Keeping horses healthy and preventing the spread of contagious diseases is important for improved equine welfare and reduced veterinary expenses, especially when multiple horses are confined together or kept in close quarters. Diseases can spread between horses by direct contact and via fomites—objects or materials that have pathogens from one horse on them that can be carried to another horse.
Vesicular stomatitis virus, equine herpesvirus, influenza, strangles, and other equine diseases easily pass between horses via handlers’ indiscriminate use of shared brushes, tack, buckets, etc. Some pathogens become airborne and can be even harder to contain—something we’ve seen with our own human pandemic that quickly spread around the world.
Preventing Disease Spread in Horses
Tia Nelson, DVM, CEO of Valley Veterinary Hospital, in Helena, Montana, says it’s crucial to never share equipment with other horses, either on or off the farm. “When we go to endurance rides, for instance (or for anyone showing horses and taking them to a fairground or show facility), we bring our own buckets for water.” Avoid using community drinking troughs and sharing brushes or tack when taking your horse to competitions, she adds.
Each horse in your barn should have his own water buckets, salt block, and feed bucket, says Nelson. She suggests having a brush box outside each stall to hold the horse’s grooming equipment—items that will be used only on that animal. Each horse should also have his own halter and lead rope, bridle, saddle, saddle pads, and thermometer for regular temperature checks.
In a boarding barn Nelson suggests putting up a signboard with biosecurity measures written on it and why adhering to them is important. Before bringing in a new client and their horse, ensure the owner understands their role in these measures. “In a boarding situation it may be difficult to keep things separated because people sometimes borrow stuff,” says Nelson. “They may not think it’s a big deal and may grab someone else’s brush or halter because it’s closer.”
How to Disinfect Common Items In the Barn
Disinfecting shared objects is not always easy—think shared leather lead shanks—but those such as a neoprene cinch or girth can be washed or even wiped down with a diluted disinfectant like chlorhexidine.
“The BioThane bridles and halters are washable, and much easier to clean and disinfect than leather,” says Nelson, referring to polyester webbing with a thermoplastic polyurethane or PVC coating. “Cotton items like lead ropes don’t dry as quickly as the synthetic materials.” Be sure to allow the disinfected items to fully dry, which might take several hours or more, she adds, depending on the item. Body and soft brushes typically need more drying time than plastic curry combs, for instance. For items that take longer to dry, it might be helpful to keep a second set so you are not left without them.
It’s best to have firm rules around the barn regarding biosecurity, sharing equipment between horses, and disinfecting these items. “Biosecurity is extremely important and people don’t often think about it because they can’t see germs,” says Nelson. “They don’t consider it important until they have a catastrophe and it actually happens to them.”