Brazos Valley Equine Hospital in Navasota, Texas, which was established by his father, Dr. Terrell “T-Bone” Buchanan. In 2006, he left Navasota to develop the branch in Stephenville, where he now resides with his wife, Shannon, and their daughters, Camilla and Corrine. For more information on BVEH and any of their branches in Texas, visit www.bveh.com, or like Brazos Valley Equine Hospital on Facebook.