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Buying a Horse? Buyer be aware - What to expect from a pre-purchase vet check

Bill Walsh, The Mane Points

Dr. Olive Britt is now more likely to be found vetting a backyard pony than caring for the Secretariats and Riva Ridges of the world -- which she did when The Meadow was in its Triple Crown heyday. That doesn't mean she takes the job any less seriously.

And you shouldn't either, whether you are the anxious seller whose horse is about to undergo Britt's thorough scrutiny or the buyer who has had the astute good sense to call on the widely respected Virginia veterinarian for a pre-purchase examination.

Watching her work a two-year-old this spring, we sought some "do's and don'ts." What we got, instead, was some wise counsel and general philosophy about vetting horse.

IF YOU'RE THE SELLER, don't let your anxiety about the vet's thoroughness loosen your tongue.

"I prefer that the owner never say anything, other than that the horse is quiet or something like that," she said. "As far as all the other things going on, no, I don't like that. I close my ears to that because it always gets you in trouble if you listen. Whether you like it or not, you are influenced. There is no way that your feeble mind won't be influenced," Britt added with a laugh.

Buyers, she said, should be on hand when a vetting is taking place, and would be equally well served by listening, rather than talking.

Explaining his approach during a recent vetting for an out-of-state buyer, Britt admitted that "I hate it (when the buyer is not on site). I could tell her things that I'm not going to tell anyone else, if she were here. And I can get a better feel for what she really wants.

"I think buyers benefit from being present; either the buyer or the trainer, if they have such a thing, needs to be there in order to feel comfortable about the examination. I can relate what I saw over the telephone, I can relate this in a written report, but it just isn't the same as being there. I don't get the rapport that I can get by talking to the person. That gives them a feeling of confidence," she said.

The presence of the potential owner gives the veterinarian a chance to learn what is in store for the animal. That knowledge can mean the difference between the vet's nod of approval or dismissal.

"I always like to know what the buyer is going to do with the horse. I know that most people say that it's none of the vet's business, but it is. Too many people who vet horses do not take into consideration the animal's suitability to the buyer. Sometimes Mama thinks a green horse and a green child are wonderful combination--it's the worst combination in the world. So I stick my nose in, and if I get in trouble, too bad," she said.

She has rejected headstrong ponies for no other reason than that they were more headstrong, Britt felt, than the buyer could handle. She has also passed horses with many miles and many years behind them, knowing that the equine's experience is just what the doctor ordered for that particular buyer.

"I have to tell the truth," Britt insisted. "I don't want someone to get hurt, don't want somebody who's just beginning in the horse business to be soured because they have a bad experience when they can have a good one."

THE EASIEST THING in the world for a veterinarian to do, she concedes, would be to turn down every horse. That way, people can't come back on you for passing a horse that turns out to be less than 100 percent.

I've not had too many of them, but I've had a few," Britt noted calmly. "Fortunately, it is usually something that we can rectify. If I think the horse isn't fit, I will always say that in my report, because that covers a lot of things, too. If a horse isn't fit or hasn't been used, that horse could be sound as a bell of brass today and be lame tomorrow," when a new work regimen starts, she explained.

It's probably best to think of a prepurchase vetting as an examination of serviceability for a particular task at a particular moment in time," explained Britt's partner in the Virginia Equine Clinic, Dr. Tom Newton. "That approach works a little better than just thinking in terms of pass-fail."

"You could turn them all down, but there is a place for every horse, if they're sound," Britt mused. "A lot of horses make wonderful trail horses. No matter how good a job you think you're doing, there is always that little bit of risk that you take," she concluded. "There are so many things that can just suddenly raise their ugly heads.

"But how could I turn her down?" she said of the two-year-old Quarter Horse filly being inspected during our visit. "I can't, as long as the buyer isn't requiring too high a value for the horse. Does she have to be perfect in her movement? Does she have to be perfect in her conformation? That is in the eye of the viewer."

BRITT'S REPORT on this filly would be generally favorable, while noting the imperfections. Her flat front feet will require careful management. Her bone structure is light enough to make a really strenuous workload an idea of dubious merit. She has two splints that, while inactive, will bear watching.

Recent vet school graduates would be well advised to follow Britt's lead in going that little bit beyond just the physical examination. We're an inexperienced buyer looking to purchase this two-year-old, for instance, "I would tell them that they needed a good trainer, they should not try to train this horse on their own. Without a good trainer, they should not invest in a horse like this because it will only be a disaster.

"If I can see that someone knows exactly what they are going to do, there is no point in my adding my two cents," Britt said. " But for green people or people that have not had a lot of experience owning a horse or who have always had a made horse, they really need to have a horse that a good trainer will help--the rider and the horse together. I go into things perhaps a little deeper."

But Britt said she hoped the buyer doesn't use the contingencies of the report to involve her in something "That's not my business." Using the imperfections outlined in the veterinary report to negotiate the price downward makes the vet uncomfortable.

"I would rather no one ever tell me what they are paying for a horse; I just don't want to know that. That's not my field. It is worth whatever it will bring and also what it means to the buyer," she said.

Ultimately, the buyer will have to make up his or her mind; the vet's report is an ingredient of that decision, but not the decision itself, Britt insisted, well aware that her opinion carries great weight.

"There are a lot of (imperfections) you can live with; they just take some management," she noted. On the other hand, the buyer shouldn't be so in love with the horse before the sale that he or she can't weigh the vet's insights dispassionately, Britt warned.

Her vetting advice extends to other veterinarians who are called on for the service. She recommends that vets try to avoid inspections that put them in a conflicting situation. Say, for example, a potential buyer wanted Britt to vet a horse from one of her clients' stables.

"I would tell them that even though I might try, it would be very difficult for me to be objective altogether. I think it would only be fair to the buyer, the seller and the horse if they asked someone else to do a vetting," she explained.

Britt will not vet a horse that she knows has problems. "If I have foreknowledge and I know there is something not just right about the horse, then I won't vet the horse. It isn't fair to me, it isn't fair to anybody," she said.

After listening and watching Britt, we were reminded of a number of proverbs that might apply to anyone who did not have a horse vetted prior to purchase.

One concerns a fool and his money; another underlines the wisdom of watching both pounds and pennies; a third parallels haste in acting with leisure for repenting.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners publishes the very helpful booklet Purchase Exam. Requests for copies can be made through member veterinarians.

Ask and you shall receive
BUYERS SHOULD KNOW THE LIMITS of the veterinarian's examination. The norm involves checking the horse's conformation, movement and soundness, wind, gut sounds, heart and lungs, eyesight and hearing.

On the exam we watched Dr. Britt do this spring, she also X-rayed the two-year-old's flattish front feet, because this imperfection stood out. She did not radiograph hocks, knees, or ankles and normally wouldn't unless she had reason to suspect a problem or unless the buyer had specifically asked for the pictures. Likewise, there will be no analysis of reproductive fitness, especially on a young horse, unless requested.

©Southern States Cooperative, Inc., Reprinted from Mane Points, with permission of Southern States Cooperative, Inc.