Horses are part of an ever growing industry, with over 600,000 horses in the UK, 1.4 million riders and 5 million people with an active interest in the equine industry*. Most people acquire a horse out of choice, so if you make this decision you should think carefully before going ahead. A horse needs lots of love and care, including regular worming, vaccinations and dental care. Owning a horse is time consuming and can be costly; not only will you will need to consider where you will keep your horse, you must also consider the ongoing costs of owning a horse which include accommodation, bedding, feed and healthcare.

In the unlikely event that your horse goes missing it is going to be very difficult for anyone to know who it belongs to, unless your horse carries some form of permanent identification. It is wise to get your horse microchipped or freezemarked, this will avoid heartache in the long run, should your horse go missing or is stolen.

Horses are herd animals, and thrive on being together with other horses. Don’t forget that your horse will need somewhere to graze, a stable for warmth in the winter time, a constant supply of water, feeding daily and regular exercise. It can cost hundreds of pounds a month to care for a horse, including accommodation, food, veterinary care and insurance; there will be other costs, including buying tack and rugs and extra livery charges when you go on holiday.

Horses can live into their thirties, over this time your horse will need lots of care and attention. Being able to provide all of this will ensure you and your horse make the most of your time together.

* Research conducted in 2004 by the Henley Centre for DEFRA and the British Horse Industry Confederation.

Pre-purchase examinations (UK)

Once you have made the decision to buy a horse, it is advisable to identify a vet that can carry out a pre-purchase examination of the horse. Not only will this give you peace of mind, but your insurance company will also very likely request a copy of a recent pre-purchase examination certificate prior to insuring the horse.

What is a pre-purchase examination?

A pre-purchase examination (PPE or vetting) represents a thorough clinical examination of a horse on behalf of a potential purchaser.

A thorough PPE will identify factors that could prevent your prospective horse from being suitable for its intended use. If you are intending to buy a horse, this examination should enable you to make an informed decision as to whether or not to continue with the purchase of the horse.

What types of PPEs exist?

There are different levels of pre-purchase examinations, a limited 2-stage and a full 5-stage PPE.

2-stage PPE

This examination is limited to just two stages, stationary physical examination, and walk and trot in-hand. This examination may not identify some of the potential problems that might be detected on a full 5-stage PPE.

Because this type of examination is limited, as the purchaser you will be required to read, sign and return a legal waiver (limited PPE request form) before the vet examines the horse.

A 2-stage PPE takes approximately 45 minutes and is usually only undertaken in purchases of young unbacked horses, horses that have known specific conditions that would be identified on a 5-stage PPE, or in cases where it is unsafe or inappropriate to complete a full 5-stage PPE.

5-stage PPE

This examination follows strict guidelines established by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) in conjunction with the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) in the UK.

The examining vet will examine the horse in 5 consecutive stages:

  • Preliminary physical examination
  • Walk and trot in-hand
  • Strenuous exercise
  • Period of rest and repeat physical examination
  • Second trot up

It takes approximately an hour and a half and should be undertaken when purchasing horses that are intended for ridden activities, such as hacking, showing and competition.

In both levels of examination, the vet will inspect the horse's documentation and record the identification of the horse, including markings and microchip number, on a PPE certificate.

As a prospective purchaser you can also request additional tests such as blood samples, radiographs, endoscopy and other diagnostics to be carried out at your expense, if you or the vet feels that this is appropriate. The results of these tests will be recorded on the PPE certificate. All original records (radiographs, pictures, etc) of these tests will remain with the examining vet. If a blood sample has been obtained, the lab will store it for 6 months following the examination for future analysis, if required.

What does a 2-stage PPE include?

The 2-stage PPE examines different aspects, mainly the cardiovascular, respiratory and musculoskeletal systems. The tests can determine soundness and suitability for the intended use to a certain extent.

Questions addressed to the seller should include the vaccination record, general behaviour and behaviour while being shod, clipped, travelling, etc.

The 2-stage PPE involves the following steps:

  • Preliminary physical examination: a thorough examination of the horse at rest using visual observation, palpation and manipulation to detect signs of injury, disease or physical abnormalities. Teeth, heart, lungs and eyes are also examined.
  • Walk and trot in-hand: the horse is examined at walk and trot in-hand to identify abnormalities in its gait/action. This should be carried out on firm, level ground. This examination should also include turning the horse in a small circle in each direction and backing it up. The vet should perform tests of all four limbs.

What does the 5-stage PPE include?

A 5-stage PPE involves the following steps:

  • Preliminary physical examination: similar to the 2-stage.
  • Walk and trot in-hand: similar to the 2-stage.
  • Strenuous exercise: this allows examination of the horse under work or near-work conditions. The increase in heart and respiratory rate after strenuous exercise are assessed. The vet will also evaluate the animal's gait at walk, trot and canter (if appropriate). If ridden examination under saddle is not possible, the horse may be lunged instead.
  • Period of rest and repeat physical examination: the horse is rested for 20-30 minutes prior to reassessing the heart and respiratory rates. The rate and speed of recovery of these parameters to normal after strenuous exercise is assessed. As that point a blood sample is usually obtained, if requested.
  • Second trot up: the horse is trotted in-hand for a second time to look for signs of lameness and stiffness that have been exacerbated by the previous stages.

Flexion tests and lunging the horse at trot on a circle are commonly done, but do not represent mandatory parts of the 5-stage PPE examination. These observations provide useful information, but in some circumstances the vet may decide it is inappropriate or unnecessary to perform them.

What happens after a PPE?

A PPE is a clinical examination carried out at one particular time point and does not represent a guarantee for the rest of the horse's life. You should discuss all findings with the examining vet and listen carefully to the information that is given to you. No horse or pony is perfect and if there are some "abnormal" findings, these may not affect the horse's suitability for your intended purpose.

The vet will give you his opinion as to whether or not the results affect the horse's suitability for intended use. The vet will also take all the results back to the practice where they are written up in a report and subsequently sent to you in the post along with any other test results.

What else do I need to know?

PPEs represent an additional financial involvement, but they could prevent you from spending large amounts of money on a horse with pre-existing or potential future health problems. They also maximise the chance of a horse successfully going through re-sale PPEs. As a rule of thumb, the diagnostic effort (2-stage PPE vs. 5-stage PPE, radiographs, blood samples, etc) should be proportionate to the purchase price and the intended intensity of athletic activity of your future horse.

As a potential buyer, it is not essential that you are present at the time of the examination. However, there are often things that need to be discussed, or specific questions that you may want to ask whilst the horse is being examined. This is best done face-to-face at the time rather than at a later date.