Pre-purchase examinations

Introduction to pre-purchase examinations

BELL EQUINE recommends that all horses are examined prior to purchase. The pre-purchase examination (PPE or vetting) procedure is standardised by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, giving a professional evaluation of a horse’s suitability for a particular purpose. Depending on the outcome of the examination, a certificate is usually issued to the potential purchaser. Every year we do hundreds of pre-purchase examinations either at the hospital or in the local area. We also travel further afield, including Europe, by special arrangement.

A pre-purchase examination identifies detectable abnormalities on that day. It gives no long-term guarantee for future health or soundness. However, long-term implications of any abnormality found will be discussed and we are therefore able to give an opinion as to the suitability of the horse for its intended use. As the purchaser this enables you to make an informed decision as to whether or not to proceed with purchase.

The purchase of any horse involves you in the taking of a risk. No horse is risk free and at best, we can aim to identify, assess and attempt to quantify that risk for you so that you can come to an informed decision as to whether or not to proceed with your intended purchase. Prior to organising the pre-purchase examination (PPE) to be carried out on your behalf, you will already have chosen that particular horse. In other words, colour, type, age, height, temperament and experience for the task will have been decided and you should have already concluded that the horse would be suitable for you, providing it is also suitable from a veterinary viewpoint. If you have doubts as to the horse’s suitability for your equestrian needs then we advise consulting your trainer or riding adviser.

It is wise to obtain information about insurance cover before purchase in case exclusion affects your decision to buy. Your insurance company will advise you on their requirements for a pre-purchase examination, for instance, higher value horses may require limb radiography and it is important the exact images required by insurers are confirmed in advance, as well as any other special requirements*.

When arranging a PPE our reception staff will request information including the full name and address of both purchaser and seller and the intended purpose of the horse. Purchasers are welcome, indeed encouraged, to attend the examination wherever possible. This allows discussion of any ‘grey’ areas with the horse in front of you and is often easier than trying to describe a subtle condition over the phone later. If this is not possible, please speak directly to the vet prior to the vetting.

*Additional investigations may be requested by the insurance company / purchaser as the result of concerns raised during the 5-stage examination and will require vendor consent. These may include radiography, ultrasonography, endoscopy, pregnancy diagnosis and a breeding soundness examination.

If additional investigations are to be included, it is helpful to have a clear list what insurers require beforehand, so all the correct information can be provided.

Basic requirements and facilities for examination

  • The horse must be fit to be examined, appropriately shod, clean and dry and have a valid passport present. If a problem is noticed with the horse in between the examination being booked and the vet visiting, please inform us prior to the appointment.
  • Ensure suitable examination facilities are available including a dark stable in which to examine the eyes and a safe traffic-free facility to trot up, lunge and ride the horse. This means a firm level surface for in-hand trotting including lunging and a suitable area for strenuous exercise. In addition a competent horse handler is required to handle or ride the horse.
  • A 5-stage pre-purchase examination takes approximately 1.5 to 2hours and the 2-stage examination approximately 1hour.

The Five-Stage examination

  • Stage 1: Preliminary Examination: Identification of the horse including the presence of a microchip. A clinical examination of the horse including assessment of the eyes, heart, lungs, teeth, skin, feet, limb and body palpation.
  • Stage 2: Trot Up: Walk and trot in-hand in a straight line and flexion tests, possible lunging, turning and backing.
  • Stage 3: Strenuous ridden exercise: Unbroken horses may be lunged. The horse is assessed whilst ridden, where possible in all paces. This enables the horse to be assessed orthopaedically, as well as undergoing a useful cardiac and respiratory evaluation whilst being ridden. Seeing a horse under saddle is also a good way to evaluate the back.
  • Stage 4: Period of rest to monitor recovery: This may elicit any stiffness when the horse is re-examined at the 5th stage. The horse is examined loose in the stable to assess behaviour. This is a good opportunity to check all the documentation, such as the horse’s passport.
  • Stage 5: Final trot up: This may include repeat flexion tests and possible lunging on firm and soft surface where appropriate.

With the seller’s permission, a blood sample is routinely collected during the vetting. This is not normally analysed at the time, unless the client requests that we do so, but is retained and stored for 6 months in a third-party laboratory in case further testing is required. Analysis for the presence of medications may be performed should this be suspected during this time. The cost of such tests are in addition to the normal pre-purchase examination.

The Limited Two-Stage examination

Under certain circumstances the purchaser may wish to have a limited examination involving only the first two stages of the examination. Purchasers will be required to sign a form stating their awareness that this does not provide the comprehensive information of a five stage vetting and therefore some abnormalities may not be identified as a result.

Assessing the results

Once the examination is complete, the vet will give their opinion on whether the horse is suitable for the job it is intended for.

It is important to understand that vets no longer ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ a horse. The official wording on the vetting certificate is: ‘In my opinion, on the balance of probabilities, the conditions reported do / do not prejudice this horse’s suitability for purchase to be used for…’, which emphasises that as much information as possible has been noted and considered before a decision has been made.

While a few horses will receive a totally clean bill of health, in most cases the vet will find one or more issues and will then grade the degree of risk so the buyers can decide whether or not to go ahead with the purchase.

It is likely that anything noted on the vetting certificate will be excluded from insurance cover, so even if the vet thinks the horse is suitable for the intended work, the buyer should share their pre-purchase examination findings with the insurance company before agreeing to buy the horse.

If a vet does raise a soundness or other health issue, the vetting is not the time to undertake a thorough investigation into what that problem is. This is something for the seller to look into at a later date with their own vet.

It is important to understand that pre-purchase examinations can be a stressful time for all involved. The seller wants to sell the horse, the buyer wishes to buy the horse … so both parties are very keen for the horse to be approved by the vet. This puts significant pressure on the vet, but they cannot allow themselves to be swayed from their impartial and pragmatic opinion – to do so would not only be unprofessional, but it could potentially result in disappointment all round, or even legal action if they approve a horse that later proves to be unsuitable for the purpose.

Finally, we recommend that after the pre-purchase examination, but before the sale is completed, it is wise to obtain insurance cover in case any exclusions affect your decision to buy. Although your horse may be acceptable for your intended purpose, it is possible an insurance company may place exclusions for pre-existing conditions. We do see many new horses that injure themselves in transit or soon after arrival in a new yard, so it is wise to have insurance in place right from the start (please be aware however, some insurance policies have an initial period that they may not cover the horse to stop false claims being made – it is wise to check when the cover will start and what will be covered during that initial period).


It is the purchaser’s responsibility, advised under the Trades Description Act, to obtain a signed warranty from the vendor if they feel that this is appropriate. This should cover areas such as freedom from vices, allergies, behaviour when shod or boxed, past performance, past medical history and the administration of drugs prior to examination and such like. A pre-purchase examination does not cover these areas as the vet cannot be aware of everything about the horse in question.

If you have any concerns or questions please talk to the vet who is examining the horse on your behalf or call the team at BELL EQUINE on 01622 813700.

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