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.

Contagious equine metritis (UK/Europe)

In the UK, isolation of the Contagious Equine Metritis Organism is notifiable by law. This is a statutory requirement under the Infectious diseases of Horses Order 1987, and any positive samples must be reported by the testing laboratory to a Divisional Veterinary Manager (DVM) of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) who will investigate all cases.

What is CEM?

CEM is a highly contagious venereal disease seen in mares and stallions, but the latter show no clinical signs. CEM is caused by the bacteria Taylorella equigenitalis, a gram-negative coccobacillus causing acute inflammation of the mares reproductive tract, vulval discharge and infertility in the mare. Carrier animals can exist in both the male and the female population. CEM is of economic importance to the breeding industry. Outbreaks have occurred in both Thoroughbred and non-Thoroughbred breeding programmes and carefully designed programmes are in place to minimise its incidence and effects.

How is the disease transmitted?

The CEM organism can be carried asymptomatically in the sexual organs of the stallion, ie urethral fossa, urethral sinus, prepuce and urethra, or in the clitoral fossa and sinuses of mares, and is transmitted during reproduction. The organism can also be passed via fomites, eg veterinary instruments, bedding, tack, and by artificial insemination via the semen.

How do I know if my horse has CEM?

If your mare has active CEM you will notice signs of the disease that include vulval discharge that usually appears 2 days after breeding and can last up to 2 weeks in untreated cases. The mare may come back into season sooner than expected. Conception rates will be lower than usual. Abortion has been documented, but is rare. There are no signs in carrier mares and stallions. Therefore, your mare might not show any signs of disease but can nonetheless act as a source of infection to other horses including her own foal. For this reason, annual testing of all breeding animals should be carried out.

What should I do if I think my horse has CEM?

If you think your horse has CEM, you should contact your vet immediately. Your vet will take some swabs (samples) from the genitalia of your horse, which will be sent to an approved laboratory for culturing (testing). The laboratory will test for the presence of the CEM organism. If the results are negative, that means your horse is free from infection, but if the results are positive, this means your horse is infected and must be treated, re-tested and cleared. During this time your horse must not be used for breeding.

Your vet will follow a Code of Practice issued by the Horserace Betting Levy Board (HBLB) which sets out voluntary recommendations to help owners, in conjunction with their vet, to prevent and control specific diseases in all breeds of horse and pony. The Code of Practice is available on the HBLB website and is updated each year following a pan-european end-of-season assessment of disease outbreaks and risks.

How can I prevent my horse from contracting the disease?

No vaccines are available for CEM, therefore prevention is essential.

The only way you can prevent your mare from contracting the disease is to ensure that any stallion(s) you use for her, whether by natural cover or by artificial insemination, have been tested clear of CEM according to the current HBLB Codes of Practice in the current breeding season. If your mare is going to be covered naturally, insist upon seeing the stallion's test result certificates before sending her to stud and also make sure that all mares which the stallion is going to cover, including your own, have been tested free from CEM before being admitted to cover.

If you are breeding your mare by artificial insemination, insist upon seeing a copy of the current year's stallion's test result certificates if the mare is being inseminated at the stallion stud, or insist that a copy of these certificates accompanies any shipment of fresh, chilled or frozen semen.

The HBLB Codes of Practice states no semen should be inseminated unless accompanied by a BEVA/BEF/HBLB Certificate confirming that the stallion has been tested free from CEM - for further information see the HBLB Codes of Practice on CEM.

An example of this form is available on the HBLB website.

It is important to establish freedom from infection before commencing breeding activities by taking bacterial swabs from certain sites of the reproductive tract. Horses should be checked regularly during breeding activities to ensure they remain free from infection. Because CEM can be spread from horse to horse by people. It is also extremely important to exercise strict hygiene measures during breeding activities. Anyone coming into contact with breeding horses should be made aware of the risk of direct and indirect transmission of the disease. They should wear disposable gloves when handling the tail or genitalia of the horse and the gloves should be changed between each horse. Separate sterile and disposable equipment (where appropriate) and clean water should always be used for each horse.

What is the prognosis?

Occurrence of the carrier state in horses mean that the prognosis is guarded and stringent adherence to the HBLB Code of Practice will minimise the risk of an outbreak. Early treatment can resolve infection quickly with less likelihood of a carrier state occurring. An outbreak of CEM in the UK in 1970 effectively closed the breeding industry for the year, and an outbreak in the USA in 2008/2009 where CEM was spread in shipped semen being used for AI has had similarly disastrous effects. Strict adherence to the HBLB Codes of Practice by owners of ALL breeds, not just Thoroughbreds, is therefore critically important.