Extreme Vetting

By Dr. Tom Vaughan ’55 | Dean Emeritus

I have to suppress a chuckle every time I hear the expression “vetting” used in reference to what amounts to a background check on a person, ranging from a handheld computer—used by the patrolman on a routine traffic stop, to the journalist checking out the subject of a possible news story. More professionally, nowadays, it may involve fingerprints, fiber analysis, and even DNA sequencing, all transmitted electronically at the bat of an eye. More recently, the adjective “extreme” has been added, which amounts to no more than the old term “due diligence.” How many people know the origin of the word and its full significance? 

Of Latin etymology, veteranus refers to old (vetus) + (-anus) = veteranus, or veteran, a person with long experience in military service, i.e., an old soldier. 

With slight alteration by substituting one vowel, veterina, it becomes “beast of burden” or domestic animal and, hence, “veterinarius” and veterinarian. 

The terms “vet, vetted, or vetting” relates more to its veterinus root mainly meaning subject to a general physical examination. This meaning has been extended to provide a person with medical care, especially a physical examination or checkup. By further usage, Webster’s second definition means to inspect or examine with careful thoroughness and especially in the quality of an expert. In veterinary usage, it has been most commonly applied in conjunction with the horse being thoroughly examined for soundness of sight, wind, and limb, to determine his fitness or serviceability for the use intended—either under saddle or in harness. 

In days gone by, horse-trading involved vetting a horse to see if he was as represented and worth the price, with the aphorism, caveat emptor (buyer beware) in which the two traders matched wits. To be bested in a trade was a source of embarrassment and to be kept secret against the risk of ridicule. A man might ask another his opinion, but usually relied on his own wits as a source of pride. “A man, in choosing a horse or a wife, ignores his family and friends’ advice.” In both instances, his judgment is influenced by his heart. To “buy a horse at the end of a halter” came to mean having bought it “as is, where is,” the transaction sealed with consideration ($) exchanged, signature, and the date of the sale; and that was that, no recourse, unless you wanted to challenge the seller to a duel. 

But that was then. Nowadays, it is no longer referred to as a “soundness examination.” Today, it is a “prepurchase examination,” performed ostensibly by an expert, and backed with all sorts of special examinations, often requiring days, and legal documents that provide recourse such as retribution, and that threaten litigation (at least by implication). Legal advice given in the March 2017 issue of Equus, pp. 48-49, includes wise recommendations such as the horse’s insurance records, show records, breed registration papers, previous medical records, previous prepurchase examinations, drug-screening tests, and a written disclosure statement signed by the seller, the seller’s agent, and your trainer if it applies. Legal remedies and statutory laws vary from state to state. Of course, these provisions represent “extreme vetting” and understandably do not apply to the purchase of a backyard pleasure horse for the daughter. But the same principles hold true and offer smart guidelines to prevent the heart from overruling the head. 

Despite all the sophisticated means of examination and legal precautions, litigation for horse trades gone awry account for one of the major professional liabilities suffered by practicing veterinarians. Reams of advice have been written, hours of oral testimony, and years of experience, but the caution endures like a hardy perennial. 

I daresay the process of vetting our leaders of government as well as suspicious aliens would benefit from adherence to the same rigorous standards that veterinarians (should) apply to vetting a horse for soundness. Amen. 


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