Results from the 2017 British National Equine Health Survey (NEHS), conducted by equine charity Blue Cross in conjunction with the British Equine Veterinary Association, show that more than a third of horses surveyed this year had one or more health problems.

While the top disease trends of lameness and skin disease remain consistent with previous years, one of the most significant findings is that the results reflect current equine veterinary research; a quarter of horses with back problems were also showing signs of lameness, which ties in with recent studies conducted at the Animal Health Trust, in Newmarket, U.K.

Participation in this year’s NEHS was similar to previous years, with 5,235 people taking part and returning records for 15,433 horses. Most horses were kept in livery or a private yard and used for leisure and hacking and the majority ranged in age from 5 to 10 years. A broad variety of breeds were represented, including British Native ponies, Thoroughbreds, and Warmbloods. Respondents reported 59% of horses were healthy and 41% had one or more health problems, compared to 62% and 38%, respectively, in 2016.

Disease trends from the survey have remained broadly consistent year on year, showing important evidence is being generated to help owners and experts to understand and improve horses’ health.

“We have achieved so much over the past six years, with NEHS now regarded as one of the UK’s most important endemic disease monitoring initiatives, said survey coordinator Gemma Taylor, Blue Cross’s education officer. “The results are often referenced in veterinary and equestrian publications as guides and benchmarks for current and future research. In the longer term, the data we have gathered will significantly help to improve day-to-day horse health and welfare.”

The top five disease syndromes recorded this year were:

  1. Skin diseases, which affected 31.1% of horses (compared to 25.5% in 2016, 17.2% in 2015, 18.3% in 2014, 14.6% in 2013, and 15.2% in 2010-12). Sweet itch and mud fever were the most frequently reported individual syndromes within this category and made up 6.1% of all responses (6.8% in 2016).
  2. Lameness (including laminitis), which affected 23.4% of horses (compared to 32.9% in 2016, 24.4% in 2015, 21% in 2014, 19.2% in 2013, and 12.9% in 2010-12). Overall, as in previous years, if laminitis is excluded from the analysis, lameness due to problems in the limbs above the foot was more common than problems in the hoof.
  3. Metabolic diseases, which affected 8.1% of horses; pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, or equine Cushing’s disease) accounted for 73.4% horses with metabolic diseases, a figure consistent with previous NEHS findings.
  4. Eye problems, which affected 7.6% of horses; ocular discharge (weepy eye) accounted for 54.2% of all ocular syndromes recorded.
  5. Gastrointestinal problems, which affected 7.5% of horses; gastric ulcers accounted for 39% of this figure and 3% all syndromes recorded (2.7% in 2016).

Of the 5.5% of horses recorded with back problems, 26% were also showing signs of lameness. While the details of the results do not confirm that the two are necessarily connected, these findings reflect the outcome of recent studies conducted by Sue Dyson, MA, Vet MB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, at the Animal Health Trust.

“It is a common observation that horses with lameness stiffen the back as a protective mechanism and develop muscle pain which may be misinterpreted as a primary back problem,” Dyson said. “We have shown objectively that abolition of lameness by diagnostic analgesia results in an immediate increase in range of motion of the back. The current data supports this close relationship between lameness and back pain.”

The NEHS is a snapshot survey, conducted annually during the month of May. It is sponsored by Dodson & Horrell and Zoetis and supported by the UK’s leading equestrian organizations and charities.

“NEHS is a unique initiative that has shown it is possible to generate reliable syndromic disease surveillance data direct from horse owners,” said Josh Slater, BVSc, BVM&S, PhD, Dipl. ECEIM, MRCVS, professor of equine clinical studies at the Royal Veterinary College, in London, who advises Blue Cross about the survey. “NEHS has, for the first time, provided us with data on the disease problems faced by horses in the U.K.”

To help keep the nation’s horses in better health Blue Cross has produced nine essential healthcare tips:

  • Ask your vet to conduct an equine wellness exam at least annually.
  • Keep your horse’s vaccinations up to date.
  • Have your veterinarian check your horse’s teeth every six to 12 months and treat them as needed.
  • If your horse is shod, make sure your farrier visits at regular intervals.
  • Follow an appropriate worm-control program. Ask your veterinarian for advice.
  • Have your saddle checked regularly by a qualified professional.
  • Make sure you are the right weight for your horse.
  • Be sure that your horse is fit and able to carry out the work you expect him to do.
  • If in any doubt about your horse’s health discuss it with your veterinarian sooner rather than later.