The use of Artificial Insemination has long been acknowledged as being acceptable in the cattle and sheep breeding industries, but it is only recently that horse breeders have begun to realise its potential.
In the European horse breeding industry experiments into the collection and use of semen for AI were carried out as far back as 1890. Much of the initial research took place in France, Germany and Denmark and it is interesting that these countries, together with Holland, are today at the forefront of equine AI. Originally AI was viewed as a way of overcoming sterility but in 1902 at the Northern Livestock Conference in Copenhagen it was brought to delegates attention that the use of AI had potential for the widespread improvement of farm animals.
Whilst artificial insemination is not a cheap option there is a general agreement that it possesses a number of distinct advantages over natural breeding. The main advantage is that the best stallion for your mare can be used irrespective of location. Progressive breeders like to make full use of sires that have proven themselves able to pass on desirable characteristics to their progeny. Mares that cannot travel or have a foal at foot, or mares with an injury not detrimental to foaling but that prevents them from supporting a natural covering can all benefit from AI. More importantly the use of AI can prevent the transmission of infection and lessen the risk of injury to both the stallion and the mare.
Within the UK, chilled semen is most commonly used. This involves the semen being collected from the stallion, extended and placed in an Equitainer to be sent to the mare for immediate insemination. The Equitainer is designed to allow the semen to cool down whilst in transit thus wasting no time. The semen can remain viable for up to 72 hours if kept in this container.
Monitoring the mare whilst she is in season is vital to ensure that the insemination is timed correctly. When using chilled semen constant contact with the stallion owner is of great importance as this helps ensure that the semen arrives with the mare for insemination at the optimum time.
By making chilled semen available from a stallion it is possible for the stud to make their stallion accessible to mares based some distance from them. Thus a stallion in Wiltshire can provide semen for a mare in Scotland! Before despatching chilled semen it is essential that the quality of the semen is checked.
For many mare owners the use of chilled or frozen semen can open up a whole new genetic base not previously available to them thus helping to improve their existing stock. In some of the minority breeds where there are very few stallions available to choose from the use of imported semen becomes an option which requires careful consideration.
In order for semen to be imported to or exported from the UK it is necessary for the stallion to be quarantined for a minimum period of 30 days and to be tested for a number of diseases such as EVA, Equine Infectious Anaemia and CEM. This is to safeguard the mares on whom the semen is to be used and their unborn foals. When thinking about using imported frozen semen consideration should also be given to the quality of the semen which is being provided.
When importing semen from countries other than those in the European Union licences from the Ministry of Agriculture must be obtained as well as export licences and health certificates from the competent authority in the exporting countries. If the semen is being imported from a EU country it should be accompanied by the relevant health certificates but does not now require import and export licences.
For stallion owners in the UK the option of having semen collected and frozen from their stallion for future use opens up a whole new dimension to the services which they can offer. Collection and storage of semen for use within the UK is primarily seen as an insurance policy should the stallion be injured. It also enables a stallion who is competing to fulfil his stud duties whilst still concentrating on a competitive career. It is further possible to store semen so that bloodlines can be re-introduced at a later date; this is particularly useful where the progeny of a stallion prove themselves after his death.
By having semen collected for export the stallion owner can sell coverings from his stallion all year round. When the covering season in the northern hemisphere is coming to a close the season in the southern hemisphere is just getting underway. Whilst quarantining and transporting a stallion to Australia for the breeding season may not be cost effective, not to mention very stressful for the stallion, the collection and export of frozen semen could be!
The quarantining of stallions for the collection of semen for export involves testing for various diseases as laid down by the competent authority of the importing country. This has to be carried out at a DEFRA approved quarantine facility by a veterinary surgeon approved by the Ministry in the UK. After the tests have been carried the semen is collected, frozen and stored prior to shipping.
Exporting semen from the UK to countries worldwide is a way of spreading the genetic base and introducing new bloodlines into countries without the risk or expense of transporting the stallion. A number of countries do not allow the importation of in-foal mares so it is not possible to send a mare to a stallion in the UK and then return her home before foaling.