Tips for buying a horse at the track: A vet’s perspective

Dont miss the Suffolk Downs Showcase this Sunday, October 25th. This photo was taken at the 2008 event. Photo John Bohn, Boston Globe
Don't miss the Suffolk Downs Showcase this Sunday, October 25th. This photo was taken at the 2008 event. Photo John Bohn, Boston Globe

Going to the racetrack to by an Off-The-Track Thoroughbred (OTTB) can be daunting. It’s busy, it’s crowded, you can’t ride the horse and trainers want you to make a decision after they’ve walked or trotted it up and down the shed row.

You generally don’t get the chance to see the horse going under saddle (unless you see it galloped). There are some tremendous bargains, but they come at a certain amount of risk and it’s important to evaluate them with an educated eye.

Working with the volunteers from an organization like CANTER gives you a head start. These folks have looked at a lot of horses on the track and they have a good eye and an understanding of how specific injuries impact a horse’s long-term use. Many times they’ve tracked the career of a particular horse over many years, waiting for it to retire. They also know the trainers and their circumstances, so can help you understand which horses have received more TLC.

When you’re at the track, you want to take all the horses home. Some of them because they are beautiful and athletic; others because you feel sorry for them. While it might be glamorous behind the scenes at tracks like Churchill Downs, the backside of most racetracks is anything but. These horses run for their keep and when they aren’t earning for their owners and trainers, they need to find new careers.

So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? We asked veterinarian Dr. Brett Gaby of Essex Equine (Bolton, Mass.), a vet who specializes in lameness, for tips on how to evaluate the horses then make educated decisions about which horses might work well for you.

Q. When you are looking at a horse on the track, there are a lot of unknowns. Where do you start?

A. It’s a good idea to start with what is known. One thing about racehorses is that it’s easy to tell their age. The presence of a tattoo eliminates that uncertainty and allows you to can access their racing history. If you show their records to someone who can read a racing form, you can tell a lot from how often they raced (large gaps generally indicate the horse was laid up), where they raced, and how well they did.

Q. Some people say it’s impossible to find a sound horse at the track. What’s your perspective?

A. A lot depends on the intended use of the horse. The level of soundness that you need for an upper level event horse, an “A” hunter, or an upper level dressage horse is different that what you need for a pleasure horse, a foxhunter, or a lower level competitor. When you go to the track you should have a clear idea of the horse’s intended use. Keep in mind that racehorses start training very young and some of them will exhibit early wear and tear compared to homebreds. Injuries, whether soft tissue or bone, may dictate future soundness.

Q. What types of questions should I ask the trainer?

A. In Massachusetts, trainers do not have to disclose problems or vices unless asked. To get full disclosure, you need to ask very specific questions. For example, what injuries has this horse sustained? What do you do to maintain soundness? Have you done joint injections? If so, which joints and at what frequency? Is the horse on any anti-inflammatories? Does the horse have any vices such as cribbing or weaving? Keep in mind that some “non issues” for the track might be a concern in a boarding barn or for show use. For example, you could have a horse that was very successful on the track because its fast, but it has an uneven gait that would be penalized in the show ring but would be fine for a trail horse or a foxhunter.

Q. What should you bring with you to the track?

A. As with any horse purchase decision, it’s helpful to have a second set of eyes, whether it’s a friend, a trainer or a vet. We’ve had clients who will have us come to the track with them to help evaluate horses. Or, we’ll work with a group and look at several horses. In terms of equipment, two things you might want to bring are a stethoscope and a set of hoof testers.

Q. What conformation flaws should I avoid?

A. While conformation is one predictor of soundness, it is not always a true indicator. There are plenty of horses with terrible conformation that shouldn’t be sound, but that perform well at their jobs. A better indicator for a racehorse is whether it has stayed sound and run successfully. One flaw that you should try to avoid is a horse that’s extremely pigeon toed as that is a conformation issue that puts twisting and strain on the horse’s fetlock joints.

When you inspect the horse, look for symmetry – or lack of it. Is one shoulder larger than the other? Are their hips even, or is one dropped? Some asymmetry can be corrected, but in other cases it might be a result of how the horse has compensated over time for an injury.

Q. Horses at the track are so thin. What does this tell you about their physical condition?

A. Horses on the track generally are leaner and fitter than you are used to seeing, but they should look healthy. Keep in mind that about 80% of racehorses have ulcers and that diminishes the way they utilize food. It’s a good idea to ask the trainer what they feed the horse and how much. If you do decide to purchase the horse, it’s a good idea to continue with the same type of feed, even if you adjust the quantities.

Q. What types of tests can you do as a layperson?

A. If you have a stethoscope you can check their heart rate. A horse’s normal resting rate should be 30-40 beats per minute. You want to listen for any abnormalities. Typical heart sounds have a lub-dub sound, which represents the heart valve closure. Murmurs (turbulent blood) detected by a layperson may be (can’t read this word).

If you’ve brought a hoof tester, check for sensitivity on the sole and heel bulbs.

Bend the fetlocks, knees and hocks to check that the horse has a full range of motion. We don’t generally recommend that people do their own flexion tests as it’s difficult get accurate information from them if you haven’t done a lot of them.

Run your hands over their spines to see if they are reactive in the expaxial gluteal muscles of the back. For larger riders (180 pounds +) you want a horse with a strong back.

