Buying a Horse and The Pre-Purchase Exam


There’s a lot to think about when you are buying a horse; it can be a complicated process before the pre-purchase exam. Shopping for horses generally goes something like this:


    • Gather yourself and your trainer to start going over videos and sales ads.
    • Try horses, and maybe your trainer hops on first.
    • Have a pre-purchase exam done. Vetting is always a good idea – no matter the price!
    • Buy the horse or keep looking.


jump to videos and shopping



  • Of course, you want to find a horse that you feel safe and enjoy riding. Your new horse must also be safe and enjoyable on the ground! Handing, grooming, and tacking a prospective horse is usually not part of the deal.


  • But I say “bleep that” – go one step further. Handling and grooming can give insights into a new horse’s attitude and potential medical issues! At the very least – watch any prospective horse during handling, grooming, and tacking up.


lungeing a horse in a small circle on the grass


A note about assigning human behaviors to horses.  Most horses are not jerks, butt-heads, or mean.  They are uncomfortable, frightened, or defensive.  This could be an easy “fix” or require much veterinary intervention or training intervention.  



Observe any prospective horse being handled and tacked up.


  • As you watch any horse, remember the things you are comfortable with and any deal-breakers you have.


  • Don’t read too much into these things – they are simple observations. If you see something that seems “off,” have your vet address it specifically during the pre-purchase exam (PPE).


Watch the grooming process.


  • Even if I cannot be grooming and tacking up a potential horse myself, I want to see the process. A horse’s behavior gives you clues to temperament and health during grooming and tacking.


  • Of particular interest are these areas:


The legs during hoof picking.


  • Is the horse agreeable to lifting his legs? A lack of cooperation might tell you he’s momentarily unbalanced, there’s discomfort, or he’s trying to tell you something. Or it may tell you nothing, and it doesn’t matter in the long run.


  • Pay attention to the hind legs; some horses will yank or semi-strike for whatever reason. Horses with string-halt or neurological issues often have trouble lifting and lowering the hind legs.


How his back reacts to having his belly midline scratched.


  • When you scratch a horse’s midline around the girth area, the natural reaction should be lifting the belly, which raises the withers. The lifting of the withers should be visible. Some horses will only be able to do this after limbering up or after a chiropractic session. Other horses can’t do this at all, which may or may not affect his rideability.


  • Looking for this reaction is only one piece of a much larger puzzle! If this horse moves onto the PPE stage, it’s worth having your vet check on this reaction and others in the hind end.


feeling your horse back with fingertips

Notice how a horse reacts to touch and pressure!


How does your possible new horse react to pressure on his muscles? Especially the saddle area?


  • A horse’s reaction to massage and grooming can show you more about his personality or indicate muscle soreness or discomfort. Or tell you about his skin sensitivity.


  • Ill-fitting saddles, spine issues, and a hard day’s work are all possible reasons. 


What’s the reaction to handling a horse around his ears, sheath/udders, and other sensitive parts?


  • There can be a lot of past trauma, as is the case for ear-shy horses that have been ear-twitched. Which is an absolute NO, by the way. Injuries can also prompt a horse to protect certain areas.


  • Other horses might decide that certain parts of their bodies are off-limits. This speaks more to temperament and trainability or general sensitivity to handling.


How does this horse stand to have his temperature taken?


  • By now, you are sensing a pattern – what’s the reaction, and what is the possible reason for this reaction?


  • Is this merely a case of horses training humans not to do things, or a horse that’s never had this done before? Or is there something wrong with his tail?


Watch his overall demeanor while he’s groomed.


  • Does he seem calm, agitated, distracted, angry, or engaged? Maybe you see a quiet horse, and you want a fire-breathing dragon! Or vice versa.


girl tightening an english girth on a horse in cross ties

Watch it all if you can!


How is the horse during the tacking-up process?


  • It might be helpful for you to see a prospective horse being tacked up! Look for three main things:


What is the reaction to placing the saddle on the horse’s back?


  • If there’s snark, did the saddle get swung, flung, and plopped on? Or was it placed gently and carefully, and the horse was still snarky?


When tightening the girth, is there acceptance or revolution?


  • Horses with ulcers often display objections to the girth. So do horses when it’s tightened too quickly and rudely. 


And how is the acceptance of the bit and bridle?


  • Giraffe-like behavior during bridling tells me there’s an issue – pain in the mouth, inadequate training, or painful tack.


  • Reminder! There are no judgments here, only mental notes about things to clarify with the vet.


girl mounting a horse with a small stepladder


Other things to notice when buying a horse


How is this creature for mounting?


  • Some horses are inclined to walk off during the mounting process. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like jockeys mount racehorses on the go? Mounting on the go doesn’t work for all of us!


  • Is he fidgety, distracted, or otherwise not your ideal horse during the mounting process?


What about being led around the property?


  • Does he need a lip chain and a whip? Or could your dog lead him around?


  • A horse’s attention should be on the person holding the lead rope. A few distractions are ok now and then.


