Prepurchase Exams are Rarely Black and White

We horse people can be hard on each other—you don’t have to look far to see it. And nowhere is the disagreement over management methods or training approaches more evident than on social media platforms. One particularly sensitive topic of

We horse people can be hard on each other—you don’t have to look far to see it. And nowhere is the disagreement over management methods or training approaches more evident than on social media platforms. One particularly sensitive topic of conflict is the prepurchase exam (PPE), with Facebook-peanut-gallery admonitions of “shoulda, woulda, coulda” to disappointed horse owners, even when they might be sharing information in the spirit of “please learn from my mistake.” It seems the one thing everyone can agree on is that a prepurchase exam is generally a good idea.

Just about every article about PPEs I remember editing or writing over the past 17 years here at has included, in some way, shape, or form, three important take-homes:

  1. Know what your goals will be with the horse.
  2. If you do want to be an informed consumer, have a veterinarian perform a PPE on the prospect.
  3. Know that this is never a pass/fail scenario and, rather, is meant to arm you with information for your decision.

Indeed, within the realm of PPEs, there is an element of subjectivity we all do well to remember. The collective horse world “we” really likes everything to be tied up neatly, cut-and-dried, and black-and-white, but it isn’t always this way. At day’s end, each person has their own unique idea for what they want to accomplish with a new horse, a purchasing budget, and a comfort level with how much they know about the horse’s physical status.

Prepurchase exams range from the cursory glance-him-over and watch him jog to the four-figure exam with every imaging angle imaginable. You can go into a buying decision knowing as much or as little as you’d like, it’s really up to you.

Horse A during our first season of eventing.

Photo: Courtesy Church Family

I’ve experienced both scenarios, each with an excellent outcome—but excellence is also a subjective measurement. My “excellent” might very well be someone else’s “no-way-not-good-enough.” We’ll call my steeds Horse A and Horse B, both off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs).

With Horse A, my goal was for us to climb the ranks of eventing as far as we could, with safety and confidence. Horse A had already run solid intermediate, and I was timid and fearful after one too many cross-country stops and falls with a different horse schooling at novice that wanted to be a dressage mount.

Horse A was very spendy for my family’s budget. In fact, he was the second horse we’d looked at a year before, but the sticker shock had simply been too much. We bought the 22nd horse I tried, but ended up a year later going back to Horse A.

Because of his price and my goals, we invested in a very thorough prepurchase exam that armed us with a whole lot of information and imaging. While Horse A trotted and flexed sound, he traveled a little weird in the hind on a tight circle, which concerned the veterinarian. Also, his breathing wasn’t perfect—he sounded a bit like a roarer after strenuous work. But I had already fallen in love with Horse A during the trial, my confidence over fences was already returning, and these findings had not been a problem for the previous owner, so we decided to live with the risk.

Horse A took me through four solid years at Training, where we had just had an absolute blast, and when I finally felt solid enough to make the jump to Preliminary, we had two good runs before deciding he was more comfortable in his breathing at the lower levels.

Horse A during his retirement years on my family’s farm.

Photo: Courtesy Church Family

Horse A was a fun horse and a solid citizen–the kind you could throw in as a substitute for a high-speed jumping drill team ride at the last-minute and know he’d keep his stuff together while jumping abreast with an unfamiliar horse (yes, this happened). He remained sound and competed with my sister for several years as well–the hind-limb concerns were never an issue during his athletic career. Horse A lived to be 30 and I’m well-convinced he was my “heart horse.” Remember, his vetting was not a pass/fail exam, and it was no guarantee that the problems the veterinarian saw wouldn’t end his career early. We could have very well walked away and found another horse with fewer potential issues. But in this case taking the risk worked out in our favor. This story had a great outcome.

Fast-forward a couple of decades. Horse B came along at a time in my life when I’d just made the decision to buy a horse after a long break from owning … but had not begun saving for the purchase yet. I heard about my horse via word of mouth. I asked a long list of questions about his racing record and any time off that I saw. The owner was matter-of-fact with me: Her horses get several months off after each racing season, and he’d raced 51 times and retired sound.

Read: Of course he’s going to have some normal wear-and-tear, but he doesn’t show outward signs of it.

One perk to my job, besides being surrounded by phenomenal horse people and beautiful horse country, is knowing countless veterinarians who’ve become like family to me. One of my close veterinarian friends found me a practitioner highly recommended in the area where I’d be trying Horse B. She was on call for a PPE if I rode the horse and liked him.

In this case a full-on PPE exam with all the bells and whistles was going to be more than Horse B’s price tag. I was not looking to reach upper levels of eventing again; I’ve broken enough vertebrae and sustained enough bumps and bruises that the plan was I’d probably top out at Training again, if that. I’ve gotten a pretty strong sense of my mortality and would rather just keep the horse between me and the ground.

All I wanted was a safe, happy, sound horse, with the intelligence and agility of my former heart horse. I just wanted to have fun again, popping around a low-level event course with another OTTB.

Horse B at his first horse show.

Photo: Courtesy Erica Larson

Horse B was lovely when I tried him, and the veterinarian came out later in the day to perform a very basic PPE. The plan was that if she saw anything concerning enough to radiograph, we’d pursue it. She saw some very slight effusion (fluid swelling) in a couple of joints, but nothing of enough concern to me that I’d pursue imaging. Again, the fact Horse B was a warhorse (50+ starts) who’d stayed sound as long as he did—along with his conformation—told a story that made me comfortable with the risk without having turned every proverbial stone.

Horse B’s owner was neither looking to make a lot of money off this horse, nor was she looking to “get rid” of him. She wanted a fantastic home for him with someone who would enjoy him, and she was willing to take the time to find a good match. (She vetted me, too!) He’d been good to her, and she knew he’d be good to someone else. I purchased him over the phone that evening.

Was it a lot of risk that I didn’t turn every stone with the most thorough PPE possible for Horse B, my current horse? Sure. Believe me, when we needed to get some X rays on him earlier this year, I was a little worried! But, thankfully, they didn’t reveal anything epic that made me regret my PPE approach. In fact, my veterinarian cannot stop talking about “how clean his front ankles look” for a horse that raced as many times as he did.

Again, I’m not aiming to ever event at the higher levels. I am perfectly content watching and admiring the very best riders out there skillfully navigate massive water complexes … while I gallop through the kiddie-pool water jump with my happy little chestnut warhorse gelding, grinning ear to ear.

When I analyzed what the veterinarian found on a cursory PPE, I decided Horse B was worth the risk, and I’m comfortable that there might be consequences to that decision. Had the stakes been higher for me—spending much more and aiming for higher performance levels—my decisions probably would’ve looked very different.

That’s the thing …  I unquestionably recommend people pursue a PPE when they’re considering a purchase, but recognize that ultimately, each person decides what level of PPE they’re comfortable with (if they get one at all), makes a decision based on the information revealed, and signs up to live with the results. For now things are looking to be turning out well, but I’m prepared to adjust my expectations if they go differently.

We know that in the horse industry, as in life, sometimes situations work out in our favor, other times they don’t. In the latter case we probably have enough of our own “shoulda woulda couldas” to manage that we don’t need an additional heap of them from the collective “we.” May what we share support and uplift other horse owners in their decision-making. Because, really, even if we disagree on some of the gray areas, what we all want and aim for is good partnerships with happy horses.

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