I have sold quite a few horses. Some for a lot of money, some for a little. Some which had training for years and are solid citizens at their discipline, while others are green and simply “prospects”. They differ in experience, size, shape, and discipline. But what they all have in common is the pre-purchase examination.
And it sucks.
For someone like me who gets severe anxiety over the behavior, performance, soundness and ability of her horses, the PPE is HELL. I lie sleepless the night before lamenting over the possibilities. I get to the barn an hour ahead and pull the horse from his field or stall and take him for a jog. I listen for the rhythmic fall of his hooves and pray to the Horse Gods the veterinarian and the client hear the same.
Then I place them back in the stall, knocked free of mud and dander, and I wait…For the vet to come…For the sale to either go forward or crumble to dust…For the beer(s) awaiting me at home….
Most PPE’s go the same way. The veterinarian does a full physical, measuring everything from resting vitals to listening for heart murmurs. They run hands over legs and assess angles of hooves. They ask if the horse has been on any medications or if any joint has been injected. And, if they are an exceptional vet, they are assessing the horse’s temperament throughout.
A good vet knows the background of their client. Is this horse for a child? An adult amateur? Or, a professional who is currently overseas contending a 4*? Will the horse be used as an up/down mount, perhaps jumping a cross-rail or two? Or, will the horse be going intermediate in 2 years with hopes of podiums and a red coat? Does the horse have a racing and/or competition record? If so, how recently?
All of these things can help paint a picture; but before the picture can be painted, the vet needs to see the horse move. We jog on hard, level ground and go through the flexion portion of the PPE. First the ankles, then the knees, hocks and stifle. And with each jog down the lane your heart flutters a little more. You can hear the rhythmic gait—the soundness as your horse’s feet fall flat and sound. You move forward to lunging to see if the horse maintains that soundness on a circle at a bend.
Then comes the anxiety attack. If your horse is merely a prospect, many exams will stop here. The horse either trots sound or doesn’t. If he trots sound, go forth and prosper. If he does not—find a new prospect. But, if the horse is worth a bit more and the financial gamble is greater, we proceed to radiographs, or x-rays.
Depending on the price, the anxiety of the buyer and the outcome of the flexions, the number of radiographs can range widely. Many vets will recommend radiographing what flexed positive and leaving well enough alone for the rest. This could mean images of just the left front fetlock and the right hind stifle, for example. Many vets will add front feet to play it safe. Others might recommend the full gauntlet: a 40-44 image set, or heck, a 50 image set if you add the spine.
And this is where the price range can change dramatically for the buyer. As the information increases for the veterinarian, the anxiety attack sky rockets for the seller. Any blemish, any flake, and you know your chances of making this sale decrease. Because we are a society that demands perfection; a society that uses Google instead of their brains. Every buyer wants the perfect horse, the perfect set of x-rays; the radiographs that vet schools use to teach anatomy classes.
We hear constantly that clean x-rays are what’s important, but to a good vet, they’re not.
To a good vet, and a good buyer, the radiographs are just one part of the puzzle. Sure, there are deal breakers in a PPE. Maybe the horse has a completely paralyzed throat, and yet, you are purchasing for racing or upper level eventing. Or, perhaps the horse has freshly torn suspensory and you are purchasing him as your mount to pursue Young Riders next summer.
But besides these potential deal breakers the majority of flaws are simply that: flaws, which need to be interpreted alongside the other information.
Take my horse Nixon as an example. Nixon raced 26 times, consistently. The one extended break during his race career was due to an injury to his suspensory, and he was rested for over a year before proceeding to race for another 2 years. He won almost $500,000 and ran WELL against top company.
And now in his second career as a sport horse, he is the picture of soundness. He lives barefoot from October-May and has never received an injection or supplement. He is ridden 5-6 days a week and is in active training as both a dressage horse and an eventer. He is strong, tough, and a horse I don’t have to worry about. And yet, when I saw his x-rays a year ago, I freaked. Nixon has osselets in both front ankles, and spurs in both hocks. He has thickened tendons and that old suspensory injury.
I called my vet, Heather, that day and asked if I had invested in a horse that would never hold up to the future I expected of him. I wanted this horse to take me all of the way—or as far as his mind and ability were fully capable—but now I wasn’t sure his body was up for the task.
Heather calmly talked me off of my ledge. She reminded me that his horse had been in HARD work for almost a year without taking a lame step. That his blemishes had been noted even as a 4-year-old when he had gone through the Fasig-Tipton Horses of Racing Age Sale. Many horses at the upper level of the sport share the same issues, she reminded me.
So why wasn’t she scared of these radiographic abnormalities? Why didn’t she “fail” my horse and tell me to find another?
Because as a good physician and professional sport horse veterinarian, and as a rider herself, she understood the bigger picture. She knew he flexed clean. She knew he rode sound. And she knew that she wasn’t injecting those joints every 6 months to keep him going. He successfully competed on those same blemishes for a long time, so his abnormalities did not alarm her.
There is no “pass or fail,” just a chapter in the story.
I still recommend that people get PPE’s done, keeping in mind to do it at the level you are comfortable with. I ask my vet to flex all of my prospects I find on the track or sitting in the field, and if these horses are crippled upon flexion, I don’t radiograph, I just pass.
But for people investing real money and gambling their hard earned dollars, a PPE is a good indicator of a starting point, and a good predictor of future maintenance.
Nixon is sound and happy without interference these days, but at least I know what I started with. I have rationalized with the fact that with these abnormalities on his films that he might need some maintenance in the future—whether that be joint injections, an oral supplement, or maybe just alterations in our fitness plan, I do not know. But what I do know is that I have all of the information, and an amazing team surrounding me to help me interpret that information. I would never ask my veterinarians to pass or fail a horse, because you can’t shove these animals in boxes. And you certainly can’t place injuries in boxes, either.
Nixon’s torn suspensory is no longer even identifiable on ultrasound. His osselets have never caused a lame step, and the most maintenance I do is a Theraplate. Many of the dings or nicks will never impact the performance of the majority of these horses, and when you finally do find that magical unicorn freak of nature who radiographs perfectly, he will step in a hole the next day.
So all you can do is your due diligence. Do your homework. Find a great trainer. Build a relationship with a superb vet. At the end of the day, the most important part of that equation is YOU.
Know YOUR needs.
Know YOUR comfort level.
Know YOUR budget.
And, constantly educate and grow YOUR mind.
About the Author
Carleigh Fedorka holds a Ph.D. in Veterinary Science from the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. A Pennsylvania native, she moved to Kentucky after graduating from St. Lawrence University and has worked closely in all aspects of the thoroughbred industry. She spends her free time eventing as well as training, selling and rehoming OTTBs. Read more about her horse life at her blog, A Yankee in Paris.