Preventing the Spread of Sickness at a Horse Boarding Stable

How can you tell if a horse in your barn is sick? What can you do to protect your other horses if they are?
Implementing quarantine protocols when there is a sick horse in the barn can help reduce the spread of disease. | Getty Images

The fall season offers many opportunities to participate in horse shows, trail rides, and other off-site adventures, but what happens when a horse returns to the barn with an illness? Gayle Leith, MS, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, associate professor at The University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine, in Oro Valley, shares tips for managing sick horses in boarding barns.

Signs a Horse Is Sick

Monitoring the health of every horse in the barn can help caretakers spot early signs of illness. If a stable manager suspects a horse is sick, Leith recommends they:

  • Assess the horse’s water intake, manure output, and quality of the manure.
  • Monitor food intake. Refusal to eat can be a sign of a fever. If a horse is not eating, take its temperature.
  • Watch for circling, pawing, restlessness, and lethargy.
  • Check the color of the gums; they should be light pink (or pale pink in older horses).
  • Check for hydration by skin tenting the neck—pinching the skin and seeing if it returns to normal within 2 seconds.

If a horse displays any abnormal signs, Leith advises the manager to take the horse’s temperature, pulse, and respiratory rate, note the last meal the horse ate, and check for signs they’ve been rolling.

Once a stable manager has collected this information, they should obtain permission from the owner to contact a veterinarian. Managers should also provide veterinarians with a list of all medications and supplements the horse receives, Leith adds.

Managing Confirmed Cases

If a horse at a stable has a confirmed illness, Leith advises talking with a veterinarian right away to determine the cause of illness and whether to quarantine the horse. Horses can transmit sickness in a variety of ways, including direct contact, aerosol, and shared spaces, she explains.

Stable managers are often responsible for keeping healthy horses safe while providing good care for sick horses and directing any staff that might care for them. Leith says keeping a normal feeding and exercise routine in place and implementing biosecurity measures will help stable managers accomplish both goals.

She encourages caretakers to allow healthy horses continuous access to forage and regular exercise to promote digestive, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, and behavioral health.

For good biosecurity practices, Leith recommends isolating sick horses, following strict cleaning protocols, vaccinating all equine residents (as a preventive measure), and limiting visitor access if a horse is sick. She encourages stable managers to review the American Association of Equine Practitioners website for more information on biosecurity guidelines. 

Thinking Ahead

Preventing the spread of sickness is preferable to reacting to an outbreak. “Plan before the outbreak occurs,” Leith says.

She advises stable managers to consider the following when creating sickness prevention plans:

  • Require vaccinations, dental care, and semiannual veterinary exams for all boarders.
  • Require yearly Coggins testing.
  • Take the temperatures of all horses daily and record the results.
  • Monitor all horses’ food and water intake and manure output.
  • Disinfect tack and stall equipment routinely.

New horses or horses that leave the premises should quarantine before being reintroduced to the herd.

If a quarantine isn’t possible, she recommends monitoring the returning horse’s temperature, pulse, and respiration rate twice a day for seven to 14 days. Additionally, staff should separate the horse’s feed, water, and grooming tools until the horse is confirmed healthy.

Just like their humans, horses get sick. Stable managers who monitor their boarders, establish protocols for sick horses, and create a plan for handling sickness will know how to react and be able to contain an outbreak if a horse falls ill.






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