A Picture of Horse Health

There's a growing trend of sale companies offering X-ray repositories at performance horse auctions.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

You’ve had him picked out for a week or more - Hip No. 416 in the sale catalog. Tomorrow is sale day, and down just a few rows in the stall barn he stands, watching prospective buyers stop and look in his stall. In a mere 24 hours, ownership of this fine horse will change. You’ve got the money saved up, and your heart is set on the idea that as the gavel falls, the auctioneer says, “Sold!” with a finger pointed in your direction.

Thousands of horses pass through auctions every year. Each has a price point that the buyer is willing to give and the seller is willing to take. It’s an opportunity at fair market value for both players.

However, purchasing a horse at auction comes with some degree of risk. Unlike buying an animal via private treaty, the purchaser at an auction often does not have the option of a pre-purchase exam. Auctions have their own terms-of-sale agreements, but typically a buyer has little recourse if a horse is found to have a problem after completion of the sale. Buyers must depend on their own knowledge and presale observations before deciding to raise their hands or not.

From Keeneland to Cutters
Thoroughbred racehorse sales started offering copies of radiographs years ago for prospective buyers to view before bidding on racing prospects. Instead of different buyers each requesting their own radiographs, which could result in a single horse being X-rayed multiple times, a standard copy of X-rays were offered for view by the seller. The practice was widely received as an excellent way to protect buyers from purchasing problems, and to instill confidence in sellers and buyers alike that a performance-capable horse was being offered for sale.

Seeing the benefit of offering radiographs to the cutting horse industry, Western Bloodstock of Weatherford, Texas, in conjunction with Drs. Jerry Black and Wayne McIlwraith at Colorado State University, decided to develop a radiograph repository for National Cutting Horse Association sales that Western Bloodstock manages.

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“Our purpose for developing the repository was two-fold,” says Jim Ware of Western Bloodstock. “First, we wanted to offer radiographs to aid the buyers and sellers at our sales. Second, the radiographs from some of our 2005 and 2006 NCHA sales were used in research conducted at CSU to monitor radiographic changes in performing cutting horses.”

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According to Jim, Western Bloodstock is the first sale company to invent a repository for Quarter Horses. When the company first talked about the idea, it went to Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, a leading racing Thoroughbred sale company, to observe how the existing repository worked.

“We took note of what was going on there,” Jim says. “We took a lot of ideas and used what would work in our business. That was before digital X-rays were common. We now require all X-rays in the repository to be digital.”

Knowing that radiograph views essential to Thoroughbred racehorses would likely not be the same views important to analyzing a cutting horse, Jim brought in Dr. Chris Ray of Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery in Weatherford, Texas, to help establish guidelines for the repository. A large portion of Dr. Ray’s clientele is made up of cutting horse owners or trainers.

“For years, Thoroughbred sales have used the film repository. They are the ones who really came up with the idea,” says Dr. Ray. “When the guys at Western Bloodstock decided to start this, they quizzed all of us. They asked us what we’d like to see in required views.
“We had a list of what is required for Thoroughbreds, but cutting horses are different. Racehorses work a lot off their front end; that’s where most of their stress is. Cutting horses work off their back end mainly. In those horses, the lamenesses that are career-limiting are typically on the back end.”

Rules of the Repository

The collaboration of ideas resulted in a list of required views for the repository. Radiographs are available for viewing by a U.S. licensed veterinarian and his clients. The radiographs are available up until the time the horse is sold, but not after.

“Our feeling is the potential buyer has the ability to see the X-rays prior to the sale,” Jim says. “Like any other presale examination, that’s the thing a lot of people have a hard time getting around. It’s a presale option. Your due diligence needs to be done presale.”

“The only exception is if a horse is repurchased. Jim says if his company can help that seller sell the horse, he will offer the radiographs.

“It has cut out 99 percent of the problems that we’ve had with people buying a horse, getting a full vet check after the fact, and then complaining about a problem,” he adds. “It’s the most transparent thing that can possibly happen in selling horses.”

