Biosecurity for Horse Owners Away and at Home

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Credit: Amy Dragoo

Credit: Amy Dragoo

You know how you feel when you are in a close space with someone coughing and sneezing nearby? Do you ever wonder to yourself why that person didn’t just stay home? Similarly, you probably want to avoid circumstances that might get your horse sick, particularly during the busy riding season.

At an event, disease can be transmitted through handling of many horses by judges, trainers, veterinarians and farriers, or by people petting various horses. Horses walked around the grounds might be inclined to sample piles of leftover hay, burying muzzles in places where other horse noses have been. Just like the sick person coughing in range of your personal space, each physical contact potentially passes viruses or bacteria between animals.

Whether you are at home with your horse or away, hygiene and management practices are critical to defending against the introduction and/or spread of infectious diseases. This strategy is known as biosecurity.

Steps to Contain Contagious Disease

Certain steps are instrumental in minimizing disease outbreaks when a new horse is introduced to a property or at events where horses originate from many geographic locations to comingle.

Health testing is one practical biosecurity measure that helps to fend off spread of disease. On your farm, arrange for every horse to have a current negative Coggins test for equine infectious anemia (EIA) and a health exam and certificate of veterinary inspection (CVI) within the immediate time period (3-10 days) prior to a horse’s travel to or from the farm. This is a requirement for interstate travel and for many shows, clinics and equestrian events. For new horses entering the farm, further diagnostic testing can be performed on a horse with a questionable medical background or one that originates from a farm with recent history of disease exposure.

Consider only attending equine events that require both a negative Coggins within the past 6-12 months as well as a current health certificate. By all horses having to comply with these regulations, it provides a measure of security for all attending the event. This strategy won’t catch every possible disease issue due to incubation times before disease is evident, but it is better than not having any hands-on veterinary inspection at all.

To maximize disease resistance, administer vaccine boosters at least 2–3 weeks in advance of anticipated exposure. Viral respiratory vaccines should be boosted twice a year to confer the best protection. All horses on your property should be vaccinated with the same products and at the same intervals to maximize herd immunity. And keep parasite control measures up-to-date as determined by annual fecal egg counts.

To minimize disease transmission, avoid nose-to-nose contact between horses. Avoid sharing of hay or feed between horses. Instead, supply each horse with its own feed and water bucket. Don’t permit your horse to drink from common water sources. In addition, avoid filling small buckets from large tanks contaminated by other horses, or using a hose that has been dunked into a common-use water tank. Also, refrain from dunking wash sponges, bits or hands into communal water tanks. Use a separate bucket of water specifically for that purpose, then discard the fouled water.

If your horse is stabled in an area used by other horses prior to your arrival, take measures to disinfect as many surfaces as possible and remove used bedding before your horse is moved into the stall or paddock. Avoid sharing tack, equipment, grooming tools, blankets or gear between horses, and if equipment has been shared, thoroughly clean and disinfect it.

Resist the urge to pet other people’s horses. Wash your hands thoroughly before handling horses and carry a container of antiseptic hand gel to use after hand washing removes organic debris.

Upon arrival at home, shower and change into clean clothes and shoes before mingling with the resident horses. It is also advisable to blow your nose, as it is possible to bring infectious organisms not just on your person, but also from within.

Biosecurity at Home

Protective measures at home begin with the introduction of every new horse to the farm as well as competition horses that come and go from the premises. Every new horse should be put in an isolation area that keeps the newcomer separate from resident horses. The isolation area must be located a sufficient distance apart--a shared fence line doesn’t provide an adequate barrier between a newcomer and the general population. Maintain this separation for 2-3 weeks. Mark isolation boundaries with signs and limit access only to necessary personnel. Clearly communicate biosecurity measures to all personnel on the farm, including boarders, visiting veterinarians, farriers, and feed and bedding suppliers.

Monitor all horses carefully for signs of disease, particularly when horses are away from home at an event, as well as those returning after co-mingling with outside horses and those in isolation. Check rectal temperature morning and night using a separate thermometer for each horse. Monitor appetite and feed intake, manure and urine output, and general well-being. Record all this data in a daily log. Observe carefully for signs of disease, such as cough, nasal discharge, loose feces or fever. Immediately consult with your veterinarian about any abnormalities. If you suspect a horse is sick, quarantine him away from all other horses until your veterinarian releases him. Any persons in contact with a sick horse should follow hygienic biosecurity practices before interacting with other horses on property.

Prevent contact between horses in isolation and others on the farm not only by physical separation, but also with consideration of objects such as animals (including dogs) or people that might move between isolated and resident horses. This includes controlling movement of feeding, cleaning, tack and grooming equipment about the farm.

Keep equipment, tools, bedding, buckets and feed containers used for newcomers separate from resident horses. It helps to label tack and equipment so it is not shared inadvertently with other horses. Feed and water resident horses first, leaving chores for new or sick horses until last. Better yet, assign a specific caretaker to handle only those horses in isolation. Non-porous boots and overalls are useful to maximize biosecurity measures. Antiseptic foot baths or booties are another means of disinfecting before entering and upon leaving a stall. Keep drinking water sources separate, and carefully dispose of contaminated cleaning solutions and bedding. Use a separate transport system to remove soiled bedding and another to deliver feed. Exercise resident and new horses in separate areas when possible.

Additional biosecurity efforts include disinfection of equipment possibly contaminated with disease-causing agents. While it might be tempting to use wheeled equipment such as horse trailers, tractors, wheel barrows or manure spreaders throughout the farm, this could spread disease if precautions aren’t taken. Disinfect wheels, tires and external parts of tractors, wheelbarrows and manure spreaders. After returning a horse trailer from an event, park it away from the barns and paddocks and clean it thoroughly, disinfecting inside and out with Chlorox(1/4 cup per gallon of water), VirKonS, Tek-trol, or One Stroke Environ solutions. Dispose of hay that has been in contact with horses, and compost trailer shavings.

Another focus point to address is the removal of rodent and varmint attractants. These creatures serve as disease vectors by carrying bacteria and parasites on their mobile bodies. Discourage their presence with rodent-proof storage containers made of metal or heavy plastic and secured with lids. Lock feed storage containers away from opossum or raccoon access to prevent feed contamination with feces that could transmit diseases such as equine protozoal myelitis (EPM). Sweep daily to remove debris and spillage. Secure garbage and discard it regularly--these materials are attractants for varmint nesting or consumption. Clean and eliminate areas, holes and cracks that create hidden nesting sites for small animals. Set out traps and use the valuable resource of barn cats to keep rodent populations in check.

The Best Results

The smallest management details often have the greatest impact on your horses' general wellness. A comprehensive anti-disease program along with biosecurity measures provides the most healthful environment for your horses. Science is continually evolving to provide updated strategies in equine health care. With that in mind, consult regularly with your veterinarian to achieve the best results from preventive health care strategies.