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Buying horses: Pre-purchase exams document health of horses

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Whether someone is buying a $500 horse or a $15,000 horse, a pre-purchase exam is important. Brenda Unrein, a veterinarian with Laramie Peak Veterinary Associates in Wheatland, recommended pre-purchase exams and described what is included in this exam during the Big Wyoming Horse Expo. 

“Pre-purchase exams are something I recommend you do no matter what kind of horse you are trying to buy,” Unrein told the audience during the expo. “If you buy a horse, and it doesn’t work out for you, the joke is always that the price of that horse will be the cheapest part of owning it. You still have to feed it, have its feet trimmed, float its teeth and buy tack for it. It can all add up fairly quickly.”

She continued, “It costs over $1,000 a year right now to feed a horse with the cost of hay. It is important to take that into consideration. You don’t want to buy a horse you can’t use.”

Pre-purchase exams

When she is conducting a pre-purchase exam, one of the first things she asks is whom the horse is for and what their skill level is. 

“My goal is to be able to tell you if, in my professional opinion after evaluating the horse, it will work for that person or not,” she said. 

The exam is not expensive and could be considered a worthwhile investment. A pre-purchase exam starts at $150 for a physical exam at her clinic, Unrein said. The cost can be more depending upon if X-rays, blood tests and additional testing is requested. 

The physical exam typically takes an hour or two and can determine the health of the horse. When she is finished, Unrein documents her findings and provides the person requesting the exam with a copy. 

“What I find on this exam is not to be used as a tool to barter with the owner,” she said. “It is a picture of what I see today, and in a week or so, depending upon what it is, that could change.”

From the top

During the exam, Unrein starts at the front of the horse working her way to the back of the horse. 

She likes to start with the head, looking at the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. 

“I want to see that the horse can see out of both eyes, move his ears and move his mouth. I look to see that his nostrils are normal and evaluate how easily the horse will let me work with his mouth,” she explained. 

It is important to be able to work with the mouth to deworm the animal and float its teeth. 

Unrein also determines the age of the horse. In a young horse, age can be predicted accurately, she said. Between 10 to 15 years old, Unrein said she can determine its age within a year, and in horses older than that, it is harder to determine. 

During the oral examination, Unrein also checks the horse’s teeth to see if they have been floated. 

“I am looking for a smooth surface,” she explained. “Horse’s grind their teeth, so if they need to be floated, the surface will be rough and can have points and sharp areas,” she said.

Horses who haven’t had their teeth floated may refuse to do something their rider wants them to do. They can also throw their head or refuse to turn in a particular direction because it is painful to them. 

Unrein listens to the heart and lungs of the horse to make sure they are normal and healthy. 

Hooves and joints

Moving down the neck of the horse, Unrein makes sure it isn’t stiff anywhere or out of place. 

“There are a lot of diseases that affect their neck,” she said. “While I feel its neck, I watch for any signs of flinching or the horse trying to get away from me.”

Unrein also checks the shoulder, feeling all the joints, and moves down toward the knee, ankle and foot feeling for lumps, bumps or sore spots and a reaction like the horse is in pain. She also examines the horse for bowed tendons and wear and tear in the legs. 

Using a hoof tester, Unrein pinches the horse’s hooves looking for soreness or tenderness. She also examines the outside of the hoof and underneath it. If the horse is shod, Unrein looks at what type of shoe the horse is wearing, and if the farrier has been correcting the hoof for any issues.

Other factors

When she examines the horse’s back, palpates the ribs and feels over its hindquarters, Unrein is also looking for a response. 

“If the horse indicates it is sore in its back, many times it can be from a saddle that doesn’t fit properly,” she explained. “I would urge the buyer to work with a veterinarian to make sure their saddle fits the horse correctly.”

Other important factors include determining the condition of the horse and the conformation. 

“I would ask the person who is selling it how much it has been rode and what it has been doing,” she said. “I would also recommend asking what the horse is being fed and for its vaccination and deworming schedule.”

Pre-purchase tips and recommendations

Unrein recommends green riders who are not very experienced look for horses that are quiet and not easily spooked by everything around them. 

“If the horse will be used for something like a trail class, it will be in a different environment every time they ride him,” she said. “They will want a horse that is quiet, pays attention and acts calm.”

Unrein also encourages buyers to purchase horses from someone they trust. 

“If you are going to look at a horse, do not bring a horse trailer with you. Otherwise, the owner will assume you are buying the horse no matter what,” she comments. “If you like the horse, tell the owner you will go home and think about it. Call them a few days or a week later to look at the horse again.”

Unrein adds, “Try not to give them much notice, so if its someone you don’t know they don’t have time to tamper with the horse by giving it drugs or riding it down.” 

A horse can be tested for drugs through blood samples, but testing can get expensive depending upon what testing is needed, she said.

 Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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