Jim’s wife, Carolyn, has a degree in medical records management, and she manages the repository. Up to eight stations are available for veterinarians to view the radiographs. A buyer is welcome to accompany his veterinarian into the repository. Then it’s up to the prospective buyer’s veterinarian to deem what is acceptable and unacceptable, and offer his advice to the client in regards to purchasing the horse.

“Sometimes, it depends on the discipline or occupation of the horse,” Dr. Ray says. “As a vet looking at radiographs, part of what we do for the potential buyer is help him decide are these clean or not clean, and is the problem we see radiographically going to affect this horse’s performance. That’s where the art of it or the educated guess comes in.

“It’s basically education for your client,” he continues. “Some are gamblers and some are not. Some don’t want to have anything to do with it, and others are willing to take the chance.”

At Western Bloodstock’s Invitational Yearling Sale, radiographs are required. However, results of the radiographs are not a consideration for acceptance into any sale. In fact, no one involved with Western Bloodstock views the films, Jim says.

“We do not require them to be clean, because in our experience of selling thousands of horses, you get into the issue of what’s considered ‘clean.’ Different vets have different opinions of what they consider clean or what a horse can perform with."

At most of Western Bloodstock’s sales, radiographs are optional. Typically, a large percentage of owners of yearlings, 2- and 3-year-olds and show horses provide radiographs for the repository.

“Once people understood what we were doing, I didn’t hear any complaints about the repository. It protects both the buyers and the sellers,” Jim says.

Sellers are responsible for fees charged by their veterinarian for the radiographs, but Western Bloodstock does not charge anything to offer the X-rays for viewing. Jim sees it as a service to his clients.

“Before the repository, you were at the mercy of the seller and his agent. At other sales, they might X-ray a colt a dozen times for 12 different people. Here, the films are at the expense of the seller, but if you’ve got good horses and you want top dollar for them, you better have radiographs on them,” he says. “If you don’t, people might question why you don’t.”

With the advancements in equine orthopedics, experienced veterinarians can often spot and address problems before they become an issue, even with a colt that has yet to begin training, Dr. Ray says.

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“Even when you fit a yearling for a sale, some issues don’t show up. Many of them are silent until you put them in training. You can have a perfectly normal horse and take a picture of the stifle, and he’s got an (osteochondritis dissecans lesion) of the stifle. OCD is a broad umbrella term for developmental bone problems, and it’s been reported in every joint in the horse.”

Dr. Ray points out that not all OCDs are necessarily a crisis, but they need to be cleaned up arthroscopically: “It has become much simpler and easier to treat babies. They can perform well, and often it doesn’t affect their performance at all.”

An Emerging Trend
This tool that originated in the Thoroughbred racing world and is now commonplace in the cutting horse industry is beginning to catch on in other performance horse circles. The National Reining Horse Association Futurity Prospect and National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity sales have been offering radiograph repositories for a few years.

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Tim Jennings with Professional Auction Services Inc. says the idea of offering a standard set of radiographs is catching on within the performance horse world. Tim sees the trend increasing in 2-year-old and aged performance horses currently.

“I think it’s a great resource for buyers,” Tim says. “They don’t have to pay for a set of X-rays - just pay the vet to go read them. Most successful vets know the discipline and the stresses placed on that horse in that discipline, what they can ride through and what they can’t. It’s all about shopping smart, being forewarned and having all the information.”

He thinks it’s just a matter of time before the show horse industry catches on: “Once the economy turns around, the market comes back, and supply and demand returns to a balance … once that happens, I think more will be looking at a repository.”

One issue that Tim sees preventing repositories at more sales is the simple cost of radiographs: “There’s a certain price level for a horse, and once you drop below that level, it’s not worth doing. You don’t want to spend $500 to $600 on X-rays if you’ve got a $2,500 horse.”

However, on the flip side, radiographs can lessen buyer’s doubt about a purchase.

“Western Bloodstock holds the record for the highest-priced (performance) prospect ever sold,” Jim says, citing a yearling that sold for a half million dollars and a history of selling horses that sold in the six figures. “I seriously doubt they would have brought anywhere close to that if the sellers didn’t have radiographs in the repository.”