Top Biosecurity Tips for Horse Owners

Two biosecurity experts share the best ways you can protect your horse from disease, whether you plan to travel with him or he never leaves the farm.
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Nose-to-nose contact is one of the easiest ways to transmit diseases between horses. | iStock

Whether you transport your horse off property frequently or never take him off the farm, knowing about biosecurity and the best biosecurity practices can help you keep him safe from a multitude of pathogens (disease-causing organisms), including equine herpesvirus and equine influenza. These can easily spread between horses and farms by way of equipment, contact with horses from another farm, and humans.

Two experts share their top tips for keeping your horse safe whether he’s traveling or staying home.

1. Have a quarantine plan in place before an animal becomes sick.

“The biggest (biosecurity) challenge I see is not having a plan for how to quarantine (separate) any horse that is new to the barn or is suspected of being sick with a highly infectious disease,” says Aliza Simeone, VMD, assistant professor of Clinical Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, in Kennett Square. “I really encourage barn managers and horse owners to think about possible spaces where they could keep animals away from the main population of the barn and how they could care for them separately.”

A quarantine area could include a separate barn, wing of a barn, or even an isolated paddock with a run-in shed. With outbreaks of diseases such as equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy, removing the diseased horse from the herd quickly can reduce the rest of the barn’s quarantine time, Simeone adds.

2. Create a barn culture that prioritizes biosecurity precautions.

“I think creating an atmosphere at the barn that those who have their horses there care about disease control is important,” says Josie Traub-Dargatz, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, professor emeritus in the Clinical Sciences Department at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins. “Biosecurity is a team activity, and the more buy-in there is among all the players, the more successful the effort will be.”

Asking a veterinarian or farrier what precautions they will take to ensure your horse’s safety as they travel between farms sets the tone for their visit with your animal, she adds. “Create the culture that it is okay to ask professionals and visitors to take precautions.”

3. Avoid all forms of nose-to-nose contact with unknown horses.

One of the easiest ways for pathogens to spread at horse shows is nose-to-nose contact between horses from other farms and facilities. “Avoid communal water sources, do not share equipment, and take actions yourself to reduce spread of disease agents from other horses on your hands,” says Traub-Dargatz. Wash your hands regularly and change your clothes and footwear before handling your horse if you have been around other horses.

“Do your best to prevent other people from touching your horse, especially its muzzle area, but if they have to, make sure they wash their hands thoroughly or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer before they do so,” says Simeone. If your horse’s mouth needs to be opened, try to do it yourself, if possible, she adds. 

4. Bring your own equipment to shows and keep your horse at your trailer when possible.

Horse shows are places where many horses come together from different places and horses are more likely to be stressed, so they are higher risk locations for the spread of disease,” says Simeone. “If it is possible to show your horse off the trailer, that is great for preventing most contact with other horses and potentially contaminated environments.” If your horse needs to be stabled at the show, be sure the stall has been thoroughly stripped and rebedded after its last use, she adds.  

“Don’t share water buckets or allow a communal hose end to touch your buckets (e.g., don’t let a horse show hose sit in the bucket to fill it),” says Simeone. “A great tip for filling buckets at a show is to bring your own short hose extension. You can attach it to the end of the show’s hose so only your own segment of hose goes through the bars into the stalls to fill your buckets.” Bring your own buckets, feed, hay, and other equipment such as halters and lead ropes to avoid using communal items.

5. Disinfect equipment each time it leaves the farm.

“A really important step that often gets forgotten is cleaning,” says Simeone. “Most disinfectants don’t work or don’t work as well if there are organic materials like manure, blood, hair, or dirt present.” Before disinfecting any items in your barn, wash them with soap and water to remove excess organic materials.

Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for disinfecting products—more is not always better, says Simeone. Place the item in sunlight to dry if possible because sunlight can also help to sanitize items, especially those that cannot be submerged in disinfectant solutions, such as leather products.

Even vaccinated, well-managed horses can be exposed to pathogens their immune systems cannot resist, says Traub-Dargatz, which can result in loss of use of the horse (at least for a time), costly treatment, and possibly permanent disability or death. “The biggest concerns are for gastrointestinal disease agents and respiratory disease agents since they can have rather large impacts for the individual horse and for the farm or event venue,” she adds.

“Not using good biosecurity practices is like playing Russian roulette; you may not see a problem for a while, but when you do, it can have a really bad outcome,” says Simeone. “The consequences vary widely, but I often find that people really regret not taking simple, inexpensive precautions that might have saved them a lot of stress and expense.” Poor biosecurity can also affect human health if people are exposed to infectious agents such as Salmonella, which can be spread between horses and humans, she adds.

Take-Home Message

Being proactive and alert to potential disease risks for your horse can save you heartache and money, says Traub-Dargatz. “The risk of exposure can be managed more easily on the home facility as the manager or owner of the facility can set the protocols that must be followed for horses that are kept on those premises. At shows it is unlikely, even with good biosecurity practices, that all risks can be avoided, but there are multiple actions that can be taken to minimize the risks.”

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Written by:

Haylie Kerstetter, Digital Editor, holds a degree in equine studies with a concentration in communications and a minor in social media marketing. She is a Pennsylvania native and, as a horse owner herself, has a passion for helping owners provide the best care for their horses. When she is not writing or in the barn, she is spending time with her dog, Clementine.

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