Survey: Biosecurity Knowledge Weak Among U.S. Horse Owners

Learn where biosecurity understanding is lacking among horse owners and what you can do to protect your horse from infectious diseases.
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Biosecurity at Equine Events
Horse show environments can put your horse at a higher risk of contracting diseases. | Kevin Thompson/The Horse

Researchers have determined that U.S. horse owners lack understanding about the spread of equine infectious diseases or feel unconcerned about risks despite traveling with their horses frequently and exposing them to potential pathogens.

“In general, horse owners are not that knowledgeable about biosecurity (the efforts to protect individuals against diseases or harmful biological agents)—or they’re just not worried about it,” said Nathaniel White II, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, director of the Equine Disease Communication Center (EDCC), which is based in Lexington, Kentucky.

Equine Biosecurity Risks Associated With Travel and Competition

Horses in the U.S. travel more than cows, sheep, or other livestock, and they come into contact with multiple horses that might be carrying pathogens (disease-causing organisms) such as herpesviruses and equine influenza, White said.

The fact horses frequently travel to different sites with different horses means they could transmit those pathogens, leading to major incidents such as the 2021 outbreak of equine herpesvirus type 1 (EHV-1) in Europe, which started at an international show jumping event in Valencia, Spain, he explained.

Prior to now, researchers have yet to fully understand U.S. horse owners’ knowledge and application of biosecurity measures, despite a 2015 USDA survey and increased awareness due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Wanting to investigate this, White teamed up with Angela Pelzel-McCluskey, DVM, MS, equine epidemiologist in the Strategy and Policy department in USDA’s Veterinary Services program in Fort Collins, Colorado, and created a 24-question online survey.

They received 2,413 completed surveys from people in every state except Hawaii. Participants identified themselves as owners belonging to one of the following categories: lessons/school, Western show, English show, breeding, farm/ranch, retired, racing, driving, or other.

The team found that 75% of respondents reported their horses come into contact with another horse not part of the home farm at least once a year. But only 60% of owners considered contact with a nonresident horse to be a significant risk factor for disease transmission. In addition, only half the owners’ facilities were equipped to isolate horses with infectious diseases. A little more than half required quarantine of incoming horses at the farm.

Meanwhile, 92% of owners considered horses commingling at events to be at slight to very low risk for contracting an infectious disease agent, and fewer than 30% of owners take their horses’ temperatures prior to attending an event.

However, more than 90% of owners nationwide turn to their veterinarians for infectious disease information and for vaccination advice, White said.

As for nine use or discipline categories, the team uncovered significant differences regarding vaccination, biosecurity planning, isolation, disease risk, disease monitoring, commingling of horses, sanitation, medical decision-making, and health record requirements for horse events. “That was helpful to us, because that means we can target particular groups or breeds, and say to the owners, ‘Here’s what you really should be doing,’” said White.

How to Improve Biosecurity on Your Horse Farm

Overall, the findings point to several areas of biosecurity improvement at the grassroots level, which would ultimately benefit horse health and welfare, he said. These areas include:

  • Isolating new horses at home facilities while monitoring daily temperatures.
  • Avoiding physical contact between horses.
  • Reinforcing entry requirements, such as mandating vaccinations and current health certificates, at events. Owners should also take their horses’ temperatures daily and isolate those with temperature changes, said White.

The researchers said next steps should include encouraging the creation of educational programs for both owners and veterinarians to help promote effective biosecurity practices across the U.S. and for all types of farms, horses, and disciplines, they said.

“If there’s anything that we can take home from this study, it’s that we need to convince people that when they go to a horse show, there is an increased risk of disease communication,” said White. “That’s what we need to broadcast. It’s not a huge risk, but you definitely need to up your guard when you go to a show.”

The study, “A cross-sectional survey of horse owners to assess their knowledge and use of biosecurity practices for equine infectious disease in the United States,” appeared in Animals in November 2023.

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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