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.

Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis

Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) is a common neurologic disease in horses in the USA. It is not generally seen in the UK, except in imported horses.

What is EPM?

EPM is a disease caused by infection with the protozoa Sarcocystis neurona or Neospora hughesi, but it is more commonly caused by N. hughesi which is carried by opossums in North and South America. It is found in horse feed, hay, pasture or water that has been contaminated with opossum faeces, and horses can be affected at any age. After a horse ingests the contaminated feed or water, the protozoa travel through the digestive tract and enter the bloodstream.

Some horses are immune to the protozoa and are able to clear it from the blood before it crosses the blood brain barrier, and the horse may carry an antibody to the protozoa for life. Exposure to EPM means it doesn't have an active infection, and will not cause neurological symptoms.

However, when infection does occur, the protozoa cross the blood-brain barrier, and infect the central nervous system (CNS) causing neurological symptoms. 

What are the signs of EPM?

There is a wide range of neurological signs involving multiple site CNS signs, including weakness (most commonly of the hindlimbs), ataxia (incoordination), muscle wastage of the rump or shoulders (usually asymmetric), and signs of brain disease.

Other signs include unusual sweating patterns, head tilt, facial paralysis, lack of tongue tone, drooping ear, visual problems, behavioural abnormalities, dragging a hoof, carrying tail to one side and seizures.

Your vet will want to perform a neurological examination and take a sample of blood or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) for testing.

Can my horse be treated?

Early detection is essential for successful treatment. With medication, horses can recover from EPM, however neurologic damage can be permanent. No drug kills 100% of the protozoa, they only reduce the population; the horses immune system has to do the rest!

Treatment can take 28 day to 6 months, depending on the drug treatment used by your vet.

Without treatment, EPM is often fatal.

How can I prevent my horse from contracting EPM?

Prevention is relatively difficult, but you can take appropriate steps to reduce your horse's exposure to the organism.

The likeliest source of infection is opossum faeces, so horse owners should try to keep opossums away from their horses, especially from feeding and watering areas. Horse and pet feed should be stored in a suitable container away from opossums. Rubbish and open feed bags should be kept in closed galvanised metal containers. Avoid attracting scavenging opossums by removing any dead animals, eg cats, rats etc, from around the property where the horses are kept.

Opossums can also be trapped and relocated humanely from any affected areas of pastures or woodland.

A vaccine is available, but its effectiveness is still unknown.