Horses are part of an ever growing industry, with over 600,000 horses in the UK, 1.4 million riders and 5 million people with an active interest in the equine industry*. Most people acquire a horse out of choice, so if you make this decision you should think carefully before going ahead. A horse needs lots of love and care, including regular worming, vaccinations and dental care. Owning a horse is time consuming and can be costly; not only will you will need to consider where you will keep your horse, you must also consider the ongoing costs of owning a horse which include accommodation, bedding, feed and healthcare.

In the unlikely event that your horse goes missing it is going to be very difficult for anyone to know who it belongs to, unless your horse carries some form of permanent identification. It is wise to get your horse microchipped or freezemarked, this will avoid heartache in the long run, should your horse go missing or is stolen.

Horses are herd animals, and thrive on being together with other horses. Don’t forget that your horse will need somewhere to graze, a stable for warmth in the winter time, a constant supply of water, feeding daily and regular exercise. It can cost hundreds of pounds a month to care for a horse, including accommodation, food, veterinary care and insurance; there will be other costs, including buying tack and rugs and extra livery charges when you go on holiday.

Horses can live into their thirties, over this time your horse will need lots of care and attention. Being able to provide all of this will ensure you and your horse make the most of your time together.

* Research conducted in 2004 by the Henley Centre for DEFRA and the British Horse Industry Confederation.

Heart murmurs

Heart murmurs are quite common in horses and are often detected during a routine veterinary examination or at pre-purchase examination.

What is a heart murmur?

A heart murmur is an abnormal sound heard when the horse's heart is listened to with a stethoscope.

What causes murmurs?

Murmurs are heard when there is abnormal flow of blood through the heart. If the flow of blood moving through the heart is disrupted in any way an unusual sound will be heard either between or after the heart beats. The flow of blood in the heart can be disrupted when it goes through the valves which separate the upper and lower chambers of the heart (the atria and ventricles) or if the consistency of the blood changes.

What sort of murmurs exist?

Some murmurs are benign or functional, which means they are not causing any problems to the horse's heart or circulation and should not affect your horses performance.

Other murmurs are pathological, which means they may affect your horse's health and performance either in the immediate or more distant future. These murmurs are usually caused by a problem with one of the valves in the heart or due to a birth defect affecting the heart.

Horses suffering with colic often have murmurs when the vet listens to their heart, this is usually due to the horse being dehydrated resulting in the blood being thicker than normal and so the flow through the heart is affected.

Murmurs can range from very quiet to very loud. Your vet will grade the murmur on a scale of 1 (faint murmur) to 6 (very loud). Murmurs can be heard on the left side or the heart or the right side or both sides. Your vet may be able to tell that a murmur is associated with a particular valve within the heart for example: the mitral valve on the left which divides the left atrium from the left ventricle or the tricuspid valve on the right which divides the right atrium from the right ventricle.

How do I know if my horse has a murmur?

Most murmurs are detected on routine examination by your vet, for example when they listen to your horse's heart before giving it sedation or vaccinating it. Sometimes murmurs start to affect the health of the horse and so your vet will detect them when they have been called to examine the horse for another reason such as poor performance, lethargy or weight loss, which are the most common signs of heart disease.

What should I do if my vet detects a heart murmur?

If your vet detects a heart murmur not only will they listen very carefully to the heart to grade the murmur and try to determine its significance, but they will also examine the rest of your horse for any signs that the murmur may be causing a problem. Sometimes it is straight forward for your vet to tell if the murmur is benign or pathological because of the sound of the murmur. Some murmurs however can be more difficult to determine if it is benign or pathological.

If your vet detects a pathological murmur, they may also be able to tell what is causing the murmur and how it is likely to affect your horse. However, sometimes it can be very difficult to determine the exact cause of the murmur or if it is causing any problems to the heart. If your vet is not certain of the nature or consequences of the murmur, they may advise that your horse needs further tests such as echocardiography.

What other tests may my horse need if a murmur is found?

Your vet may advise that your horse needs to have an ultrasound examination of their heart, this is also called echocardiography.

Echocardiography requires a very advanced ultrasound machine and so your vet may refer your horse to a specialist for this procedure. Echocardiography allows us to see the horses heart in real time. Using echocardiography we can determine the cause of the murmur, eg a disease of one of the valves or a birth defect. If the heart is compromised by abnormal blood flow it may get bigger and so ultrasound allows us to measure the different heart chambers to check that they are coping with the abnormal flow. These measurements help the vet decide if the murmur is likely to affect your horse's performance or health.

Other tests may include an electrocardiogram which can detect abnormalities in the heart rhythm which are sometimes found if the heart is not coping very well with the abnormal blood flow.