I often draw on recent events in my practice for a monthly topic for this column. I've looked at a couple of horses in the last month that brought up issues that recur from time to time in making a decision on the functional soundness of a horse for his intended use.
I have a routine I go through in evaluating a horse that starts with a basic physical exam. The first thing I do is walk around the horse, evaluate his basic conformation and make a mental note of any obvious or questionable lesions or variations from "normal." I then do a hands-on evaluation of all four legs concentrating on the joints, tendons and ligaments. I flex the legs to get an idea of joint flexibility and with the legs flexed I feel I can palpate the tendons and suspensory ligaments more fully. I apply hoof testers to all parts of the foot looking for any untoward pain response from the horse.
I then move out to an area that is flat and firm ground, and trot the horse straight away and in circles in each direction. I want the horse trotting at a good pace with little pressure on the lead rope so his head is free from pressure. I then do flexion tests on all four legs and immediately trot the horse off. The first few steps at this time are the most critical to observe. An examination of the mouth, eyes with an ophthalmoscope in a darkened stall, and auscultation of the heart and lungs complete the physical. In my experience, I feel I know most of what I need to know about a horse's serviceability.
If there are questions regarding some aspect of the limbs, radiographs may be taken, or perhaps ultrasound scans of a tendon or suspensory ligament. The results of these images should be correlated with the horse's age, history and how he's functioning at this time. In my opinion, potential buyers can overestimate the value of radiographs alone. One sometimes winds up with a "gray" area or questionable lesions that show up. In these cases, the recent history of the horse's performance, his suitability or how he "fits" the prospective buyer, and, yes, sometimes the price are considerations in making a decision.
One must accept the fact that probably 10 percent of horses that present totally "clean" at a pre-purchase evaluation will develop a soundness problem within a year if used in an athletic endeavor. The soundness evaluation is not a warranty, but it is a valuable aid in avoiding buying a problem.
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