Your Best Shot

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Just when we think we’ve got a handle on equine diseases, another new virus appears, adding yet another vaccination to the list of required immunizations. It takes a knowledgeable and forward-thinking manager, together with the barn’s veterinarian, to keep track of who’s getting what shot when. Sure, many horse owners do a great job of keeping to a set schedule themselves, but it only takes one slip-up to wreak havoc in a busy boarding facility. And that’s why many barn managers take charge of the vaccination schedule.

Establish a Risk Assessment

Vaccination programs should be “custom-designed for each situation,” says Racquel Rodeheaver, DVM, assistant professor of the equine field service division at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Fort Collins. Any barn’s program, she says, “is going to depend on how many horses, how often they’re traveling, and what their ages are, as well as what disease history is specific to that farm.”

Barns incurring what the doctor calls “high volume” may experience many horses coming in and out, exposing them to more diseases; if they’re showing frequently, they’re stressed more, and therefore are at a higher risk, says Rodeheaver.

“Always in a boarding situation, keep top-of-mind the issue of contagious, infectious diseases. My approach in establishing risk assessment is to ask, ‘Is there a likelihood of getting the disease?’ ”

Rodeheaver maintains what she calls her “bare-bones” list, which includes tetanus, east and west encephalomyelitis, influenza, rhinopneumonitis and now, West Nile virus. But geography also plays a role in determining vaccination protocol.

“For example, in the Southeast, rabies is highly recommended, since it’s viral and endemic in those areas. Potomac Horse Fever, in which the agent causing the disease is found in snails, is recommended near rivers and other water, again in the southeastern or eastern states,” says Rodeheaver.

It’s fine for owners to give their own shots, says the veterinarian, “but where I can still be of benefit is helping them design their whole preventative health care program. It’s not just about the mechanics, but looking carefully at the horse’s overall health in a pro-active manner.”

Handling the Know-it-all

Pro-active means not waiting for something to happen, but heading it off at the pass before it can. For Anne Riddle, who, with her husband, National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) executive board member Bill, oversees more than 50 horses in Ringling, Oklahoma, there’s no margin for error allowed: the two have been successful in cutting for 23 years and it’s by design.

In her barn, Riddle adheres to a firm shot schedule that begins January 1 and includes West Nile. Breathing an audible sigh of relief, she says that “we’ve been extremely lucky. We vaccinated just before it hit the area, right down the road.” Her barn eschews the rhino vaccine, though, after thoughtful consultation with her veterinarian, “because we feel it can encourage herpes. We do give flu,” says Riddle, who adds that she tries to spread the shots out a bit—not all in one day—so as not to stress her horses.

In her respected training program she deals with “a lot of people who are return customers, so we know they’re taking care of their horses. New people, well, you don’t know, and that can be kind of scary. You can ask them what shots their horses have had, but it doesn’t mean they’ve had them.”

Riddle’s customers know they’re expected to go along with her plan: “I’m going to get all the shots done and bring the horses up-to-date, unless the owner can produce a vet certificate. It doesn’t matter if they don’t want to cooperate, because they need to: it’s for the total protection of other boarders.” Riddle simply presents the shots and dewormings on customer bills.

What about the unruly customer who’s complaining all the while? “If they’re complaining about shots, chances are they’re complaining about everything else, too. They’re usually not around that long.”

You’re Paying for Advice…

Auburn Excell of Excell Equestrian Services in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., knows what it’s like to worry about her horses catching something at a barn that serves 550 horses and multiple trainers including herself (she specializes in three-day eventing and jumpers).

Excell works closely with her veterinarian, Dr. Linda Barone, of Encinitas. “The stable [Sycamore Trails] has mandatory policies on shots and deworming. I do what Dr. Barone advises; she has all my horses’ records, and we try to keep the horses on the same time frame. We’ll also catch any horses that have come in when she vets them, and if they don’t come with great records, we do the shots.”

Excell, who also counts flu, rhino and West Nile among her de rigueur shots, is a firm believer in trainer-owner education. “I talk to my clients about why it’s so important to do this. We’ve had horses coming from Europe and all over, and since we hold shows at the facility, it’s important to be on top of vaccinations.”

Excell also considers the entire boarder group. She recalls one particularly obstinate client who resisted her recommended prevention program, and in that situation, she requested help from Dr. Barone. “Even after that conversation, when the two spoke, it didn’t work out and I had to let that person go; actually, it was just one of a number of things. My feeling is, ‘If you’re going to pay for my professional care and advice, why not take it?’ ”

Because real estate is so dear in California, well-managed facilities such as Sycamore are in high client demand, so an empty stall is a relatively rare phenomenon. As a result, Excell and her counterparts don’t have much opportunity to isolate a newcomer and evaluate its health.

“I ask whomever handles the horse to wash their hands and the equipment,” says Excell. “Bits wiped off, clean saddle pads…both good ideas with a new horse.”

Isolation

If you do have the room to isolate a newcomer, it’s always a good idea. Toni Mattson of Trinity Equestrian Center in Eau Claire, Wisc., keeps 42 horses on 67 acres with 27 stalls. When a new horse comes in, she views isolation “not just as a health precaution, but a benefit for the emotional comfort of the horse. I can assess the new horse’s temperament, watch it get grounded and relaxed; it can watch the other horses over the fence.”

And getting a horse’s vaccination history is imperative for Mattson. “We have their vet records forwarded here before they touch our ground. And if a boarder is coming in, I want to see up front that the horse has had all the required shots.”

In addition to isolation, Mattson has a strict routine. “There are certain things we require on our property,” she says. Mattson requires strangles vaccinations, which she deems “a very contagious illness, sometimes deadly. If we don’t vaccinate everyone, we put our own herd in danger.”

Legal Issues

Such comprehensive care is not only preventative maintenance but carries wide-ranging legal implications, too. Attorney Julie I. Fershtman of Farmington Hills, Mich., author of “Equine Law & Horse Sense” and recently, “More Equine Law & Horse Sense,” says that arranging vaccinations “should be a contractual matter between stable and owner…a carefully written contract. Most of those that I draft have specific provisions whereby the stable has a schedule set by its veterinarian. The stable expects the owner to make arrangements to follow that schedule, which is posted. The other scenario reads that the owner is relying on the stable to make these arrangements, and the owner agrees to pay the charges.”

Fershtman reminds us that, “It is an assumption in the eyes of the law that any stable that takes in an animal belonging to another must give it reasonable care. Now, does that encompass vaccinations? They can only be done if a contract authorizes that.

“If a boarder is not willing to participate and management realizes an animal could pose a threat to the safety and well-being of others, the stable owner is wise and legally justified to terminate the contract, evicting the recalcitrant boarder and avoiding claims of negligence on the part of the majority,” counsels Fershtman.

Of course, you can’t please all the boarders all the time, but in the case of vaccinations, management often does know best. The repercussions are too dangerous to act otherwise.