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Anne Brown from Gadebrook Stud gives first-hand experience of the DEFRA-approved course which qualifies breeders to artificially inseminate their own mares

Since DEFRA relaxed the strict rules governing insemination of mares in 2004, laymen can train as artificial insemination (AI) technicians on an approved course, and practise insemination if they pass the qualifying exam.

For many reasons, stallion and broodmare owners often prefer artificial insemination (AI). It is usually safer and more hygienic than live covering. It enables a working stallion to keep competing and it cuts out the need for a mare with a young foal at foot to travel to a stud. The semen can be collected to order and delivered in a purpose-made container.

However, until recently, there was an extra cost to pay for the insemination, a procedure previously limited to qualified vets, although stallion owners have always been able to collect semen without restriction.

The course

The course lasted two days and was organised by the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) and approved by DEFRA.

The fee for the lectures and practical seminars was £395, including excellent meals at the Hare and Hounds Hotel at Westonbirt, in the Cotswolds. Accommodation for two nights added another £160.

The location was chosen for its proximity to the Willesley Equine Clinic, run by Chris Shepherd MRCVS and his team, the base for most of the practical sessions.

An impressive line-up of vets representing some of the most experienced and respected practices in the country greeted us for the first morning’s lectures.

Chris started introductions with AI expert Martin Boyle MRCVS from Stallion Reproduction Services in Cambridge. Next was John Gilliver MRCVS from Lancashire, then Jonathan Pycock MRCVS from Equine Reproductive Services in Yorkshire. Last but not least was Tessa Clarke, not a vet but someone who probably does more stallion collections than the rest put together at her West Kington Stud, an AI centre near Chippenham.

Most members of the group of three men and 17 women had some experience of stud work. Some were vet students, and one dairy farmer was already adept at inseminating bull semen into the much trickier uterine tract of cows.

Our syllabus included the relevant anatomy of mare and stallion, learning how to collect, evaluate and package semen with extender to prolong its viability and how to prepare a mare for insemination.

We learned how to complete the paperwork to keep accurate records, how to set up the ideal AI unit with three separate areas for preparation, collection, and a lab for subsequent microscopic examination, and how to ensure the necessary health checks for mare and stallion before the breeding season begins.

Hands-on experience

Hands-on experience allowed us to explore the insides of docile mares and watch semen collection from a novice Shadwell Stud Arab racehorse stallion.

The artificial vagina (AV) plays an all-important part in collection, as each stallion needs a slightly different size and temperature for successful ejaculation. Finding out what suits individual stallions will ensure better results.

Knowing which and how much extender to add to the semen for transportation to the mare owner is another ingredient of this complex process. Speed is of the essence, but the semen must be kept cool during transportation to the mare to save it “burning out”.

Chris Shepherd took us to his Willesley Clinic for the practical insemination session, preceded by a useful hands-on gynaecological inspection of post-mortem uterine tracts. This was vital in understanding the physiology of the organs and the location of the ovaries, Fallopian tubes and oviducts, allowing us to know exactly how and where to insert the catheter without risk of damage to the mare.

Then we got to the heart of all we were learning. In the stocks, a patient chestnut mare, tail bandaged, rear end cleaned and dried off, allowed five sets of exploratory forefingers, then fists, to fumble through her reproductive passages to locate the entry to the cervix.

Then each student nervously introduced the plastic catheter the required distance into the uterus, eased with non-spermicidal jelly. Fixing the two-part syringe full of semen to the end of the catheter required a third helper, illustrating the need for teamwork in such a delicate operation.

Semen collection and examination

The insemination practical even overshadowed the more dramatic task of collecting semen from Jiyush by one of our students, Alexander Peternell, who had first prepared the AV with the required amount of 50°F water in sterile conditions, then allowed it to cool to around 24-28°F.

Alexander gently introduced the AV on to the stallion, redirecting the flow of semen from the mare (who was wearing kicking boots) to the largest condom any of us had ever seen — an extra-strong rubber glove produced in France.

The semen was then rushed back to the lab at Willesley for us to examine under a microscope for volume, progressively motile sperm (usually well in excess of a billion per ejaculate), and concentration. From this, we learnt how to calculate the sperm count.

All vets stressed “best practice” throughout and referred to the Horserace Betting Levy Board codes on sexually transmitted diseases such as CEM, Equine Viral Arteritis (EVA) and Equine Herpes Virus (EHV).

A final written exam sorted out the candidates. To date, more than 240 students — including me — have qualified as AI Technicians and received their DEFRA exemption allowing them to inseminate mares. Liability insurance would be essential for commercial practitioners planning to inseminate mares belonging to other people.

The two abiding lessons of the course, apart from the clinical training, were the importance of cleanliness and meticulous record-keeping, to protect both stallion and mare owner.

The course qualifies those who pass the exam to inseminate mares in the UK with fresh and chilled semen. Using frozen semen from overseas-based stallions is a much more complex operation. It needs skill to identify the follicle’s optimum moment for insemination, involving a rectal ultrasound, and this procedure is forbidden to all but qualified vets.

This veterinary feature was first published in Horse & Hound (13 April ’06)

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