Q. Are there any physical problems that TBs are prone to get?

A. TBs are genetically predisposed to Chronic Tying up Recurrent Exertional Rhabdomyolysis, also called RER. Tying-up is a term used to describe horses that develop firm hard muscles following exercise. Horses sweat profusely, breathe rapidly and become stiff and reluctant to move. Once again, you want to ask the trainer specifically if the horse has experienced this problem.

Another issue we see among TBs is left recurrent laryngeal hemiplegia, or roaring. In this condition the left recurrent laryneal nerve no longer works to stimulate the throat to open during intense exercise. You can tell if a horse has had roaring surgery as there is a surgical scar on the left side of the neck. Generally, once a horse has had the surgery their prognosis is good, although it might have mild respiratory issues because half of the larynx remains open.

Q. What about problems with legs and feet, what should you worry about?

A. Choosing a horse with good feet is important. A horse carries about 60% of its weight on its front legs, and about 70-80% of problems that our practice sees are in the distal limb (from the fetlock down). A horse that’s been on the track has wear and tear.

TBs are predisposed to having hooves with thin walls and thin soles. This can leave them prone to bruising and abscesses. Often this situation is exacerbated by shoeing techniques at the track, which can result in long toes and under run heels. If you have hoof testers, you can assess sensitivity.

Splints are not a generally a concern unless they run axially (inside the cannon bone). In this location, they can adhere to the suspensory ligament.

Osselets are a consequence of hyperextension. A lot of horses have changes to the fetlocks that don’t cause problems, although the enlargement of the joint can be unsightly. I wouldn’t consider it a huge problem unless you also see excess fluid in the joint. In fact, fluid in the joints would always cause me to look further into the cause.

Another thing to watch for are bone spavins on the hocks, enlargement on the inside of the hock. You can test for hock pain by conducting the Churchill test. This involves squeezing the proxial (uppermost) medial (inside) splint. If the horse abducts the leg and raises it away from the body, it may likely have pain. This might indicate that they are going through some remodeling.

Knees on TBs are generally not a huge issue for horses that are not racing unless they are exhibiting a decreased range of motion or show excess fluid. It’s a good idea to check to see if they are symmetrical from one side to another.

Are old bows an issue? A horse with superficial digital tendonitis does have a greater propensity to re-aggravate the injury. Many do fine although the level of work they are expected to perform in their new job may dictate recurrences.

Suspensories are variable in appearance. Branches are easy to palpate. Even in a sound horse it can be difficult to evaluate. If the horse has suffered an injury to its suspensory ligament, you should try to obtain the medical records from the trainer so that your own vet can evaluate the extent of the injury and the success of its rehabilitation.

Q. Often, the only chance you get to see the horse move is in the shedrow. What should you look for?

A. Jog the horse on hard ground. Does it show an even, side-to-side motion with its head and hips? Is the gait rhythmical? Horses can race at a full gallop with asymmetry without difficulty and that may be how the horse moves. Maybe that’s not a problem for a pleasure horse but for hunters, dressage, eventing you want a horse that moves evenly. Look at the head/forelimb relationship. If there’s a lameness, you’ll see the head bob down on the sound leg.

Q. Should you have radiographs taken?

A. Getting films done will give you a snapshot of how the horse is today and will provide a baseline that might be useful in the future. They can also identify potential problems that may not currently be causing unsoundness. That said, adding radiographs will significantly increase the cost of a PPE.

In our practice at a minimum we would recommend a baseline of the feet (five views) and hocks (four views). We would recommend radiographs of the knees, fetlocks and stifles if they had fluid, bone change, or a decreased range of motion.

Q. What about blood work? Is that something you recommend?

A. Having blood work done will tell you if the horse is on steroids or anti-inflammatories. Often, people pull blood as a precaution; if the horse’s behavior or soundness changes radically during the first month, you can check to find out if that was the cause. Generally it takes 45 days for anabolic medications to leave their systems.

Dr. Gaby concluded that many people, especially those with an educated eye, do just fine picking out horses at the track. If you do involve a vet, he suggests that if possible, you work with one with whom you have an on-going relationship as they will be looking out for your best interests.

Certainly, I’ve found that to be true in my own experiences purchasing horses. I’ve always preferred working with my own vets as they are the ones who can look me in the eye and tell me whether they think a particular horse will meet my needs, or might represent more risk that I care to take.

You can reach Dr. Gabby at Essex Equine, 978-779-3345, 84 Sampson Rd
Bolton, MA 01740-1014.

3 thoughts on “Tips for buying a horse at the track: A vet’s perspective

  1. Excellent advice, to be sure. I was surprised to read about the 80% rate of ulcers among race horses. I thought that was only true for the people betting on the horses! What about getting the opportunity to actually ride these prospective purchases? Should we bring our own riding equipment to the track and would we be allowed to ride on the first visit?

    1. Unfortunately, you need a license to ride any horse at the track, so test rides aren’t allowed. Sometimes you can arrange for a horse to be taken off track to ride it. Or, you can be there when the horse is being exercised and watch it go. Most of the time you need to buy based on what you see. The first time I bought an OTTB it was on the farm in New Jersey. It was about 9 p.m. and I rode him up and down the shedrow. Someone threw a dressage saddle on him and off we went. I figured any horse that would put up with that would be fine!

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