The Importance of Performance-Centered Physical Examinations

 As prey animals, horses’ survival instincts often mask emerging conditions such as lameness. These survival instincts create headwinds for us sport horse veterinarians, whose goal is to identify and treat problems before they advance to the point that have a negative impact on the horse’s performance and/or soundness.

This attempt to recognize a potential or developing problem which could negatively impact the horse’s soundness is why I recommend performance centered physical examinations. These “performance examinations” are essentially an abbreviated pre-purchase examination and I strongly recommend they be performed a minimum of twice a year in performance horses.

Like a prepurchase examination, my performance examination is separated into static and dynamic portions. The static examination involves observation, palpation, and passive flexion of the major joints while the horse is standing in place.  I first go over the horse’s axial skeleton, which involves palpation of the head, neck, thoracic, lumbar and sacral spine. Next, I palpate the appendicular skeleton (all 4 limbs) and will also gauge the horse’s response to passive flexion of the joints.

The dynamic portion of the exam involves watching the horse move at the walk, trot, and canter both when in hand and when longed. If necessary, I may also observe the horse under saddle. I also perform front and hind limb flexion tests during the dynamic portion of the exam.

The results of the performance exam and any subsequent examinations allow me to become familiar with the horse and make it more likely that I will recognize a change at a subsequent examination before the horse has become obviously lame. Treatments performed in the early stages of a condition will have a much more favorable and longer-lasting response and therefore carry a much better prognosis for continued soundness and ability to perform.

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