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.

Cancer in horses

Although cancer (neoplasia) is not common in horses, they can occasionally develop a local or generalised form. Common cancers in horses include sarcoids, melanomas and squamous cell carcinomas.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a condition where normal cells in a particular part of the body start to grow or reproduce uncontrollably and develop into a lump called a tumour. Cancer is not a single disease, there are many different types of cancer.

Tumours can be benign or malignant. Generally, benign tumours don't cause a problem, but if they continue to grow they can put pressure on surrounding organs. The cells in a malignant tumour have the ability to spread to other areas of the body causing secondary tumours (metastasis).

Here is some useful terminology to help you understand more about cancer:

  • Benign - not cancerous.
  • Malignant - cancerous.
  • Tumour - a cancerous lump or growth.
  • Carcinoma - a tumour involving epithelial tissue (tissue that lines the cavities and surfaces of structures throughout the body) or skin.
  • Lymphoma/lymphosarcoma - when cancer cells affect the lymph nodes (important for the correct functioning of the immune system and filters cancer cells).
  • Melanoma - abnormal tissue growth involving pigmented cells.
  • Metastasis - when cells from a tumour spread through the body forming new tumours.
  • Neoplasia - abnormal cell growth, either malignant or benign.
  • Papilloma - a small benign epithelial tumour.
  • Sarcoma - a tumour involving connective tissue (tissue that supports, connects or separates different types of tissues and organs of the body).

What types of cancer could affect my horse?


These are common in grey horses because of their dark skin pigmentation and are usually malignant. These manifest as firm plaques or nodules ranging in size from small to very large. As they develop they can become ulcerated and discharge. As they grow, nodules situated close together can come together to form one very large nodule.

Melanomas are commonly found under the tail and around the anus; they are also seen around the lips and eyes, under the skin around the jaw line, within the guttural pouches and on/around the penis. They can spread to internal organs and can cause very severe problems such as colic.

Treatment for melanomas is very limited.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

SCC is common in areas of un-pigmented (pink) skin due to little protection against the harmful effects of ultraviolet sunlight, especially with little hair covering, eg the conjunctiva of the eye and on the penis. SCC on the eyelids is common in white faced horses and horses with light skin. Tumours around the eyeball are also common in sunny areas.

They do not tend to spread to internal organs but can cause problems if they become big or ulcerated.

The treatment for SCCs varies depending on where they are and how big they are.


The most common skin tumour in the horse.

These are localised tumours which form from cells that grow uncontrollably; they dont spread internally and done metastasise. However, if they are not treated or removed in the early growth stages, tumours can grow so large they become debilitating to the horse.

There are many different treatments for sarcoids, depending on what type they are, how big they are and where they are, but treatments include chemotherapy, topical gel/cream or surgical removal. However, if not all affected tissue is removed they can return.


The lymphatic system is the body's defence system and is part of the circulatory system which comprises a system of lymphatic vessels that carry fluid (lymph) towards the heart, destroys infection and produces white cells.

There are four main types categorized on location:

  • Generalized - the most common form which is involves many tumours throughout the body's lymph nodes. Common sites are in the throatlatch, superficial inguinal (in the groin), mesentery (in the abdomen) and pectoral (in the breast). Signs include large masses on the chest, base of neck, under the jaw and throatlatch, and under the belly. Weight loss, skin ulcers leading to crusty sores.
  • Intestinal - causes malabsorption issues of the intestines. Signs include weight loss, diarrhoea and colic.
  • Mediastinal - affects the lymph nodes in the chest. Signs include coughing, increased heart rate, fluid on or within the chest.
  • Cutaneous - the least deadly of all lymphomas as it does not metastasise. Signs include the formation of tumours under the skin.

Lymphoma is usually malignant and has a low survival rate.

Other cancers include mammary and ovarian cancer in mares, and prostate and testicular cancer in geldings/stallions, however these are very uncommon in horses.

How will I know if my horse has cancer?

Many types of tumours are internal, and due to the large size of the horse's abdomen, new growths may take a while before they are discovered.

The most noticeable sign is rapid weight loss; if your horse is being fed and managed appropriately but is still losing weight you should call your vet who can perform various diagnostic tests to confirm if your horse has cancer or not.

External tumours such as sarcoids or melanomas are more noticeable, so if you notice any suspicious lumps or bumps you should call your vet so they can examine them to determine if they are cancerous or not.

What else should I know?

You should evaluate your horse's body condition and health frequently it is important to be aware of any lumps and bumps that have appeared as well as any general changes in your horse, his routine or demeanour. Unusual lumps or sores that do not heal should be checked out by your vet immediately.