  • Does he mind the person leading him? When stopping, starting, and turning? What about being grabby towards grass and snacks?


Other pieces to notice and ask about when horse shopping:


  • What’s his current fitness level?


  • What about the horse’s diet and medications?


  • Does this horse “need” calming supplements or training gadgets for riding safely?


  • Gather this information and review it with your vet during the pre-purchase.


vet listening to a horse's heart


Leave some things up to the vet and the pre-purchase exam.


  • Suppose you have found a horse worthy of a pre-purchase exam, congratulations! This is a big step. Just remember that a PPE is a snapshot in time, not guaranteeing future performance or health.


A few things to ponder for the PPE:


  • You may not want a horse’s regular vet to perform the pre-purchase exam. Or maybe you do.


  • You may or may not be able to secure a horse’s medical records. Don’t count on it, but you might want to request them.


  • Do x-ray the snot out of any potential horse.


  • Do not blindly trust x-rays provided to you. There has been more than one lawsuit filed for falsifying dates and views of x-rays.


  • Discuss your behavioral observations of the horse with your vet. A thorough exam might clarify what you have seen!


  • Testing for doping is never a bad idea. Ever.


  • As much as the internet likes to describe these vettings as a pass or fail, they are not. It’s an assessment of that horse on that day. Most veterinarians have a standard list of things they will check during the vetting. Those findings can help you decide if the horse is suitable for the job you plan on giving him.


Expect your vet to cover these things during a pre-purchase exam:


A review of any previous medical history.


  • It’s a RED FLAG if a seller is unwilling to disclose this. A medical history should include surgeries, past injuries and treatment plans, hospitalizations, and medications. It should also have regular dental care, vaccination history, fecal egg count results, and dewormings.


Vital signs check and overall health check.


  • A horse’s basic vital signs could reveal things to investigate further. Heart and lung sounds, digital pulses, and capillary refill time share a glimpse into your horse’s overall health.


horseshoe on a hoof being held by a farrier

If hooves are a question mark, invite your farrier to join the pre-purchase process.


Soundness check.


  • A horse is walked and trotted on a straight line and in a small circle to see gait variations and possible soundness issues. The first impressions of a horse’s overall soundness show up here. It’s often useful to canter a horse on the lunge line as well.


Joint flexions.


  • Flexing a horse’s joints before jogging the horse is a stress test. When a joint is flexed, held, and then jogged off, the vet will be looking for differences in a horse’s gait. Flexions take the soundness tests a bit further.


Neurological exam.


  • This basic check of reflexes and balance is often woven into other parts of the pre-purchase exam. Stumbling, postural changes, and coordination problems will show up in the course of an exam. You can also specify that you would like a more thorough neurological exam.




  • It’s never a bad idea to just x-ray everything on a potential new horse. Most veterinarians and buyers can agree about what must be radiographed and some optional radiographs.


  • There are areas of horses that tend to wear and tear more because of their discipline. These are areas to examine! For example, the jumper’s front legs. Or the dressage horse’s stifles. Or the reining horse’s hocks.


  • Should your vet find something during the soundness evaluation, you can x-ray that spot in addition to the commonly worn areas for that horse’s discipline.


  • If past medical records indicate an injury somewhere, it’s worth looking at again.


  • Evaluating the hoof with x-rays and having your farrier look at the horse and the radiographs is always a good idea.


  • It’s not entirely uncommon to x-ray the spine and neck. This gives you a glimpse into kissing spines under the saddle and neurological and arthritic problems in the neck.


x ray of hoof and pastern

X-rays of the hoof and legs are often included.


Age, breed, and genetics-related checks.


  • Depending on a sale horse’s intended job, there may be some things to check related directly to a horse’s age, breed, and genetics.


  • Screen young horses for dental issues or joint development problems. Older horses can be screened for metabolic problems. Examine horses intended for a breeding program for genetic diseases and conditions that can affect offspring.


Decide how much further testing you are willing to do.


  • If a horse breathes strangely during the soundness exam, will you do an endoscopy to look at the throat and neck structures?


  • What about an MRI of a limb? MRI results are much more detailed than x-rays.


  • Cardiac work-ups are an option if your vet found something off with your horse’s heartbeat.


What are your deal-breakers after the pre-purchase exam?


  • You should be able to ride and handle your new horse safely. Decide what your deal-breakers will be and go from there.


  • Deal-breakers could be behavioral, such as a horse that doesn’t load well or a horse with a vice. Medical red flags from the PPE can also be deal-breakers.


  • Are you willing to correct these training issues yourself or hire someone to do it with you? And are you ready to maintain a horse’s health if something isn’t perfect? Which it never is.


A few more thoughts about horse shopping


  • Understand your legal rights when you are shopping for a horse. Have a lawyer who doesn’t represent the buyer review the bill of sale and other documents.


  • Don’t pay cash! There’s no way to track payments should something in the sale go sideways.


  • Get everything in writing!



Enjoy the process, learn from the pre-purchase exam, and enjoy your new horse even more.



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