13 Apr 2016

Why I didn’t ‘fail’ your horse!

Equine vets performing pre-purchase examinations are often unfairly accused of being unduly harsh on a horse and “failing everything”. Understandably, vendors are often upset when a sale does not proceed on the basis of advice given by a veterinarian. However, it must be appreciated that veterinarians have a wealth of knowledge and experience and this affords them a deeper insight into small issues that may become big problems in the future. I personally do not ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ a horse, instead I make an assessment on the suitability of the horse for what my client, the purchaser, wants to do in the future.

If I am asked to examine a young horse with a view to it’s suitability for an FEI dressage career, in addition to examining the horse for any visible lameness, l will also look at the conformation of the horse and advise the client how this may affect the horse and their future aims for the horse. Vendors need to understand that sometimes, the purchaser may have advised me that they are very risk adverse. As a result, when the sale does not proceed, the vendor believes that I have ‘failed’ their horse. The reality is, that it is rarely this black and white. If there is an issue that I believe might affect the horse in the future, I will alert the buyer to the issue and then it is their decision whether to purchase the horse or alternatively walk away and wait for another horse to come along.

I was recently asked to make an assessment of a young Warmblood for a rider whose ultimate goal was to compete in FEI level dressage. The horse had only been broken in for a short time and did not show any signs of forelimb lameness. However, during my examination, I noted that the horse had moderate to severe left and right fetlock varus (turned in fetlocks). Personally, I believe the vendor should have corrected this when the horse was a foal, but they didn’t and I had to make an assessment of the horse in front of me. This issue, combined with a couple of other conformational faults, put the horse in the moderate risk category. In this situation, the purchaser was not willing to purchase a horse young horse that was in the moderate risk category and they decided not to purchase the horse.

Now I am sure we can all think of an older horse that has bent legs and has managed to stay sound and compete in FEI level competition, but I can assure you, that for every horse like this that makes it, the path will be littered with lame horses that have not been able to compete due to issues stemming from bad conformation. Equally, there will sometimes be horses with club feet that have successful competition careers, but in my day to day work, I deal with many issues stemming from club feet. Interestingly, I often find it is the ‘normal’ foot that has problems as a result of altered mechanics resulting from the club foot.

Can conformation issues be ‘ managed’ to allow a horse to compete successfully? Yes of course they can. Can horses still make it to the top level with these issues? Sometimes they can. However, when you are starting with a young horse, into which you plan to invest years of training, do you want to have to adjust your training to manage the risk associated with a conformation fault? Often, the answer is no.

I understand that often the purchase of a young horse is the cheapest part of the equation. Coming from a sport horse background, I understand how many years of training must be invested in the horse before it competes FEI. Many horses will reach the limit of their ability somewhere along the line due to veterinary issues and limitations in their trainability or athletic ability. Spending the majority of my days dealing with lame horses, I can say that whilst there are many horses with good conformation who go lame, the fact is, horses with poor conformation are over represented in the lameness category.

Can I advise you how to manage a horse with poor conformation? Absolutely. I can help with treatment and advise alterations to work plans for horses that have previously suffered strained sacroiliac ligaments or have had tendon and ligament injuries. But, when you ask me to advise on the purchase of a young horse, I will always ask you to think about how much risk you are willing to accept when purchasing the horse in question.

So, when you are looking your very own Valegro, my advice is to choose a horse with four even feet, straight legs and normal back architecture. My advice to breeders, is to have a good foal vet/farrier assess your foals within 10 days of birth so that work can be done to correct any issues quickly, because once they reach 3 months of age it will be too late to do anything. So much time, money and effort goes into breeding horses. I just can’t stress enough how a little extra work at this stage, will pay major dividends for the horse during the rest of its life.

Anyway, just my two cents from the perspective of an equine vet.