“The stress of trailering, traveling, being in a new environment, and working competitively takes a toll on a horse’s immune system,” he said, adding that proper vaccination protocol along with simple biosecurity measures can help mitigate that risk.
Shoemaker recommends the following biosecurity timeline with steps horse owners can take before, during, and after an event to protect their athletes from these risks and keep them performing at their best.
Vaccination against diseases is the first consideration before taking horses on the road. The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) recommends vaccinating horses against five core diseases: mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus and Western and Eastern Equine Encephalitis, as well as rabies and tetanus. On top of these vaccines, U.S. Equestrian rules mandate that horses must be vaccinated against equine influenza virus and equine herpesvirus within six months of attending a sanctioned horse show.
“It is paramount that we have our horses vaccinated for equine influenza and equine herpes as both can be the cause of acute respiratory disease, especially in horses that experience the stress of travel and showing,” said Shoemaker. “For a traveling horse under high stress, your veterinarian may recommend modifying vaccination protocols to include increased frequency of vaccination for equine herpes.”
Because the equine influenza virus changes over time, just like the human influenza virus, using an updated vaccine that provides direct protection will compliment your respiratory vaccination protocol. Discuss vaccination against other diseases, such as strangles or equine rhinitis, with your veterinarian and consider administration following a risk-based analysis.
Take and record a baseline temperature for each horse before leaving for the show, and monitor temperatures while at the show, as a sudden spike can be one of the first signs of a problem.
Biosecurity at the Showgrounds
Owners should be vigilant when arriving to help protect horses from exposure to diseases, which are easily spread from horse to horse and from equipment/facilities to horses. The following steps will help provide maximum protection:
- Clean and Disinfect Stalls
Even before unloading horses, inspect stalls for any remaining bedding or fecal matter and, if necessary, remove left-over material and dispose of it as far away as possible. Wash down the walls with a good detergent or cleaning agent, then spray with a disinfectant, such as a 1:10 dilution of bleach and water. Other good disinfectants are available; consult a veterinarian regarding which ones would be appropriate.
- Avoid Contaminated Water
Bring all water buckets from home and do not allow your horse to drink from any containers provided by the showgrounds, including communal water tanks. Do not allow your hose to touch the communal water or bucket when filling.
- Prevent Nose-to-Nose Contact
“These diseases are spread three ways,” noted Shoemaker, the primary one being horse-to-horse or nose-to-nose contact. So it’s best to avoid letting your horse socialize with other horses. For instance, “in the practice ring, don’t tie your horse to the fence where there is potential for contact with other horses walking by,” Shoemaker said.
- Use Only Your Own Equipment
The second route of infection is through fomites, or objects capable of transmitting infectious organisms. If you have multiple horses, be sure each has individual equipment, including a water bucket that is used exclusively for that individual. “It’s less of an issue among horses from the same barn, but it’s one other variable,” Shoemaker said. “If one horse gets sick, and equipment goes back and forth, you could be spreading the disease before you even realize it.”
- Practice Good Hand Hygiene
The third route of infection is human hands. “People are often the culprit in spreading diseases and this goes for veterinarians as well as horse owners and managers,” he said. When moving from horse to horse, wash hands between contact, or “I recommend a lot of hand sanitizer,” Shoemaker said.
- Monitor Health and Behavior
Take each horse’s temperature twice a day, in the morning and evening, and keep a log of those temperatures. A spike in temperature could be the first way to identify a potential problem. Segregate that individual and consult a veterinarian to develop a protocol to limit exposure to other horses. Also look for other signs, such as being off feed, displaying a quiet attitude, or developing a cough, runny nose, or watery eyes.
Management at Home
Returning to the barn with an armful of ribbons and strong, healthy horses is the ultimate sign of success. But your show string still represents a potential threat to other horses at home.
“When you bring horses home from shows where they have potentially been exposed to disease risks it is wise to have a protocol in place to put them in a location where they’re not coming into contact with horses that did not go to that show,” Shoemaker said. “You don’t have to build a new barn, but perhaps use just one section of the barn or turn them out in runs—use whatever facilities you have.”
Proper vaccination and precise management before leaving home, limited exposure to other horses and equipment and careful monitoring of temperatures while at a show, and isolation for two weeks before returning to the general population after returning—these are all strategies for protecting your horses from infectious diseases, and keeping them healthy and ready for the next challenge.