The Artificial Insemination Centre

      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.

      This in itself is an interesting fact as according to some writers the earliest recorded semen collection and insemination took place in 1322 when an Arab chief used artificial methods for the successful insemination of a prize mare. Purportedly he used semen stealthily collected from the sheath of a stallion belonging to an enemy chieftain. There is no evidence, however, to indicate that the ancient tribesmen practised artificial insemination in any appreciable degree.


      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.

      It was in Russia in 1899 that the first extensive study into the use of AI in horses was undertaken. At the request of the chief of the Royal Russian Stud a study was made into the use of AI. Under the direction of E.I Ivanoff AI was practised by numerous studs, but the results were not uniformly good. He noted, however, that where he did the work or where it was done under his supervision, the conception rate was somewhat higher than that obtained by natural mating. As a result of his work with horses Ivanoff then began to work with both cattle and sheep and was the first to undertake successfully the artificial insemination of both species. It is interesting to note that the use of AI is now much more widespread with cattle and sheep than with horses!

      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.

      A question that is often asked is how successful is AI ?

      In late 1993 The AI Centre was asked to consider the feasibility of sending chilled semen from a Suffolk Punch stallion in Dorset for use on a mare in North Carolina, USA. Never ones to turn down a challenge they set about working out the logistics of the project. After meeting with one of MAFFís Divisional Veterinary Officers and working out that the quarantining and testing of the stallion could be done at home it was decided that the semen would be required in May 1994. As the stallion has to be quarantined for 30 days before semen for export can be collected this was obviously crucial. As soon as the mare in America came into season the stud in the UK was notified and all the necessary paperwork completed. The biggest single problem was the transporting of the semen as no delivery service can guarantee delivery over that sort of distance. Fortunately the Americans who wanted the semen had a fellow Suffolk Punch enthusiast who was also a pilot with American Airlines. Although he was on leave he offered to fly to London to collect the chilled semen in its Equitainer and hand carry it to Raleigh in North Carolina. It was calculated that the mare would ovulate over a weekend and the semen was duly collected on the Thursday evening under the supervision of a MAFF appointed vet. The semen was extended and placed in an Equitainer which was then sealed and delivered early on the Friday morning to Heathrow Airport where we rendezvoused with the pilot. By noon that day the semen was on its way to the USA. The USDA vets at JFK Airport had been advised of the semenís arrival and that it was vitally important because of the time factor that it be cleared as quickly as possible. From there it was flown to Raleigh in North Carolina and after that had a further two hour journey by road before it reached its destination at 11 PM Friday evening American time. The mare was inseminated immediately upon the semenís arrival. The result of this transatlantic co-operation was a filly foal born in April 1995 and appropriately named ĎAprilí. This illustrates that with the right sort of communication between the mare and stallion owners AI most definitely does work!

      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 MAFF approved quarantine facility by a veterinary surgeon approved by the Ministry of Agriculture 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.