All the Queen’s horses are Strangles-free, thanks to vet school initiative

Achilles ‘at work’ leading the Band of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment carrying the priceless drums of the Life Guards.
Achilles, who is pictured being scoped below, is shown here at work, leading the Band of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment and carrying the priceless drums of the Life Guards. © Major Harriet Church

It’s official: The Queen’s horses are free of Strangles. The result follows an ambitious screening programme by vet students who examined some 400 military ceremonial horses from the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment and Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery.

The initiative by the University of Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science has enabled both units to be declared Strangles-free.

Dr Gayle Hallowell supervised a group of 30 third, fourth and final-year students, along with colleague Professor Mark Bowen and the Army Veterinary teams, while they spent six days examining the military horses and making decisions on their treatment and care. They were joined by a small number of fellow vet students and staff from the Royal Veterinary College.

“This was a fantastic experience for our students – a rare opportunity for them to get hands-on and put their practical equine skills through their paces with real working animals in a fast-paced and challenging working environment,” Hallowell said.

Students scoping Military Working Horse Achilles, one of 4 Drum Horses at the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. 
Students scoping Military Working Horse Achilles, one of four Drum Horses at the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. © Major Harriet Church

“They were given a huge amount of responsibility and they really stepped up to the mark. Not only will the experience allow them to demonstrate real transferable skills to future employees but they have played a vital role in ensuring that these horses are fit and protected for the 21st Century.”

Major Harriet Church of the Household Cavalry Regiment said that testing the large number of military horses based in London would have been impossible for Regimental vets to tackle in a realistic time period, without the help of the students and clinicians of Nottingham’s Veterinary School.

“Their drive and dedication ensured that every single horse could be tested and treated prior to the horses’ Christmas leave period. The work undertaken by the Regiments and The University of Nottingham epitomises the passion that both organisations have for the health and welfare of our horses. This commitment ensures we can continue to deliver ceremonial duties to the highest standards.”

An Arabian horse with strangles, showing a submaxillary lymph node abscess.
A horse with strangles, showing a submaxillary lymph node abscess.

Signs of the disease

Strangles is a highly contagious equine respiratory bacterial infection of the nose and throat which in around 20 per cent of cases develops further complications including become carriers or developing potentially life-threatening problems if it spreads to the lungs and other parts of the body.

Signs include a loss of appetite and difficulty eating, an increased temperature, nasal discharge, cough, swollen glands in the throat area and, in more serious cases, difficulty breathing.

Because it spreads so rapidly though water droplets, most commonly via shared water troughs and buckets, it can quickly infect large groups of horses stabled together, for example in livery yards or military regiments. To prevent further spread of the disease, the facility must be quarantined until 28 days after the final case which can incur major economic losses for the equine industry.

The disease is caused by the Streptococcus bacteria and is related to the strain which causes sore throats and meningitis in humans.

About 10 per cent of horses are carriers for the disease, harbouring a low level of the bacteria in their guttural pouches which evade their own immune response that would not cause illness but allow them to infect other animals which may become dangerously ill.

The collaborative Strangles eradication programme began at the Defence Animal Centre, Melton, Leicestershire where the University conducts much of its equine teaching; regularly conducting surgery and rehabilitating military horses.

Position of lymph nodes and guttural pouches which are affected by strangles.
Position of lymph nodes and the guttural pouch, which are affected by strangles. © Redwings / #SpeakOutOnStrangles

How the horses were tested

To screen the horses for Strangles, the students first administered a sedative by injection to make it easier to examine the animals. They then inserted an endoscope – a flexible, tubular camera into the airway. A guide wire was used to enable access into the two air sacs (guttural pouches) in the throat to identify any signs of bacterial pus which may indicate the horse is infected or is a carrier.

Saline was administered to flush out the bacteria and this sample was sent to the lab for analysis. The horses found to be harbouring the bacteria were quarantined and treated with an antibiotic gel to kill the infection. The Regiments then enforced a strict isolation period for more than 3 weeks until each case had tested clear.

The Household Cavalry perform the Musical Ride at Windsor.
The Household Cavalry perform a Musical Ride at Windsor.

All the Queen’s horses

The horses range from the big, powerful black Irish Draught of the Household Cavalry to the smaller, faster and lithe Irish Sports horses of the Kings Troop RHA.

The Regiments are internationally recognised for the state ceremonial and public duties which they perform. The Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment provides the Sovereign’s body guard, on duty throughout the year at Horse Guards or escorting the royal carriage on major state occasions. Indeed, the sight of a mounted Trooper resplendent in cuirasses and plumed helmet is an image that has become part of the very fabric of the nation.

The King’s Troop is a mounted ceremonial saluting battery. With their six WW1 thirteen-pounder field guns pulled by teams of six horses, the Troop’s duties include the firing of royal salutes in Hyde Park and Green Park on royal anniversaries and state occasions. Both units form a key part of the Queen’s Birthday Parade every June and are central to state visits.  Due to the high-profile nature of their duties, it is imperative that all the horses are kept healthy and that disease does not risk the ability to conduct these important duties.

The regiments have devised a new hygiene strategy with advice from Nottingham’s vet academics in a bid to prevent re-infection, will use the same screening methods for new horses that join them. They have now taken the progressive and important step of declaring themselves strangles free.

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