Everyone I talked to this year about buying a horse has been dead set on vet checks.
I’m fascinated by this development because I haven’t done a vet check on a horse in years. I think I’ve done just one vet check on a horse, in fact, and it wasn’t even me, it was my mother… and it wasn’t even a pre-purchase, we already had the horse.
I still have the exam sheet from that day. I was thirteen and holding the leadrope of my first Thoroughbred. He was five and barely recovered from abandonment. His coat was still stark and glossless, with great bald patches across his hindquarters, where rain rot – which would trouble him his entire life – had eaten away the hair. He was, of course, beautiful. He was Bucephalus. I’d have given him a marble feed trough if I could’ve. And he was mine, mine, mine.
The exam sheet says, “Over at knee, past splint/tendon injury; cold. Suitable for lower-level hunter/jumper work.”
I furrowed my brow when I read this. “What do you mean by lower-level?” I asked suspiciously.
“Oh, you know, schooling shows and things,” he said dismissively. He didn’t have the best bedside manner and didn’t understand, or have time for, the puissance dreams of young girls and their horses. He threw his things back in the truck and left.
I stuck it to him and his lower-level. Rillo jumped everything, jumped the rafters, jumped the tops of the standards, jumped prelim and mini prixs and fallen trees in the woods. He jumped picnic tables. He jumped round bales. He picked his own spots and I went with him. My trainer said I’d flip him one day with a long spot to a short combination. But there was no spot too sticky for Rillo. Lower-level. I still get a chuckle when I read that.
After that, I’d go through horses one after the other, picking them up from racehorse trainers, or odd backyards, reschooling them, sending them on their way. My vet check was running my hands down their legs, pressing at their suspensories, rapping at their hooves. I worked at a few big sporthorse barns, and watched six-figure horses get three-hour pre-purchases, digital X-rays, the vet explaining each little black blemish in detail to the worried investor, while the trainer stood back and frowned. I learned that every horse carries their history in their joints and their forelegs, in their pelvis and their spine… every bad step and hard landing is a permanent memory etched into their delicate-iron bodies.
Back to the present day, and Final Call, the coldest and cleanest of cold clean legs, standing before me, and I watched Elizabeth drive away and texted my husband: She’s going to have the vet out first.
What if he doesn’t pass the flexion?
Why wouldn’t he?
Some horses don’t. It’s very hard to pass.
Fine. He’s lame. We’ll put him down.
When’s the last time you stopped worrying, waiting for the vet?
Of course, the vet check, as already described, was more like a vastly entertaining social visit from someone’s eccentric uncle. The only thing missing was a few beers and possibly a game of darts.
And I much preferred the way he described the horse’s potential – he sounded to me like a man who knew Thoroughbreds. “This horse could jump anything. This horse could jump four, five feet. The only thing he won’t do, is sort cattle.”
We’ll forgive him that. I mean, he probably could sort cattle. But I think he’ll prefer jumping. Lower-level or upper.