Pat and Brazil, one of her most famous horses - photo by Holly

Pat and Brazil, one of her most famous horses – photo by Holly

This is the third in a series of buying your new OTTB (Off-track Thoroughbred) by Pat Dale, owner of Three Plain Bays, a Thoroughbred reselling business located in Conowingo, Maryland. Pat previously discussed the suitability of OTTB’s for sport horse careers in Part 1 OTTB’s: A Cautionary Tale on the breed “Du Jour”, and Part 2 “OTTB’s: Where To Look“.

Today Holly Covey, who helped edit the previous posts, and Pat, discuss the all-important PPE, or pre-purchase examination, usually done by a licensed veterinarian to determine the soundness level of your new horse. 

OTTBs Part 3: The Politics of the PPE

Pat: We’ve previously covered two aspects of buying an OTTB, the suitability of the Thoroughbred race horse for a sporting career, and once you’ve decided on your budget, and your plan for a new horse, where to source that horse from.

You’re on the path forward towards OTTB ownership, and there’s one thing left to do – everyone says you’re supposed to get a “PPE”. The first and most important factor is to determine if you are buying to keep long term or are going to re-sell. Some things found in a PPE you can live with, but the same condition in a re-sale prospect will be difficult because someone else looking at him to buy down the road may not want to accept that condition in a horse meant for a sport horse career, no matter how sound the horse.

Holly: A PPE is a pre-purchase veterinary examination, and should be ordered by you, as prospective owner, using a vet of your choice. Any seller looking to find the right owner for a horse should be willing to allow a PPE by your vet, and usually an agreed-upon appointment can be made at the stable where the horse is residing.

It’s smart if you can be there personally, but if not, make certain your vet has your immediate phone number, and is intimately aware of your desires with regard to a new horse. Some vets or sellers won’t do a PPE without the buyer present. Find out how everyone wants it done. Increasingly today with smartphones, email, texting and messaging, it’s easy to be in a remote location and have a vet being checking a horse for you hundreds of miles away as long as you have good internet and good reception. They can take a picture of something and send it right to you for approval. And be prepared for two outcomes – one, you don’t buy the horse, or two – he passes and you do buy him – so bring your checkbook!

Pat: PPE’s vary in style from vet to vet, but usually involve taking an outside visual look at the horse as it stands up, checking its general health, watching it move, including jogging it with “flexions”, (where the joints are flexed for a short period of time in one position and then the horse is asked to move off immediately), all of which can take place on a hard level surface in a barnyard or driveway.

This was taken of Nice Guy's knee when Pat had him X-rayed to check a swelling.

This was taken of Nice Guy’s knee when Pat had him X-rayed to check a swelling.

The vet should check every leg, watch it walk and trot, then go on to the “under the surface” diagnostics with your permission. Some of these include scoping, ultrasounds, and X-rays of multiple joints, or pulling a blood sample for analysis back at the lab later.

Pre-purchase exams can get very expensive, very fast; it will literally vacuum away your new horse bankroll with expensive diagnostics if your vet finds things to picture. The key to keeping your PPE affordable is to know when to stop it. This is where you and your vet must be on the same page and communicating clearly.

Holly: Going in to a PPE, you have to talk with your vet. It’s helpful if you have a long-term relationship with him or her, and they know your riding level, your discipline, what you like, and how you keep horses so they can tell you if a condition will work for you, or not. Let them tell you what they find as they find it. With my vets, sometimes just a facial expression is enough to let me know they aren’t happy with something.

Pat: It’s important to know a bit about conditions, too. Here are a few examples of what might stop a PPE in its tracks.

  • Lameness on flexions.

Most vets allow for the horse to take a step or two out of flexion to reach full stride….most will tell you they can tell within five strides how it’s going. If a horse appears ouchy, they often complete the flexion process, and come back to the leg/ joint in question and try to isolate where the issue is.

This is not just one or two initial steps, and then back to full strides, but nodding lame. Some horses, while perfectly sound, never flex and jog well….it’s a roll of dice. Shoes (or lack of them), a rough surface, maybe some body soreness all might play into a dicey flexion. But a dead lame nodding horse usually means to call a halt right there – you’re going to get into some money if the horse has otherwise clean legs and joints, because the next step is to determine WHY he’s lame if an outward sign can’t be found. “Why” usually means “cha-ching” – X-rays, ultrasounds, etc.

If you want this horse to jump, hack, canter hunter courses, or do dressage requiring flexibility and soundness – this is the fullstop on those requirements. Don’t let anyone talk you into going forward if a horse is presented to you as lame! As a prospective purchaser, it is not your responsibility to determine WHY he is lame nor should it be on your dime to find out. (Unless you like to throw money away.) If a horse is lame, walk away. Let the current owner figure it out. That sound cruel, but it is not your responsibility; remember, they are the ones who offered the horse for sale and took the risk it would pass a vet exam.

