Would you buy a horse that needed surgery?

X-ray of a horse's stifle with significant degenerative changes and a large, irregularly shaped bone fragment.
X-ray of a horse's stifle with significant degenerative changes and a large, irregularly shaped bone fragment. (From http://www.bevet.com)

Horse shopping is generally not as much fun as it should be. You have to kiss a lot of frogs on the way to finding a horse that might possibly be a prince. The last time I looked (several years ago), I found that in 4 out of 5 cases the horses I went to see were either:

  • Not the size advertised (usually significantly smaller)
  • Incorrectly trained (poor habits that would need to be retrained),
  • Outright dangerous, or
  • Lame

More than one horse was lame in addition to being either poorly trained or too small! I’ve only come across a few that were really dangerous but they do stick in my mind.

Given the amount of time and emotional energy that goes into looking for a horse when you find one that you like enough to do a PPE, and there’s a physical problem, do you pass? Or do you buy the horse knowing that it will need, for example surgery to remove an Osteochrondosis Dessicans (OCD) lesion?

I’m of the mind that you shouldn’t buy a horse with a known problem, even it it’s “fixable” because there’s always the chance that it isn’t. Then you have a horse that you’ve paid for, surgery you’ve paid for, and with a problem that isn’t fixed and is not harder, if not impossible to sell. I’ve looked at one or two with these types of “fixable” issues and my vet shook her head and explained that the seller should fix the problem first, then I could buy her.

I do see the logic there and I did pass on those horses. But I understand how hard it can be. It’s all too easy to form an emotional bond with a horse that we¬† believe will become our partners in sport. When you buy a horse you invest in that purchase your aspirations to achieve certain goals and if you become convinced that horse will work with you to achieve them, it’s surprisingly easy to convince yourself that it would all work out after a small procedure.

Sometimes it works. I have a friend who bought and imported a horse from Germany knowing he had an OCD lesion that needed to be removed. The horse was sound and the lesion was in a “good” place. The horse had the surgery and recovered fine. It didn’t work out for other reasons and I doubt she got her money out of the investment (purchase price, importing fee and surgery) but maybe that didn’t matter to her.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. I took a horse that had a known stifle issue (not OCD, but a patella that was too smooth). I had extensive discussions with the seller’s vet and did a full PPE with films. The consensus was that the horse might well get stronger with age and proper work and this wouldn’t be a problem. It was. After owning the horse for a year I realized he would never stay sound in anything other than light work. I found him the best home I could and hoped for the best. Owning a coming five year old with no prospect of ever doing more than light hacking just didn’t fit into my horse ownership plan. It was hard to give him away because by that point I’d come to really love him. But I don’t own my own barn and if I could only have one horse, it wasn’t going to be him.

In the situation discussed on COTH the buyer’s vet advised against buying the horse since he felt that the long term prognosis was poor. The potential buyer has agonized over her decision, worrying that the horse’s prospects are poor if he doesn’t buy him. The cost of the surgery isn’t that much and she’s wondering if it’s worth a try. Since it’s a forum full of “enablers”, many people have encouraged her to go ahead since she already has bonded with the horse.

Sadly, it isn’t the purchase price of the horse or the cost of the surgery that’s really at stake. It’s the long term investment required to maintain a horse that might not stay sound (I know — there are never guarantees, but this horse is starting out with two strikes against him). And it’s the prospect of coming to terms with the fact that you may end up with a lawn ornament or a large pet if the horse can’t stand up to the work.

I don’t know what this person will decide. I, for one, would take the advice of the vet as I think there are a lot of horses out there that are probably equally fun but don’t have the same issue.

More information:

According to the Burlington Equine Veterinary Services website:

OCD develops when there is damage or weakness at the bone to cartilage junction such that a flap develops in the normally smooth cartilage or a hole forms that is termed a cyst. The cyst is actually abnormal tissue in the bone. Typically when OCD is seen it has a fairly acute onset, there may be reluctance to trot and often joint swelling. Radiographs are used to find the lesion and surgery is usually elected especially in these young animals. When OCD is found early in life surgery may have the most favorable outcome, when OCD develops into a problem later, especially with cysts, then surgery may be chosen after more conservative treatment such as systemic or intra-joint injections.

I’d love to hear your stories. Have any of you taken that chance? What happened with your horse?

2 thoughts on “Would you buy a horse that needed surgery?

  1. I’ve had two horses summarily rejected at vet checks. The vet said “no way, don’t get this horse.” Those horses were both spotted at shows, lame, within the year. I did get a horse who had navicular changes show up on his x-rays, but who was totally sound at 9. At the time I was showing quarter horse, and he was an athletic halter horse – the right size for halter, but with longer/leaner type muscle, so the most powerful horse I’ve ever ridden. He stayed sound for years after I got him (we did give him isoxsuprine for a short time, and the vet did say the x-rays looked about like you’d expect, and the type of findings which generally regenerate from treatment, plus gave him proper shoeing.) He was able to jump, ride on hard ground, etc. Eventually he developed arthritis in his hocks which was a bigger concern and mostly retired with a family who just needed a horse they could hop on twice a month and walk and have him behave.

    I most definitely would NOT buy a horse needing that type of surgery. My goals involve years of training and work, and horses get hurt too easily if you don’t already know they have a problem – buying one who you know has a soundness worry already seems silly.

    If I were buying an upper level dressage schoolmaster and on my own property, that would be different. I would expect at the price I would be willing to spend that the horse would have some sort of maintenance and possibly even some sort of minor surgery needed – and I would be buying that horse with the expectation I was giving it a forever home when it was no longer going well.

  2. Years ago I purchased a mare who had Navicular changes in both front feet. With good nutrition and a wondrful farrier she remained sound . We did hunter competitions and never had an issue. I never regretted buying her or the cost of keeping her sound as she gave it all back in Love until she passed away at 32 years of age. Sometimes it works out.

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