Dr. Perry Spitzer: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!


Many stories exist about buying and selling horses, and references to horse trading imply that a buyer should beware. Why does this happen? Horses are long-lived and usually change owners during their lifetime, often multiple times. Horses sell for many reasons, not the least of which is for a health or behavioural problem, or that they did not meet the needs of the previous owner. It can be very difficult to find all the past history, and this in turn makes it difficult to buy with confidence.

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Finding a good horse can be challenging and many factors come into play. The rider’s level of experience and ability needs consideration, as well as the intended work that the horse will be asked to do. Do you want to train the animal, or find one that is ready to use? Horse factors include the size, breed, athletic ability, and the level of training. Previous experiences and injuries also add to the concerns that may come along with a new horse.

What should you do to alleviate this situation? The best advice is to do your homework first. It is hard to know what you are getting when you bid on a horse in the auction ring. Research background and breeding information. What kind of training has been done, and what kind of working career has there been? Have there been health concerns, surgery, or known injuries? What level of care has there been? Is the information you get reliable, or is it second or third hand? 

Your veterinarian can help you with the process of finding a good new horse. Once you have done the homework, visited and tried out the prospect, it is time to consider a pre-purchase exam. This exam is performed by a veterinarian for the buyer to gather more information about the horse. The seller as the current owner must give consent for the exam and any procedures to be undertaken. The entire process is highly variable and is tailored to each situation, so the cost can vary.

A pre-purchase exam should start with a good physical exam at rest and after exercise. Palpation, hoof test, and flexion tests of the limbs can all be done (as long as the horse can be handled). Other exams may include an oral exam using a speculum, and imaging of the distal limbs or reproductive tract in the case of a breeding animal. A general blood panel and urinalysis add more health information. Special blood tests may be done for viral diseases like Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA), for genetic diseases, or for pain reliever drug residues. The veterinarian is trained to find problems that may not be readily apparent and report these findings to the prospective buyer. The ultimate goal is to determine if the horse is sound and therefore fit for purchase.

It can be a big step to purchase a horse. Do your homework. Look the horse over well and try them out. Your veterinarian can help you find a sound, healthy horse that you can build a long-term partnership with. 

Dr. Perry Spitzer is an owner and director of North Peace Veterinary Clinic Ltd. with his life and veterinary partner, Dr. Corinne Spitzer. 

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