  •  Clear signs of degenerative joint disease – another full stop.
  • A horse who has a failed wind issue, as determined by scoping (horses with previous throat surgery, provided it was successful, is OK for me.)
  • Screws in bone, as determined by X-ray – these totally depend upon location, and on your re-sell plans. I pass on these.
Anatomy of a horse's leg - photo by Lori

Anatomy of a horse’s leg – photo by Lori

  • Fractures: in a few cases I have accepted horses with fractured sesamoids that were non-displaced, healed cleanly, showed no soft tissue, ligament, or tendon interference, and the horses was ultra sound. Also, a condylar fracture to the cannon bone, if not into the joint, has a huge margin for successful return to work with no residual issues. But most of the time – no.
  • Tendons, suspensory issues: I have also occasionally accepted minor tendon issues with clear ultrasound diagnostics and agreement by my vet, but also have had to do all the layup and rehab time, along with follow-up ultrasounds to support the healing process at resale. It’s not something everyone should consider as doable – be cautious if your vet finds something in a tendon, or suspensory ligament. It’s a healing gamble that you have to agree to take. Just get good diagnostics to determine the extent of the injury. Not all bowed tendons are the same, some of the biggest, ugliest legs can be no issue for use, yet an unseen  problem, depending on location, will be a debilitating, life-long nagging soundness problem.
  • Hoof issues: a severe club foot is never a good sign, and while a good farrier can help, it’s likely it will never match the good foot. (At the least it will require an X-ray to check rotation of the coffin bone.)

These won’t necessarily stop a PPE, but should be done to rule out hidden problems:

  • Knees and ankles are for me the two areas that are a must have x-ray on a horse off the track. That’s where your chips lurk.
  • Ultrasounds of the front tendons is money well spent to locate possible suspensory injuries or tendon tears not evident to the eye.
  • Pull a blood sample. If you do a sample, and the horse otherwise passes the PPE, make sure that purchase is contingent on the sample testing clean.

Holly: The PPE is basically an exam of a horse on the day. The vet can only look at what is presented to him or her that day.

PPE's start with physical exams and progress from there. Photo by Holly Covey

PPE’s start with physical exams and progress from there. Photo by Holly Covey

They can’t see into the future, although they can get a pretty good idea of what has happened to the horse in the past by checking joint damage and any blemishes, lumps, bony parts, softened and enlarged parts or odd shaped hooves, etc.

I’ve had a very well-known vet predict a horse would not hold up due to navicular changes determined on X-ray, and this horse subsequently went on to a ten-year eventing career which included numerous championship wins, qualifying three times for the AEC’s, and continues to foxhunt first field. So always be cautious about predictions.

What a vet can do, however, is to use their experience to look at an X-ray, or ultrasound, and be able to tell you if the injury is minor or major and if it will easily heal, or will never heal. I recently obtained a horse with a large blemish on aknee, but the vets said it was superficial, and he was completely sound on it. The blemish has been reduced with therapy and medicine, the horse has easily transitioned into retraining, and recently won a dressage test at his first show. I’ve included these two personal examples to show that a PPE isn’t necessarily the end of the world. You just use the information gained by your vet in the PPE to either go forward to a yes, or a no.

Pat: It’s also important to check a few other things on a PPE, besides just the legs point vetting a horse with a major eye injury or loud heart murmur.

  • Eyes can sustain injury from dirt clods at racing speed being kicked back into a horse’s face.
  • Scoping a throat for signs of wind surgery or if it displaces its palate, leading to breathing issues.
  • Stifle soundness. Some racehorses have undetected stifle injuries due to starting gate mishaps.

    If you are lucky, you get a Nice Guy. Photo by Brianne Reynolds.

    If you are lucky, you get a Nice Guy. Photo by Brianne Reynolds.

  • Have your vet be sure to listen to the lungs, and check the heart, as well as look as the horse’s teeth, and double check the tattoo under the top lip to see that it matches any paperwork. These are absolute basics but you’d be surprised how often they can be missed!

Finally: You have to know whether you can live with something, and if your vet says the horse is sound that day, are you prepared for what it will take to get the horse to where you want it?

Some horses with a true heart and amazing athletic ability warrant the extra dollars, time, and care. A truly great brain and partnership is worth considering accepting a minor issue if you don’t plan to resell.

No horse is perfect and you’ll spend a lot of time and money looking for the perfect horse if that is what you want, and even if you find it, it still may not want to play in your chosen discipline.

Be fair to yourself, and listen to your vet, your trainer, and your gut. A new horse is a substantial financial and emotional investment! Find a horse you really love, and is right for you, and it will fall into place.

Read all my blog posts here