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All About Equine Bio-Security

Ballinger Equine Practice Administrator, Sharni Heaps competing with Hugo at the PWPC Eventer Trials Open ODE at Bramfield, May 2021. Image copyright Catch it Quick Photography.

Bio-security – a term often associated with sci-fi movies, mysterious government laboratories, scientists in yellow protective suits and more recently, COVID-19. In reality these associations are anything but fictitious, with bio-security being something all of us should be thinking about daily.

Increasing national herd density and movement raises likelihood of disease transmission

Over time, an increase in both the density of the UK national herd and the movement of horses and ponies has resulted in infectious disease becoming more prevalent. Recent Equine Herpes (EHV) outbreaks and the 2019 Equine Influenza (‘flu) outbreak being prime examples of the financial and emotional costs resulting from weak bio-security and increased disease transmission.

Effective bio-security

Implementing effective biosecurity measures does not need to be laborious or expensive and if done well can significantly benefit the health and welfare of horses, ponies and donkeys. Yards of differing sizes and set ups may require different bio-security systems, but nowhere should be exempt.  

Disease infections and transmissions vary, and bio-security measures must be tailored accordingly. Contact whether it be direct through nose-to-nose contact by horses or indirect via a fomite (e.g. humans or equipment) or a vector (e.g. insects) is often the most significant mode of transmission. Aerosol transmission is also very common.

Bio-security risk assessment

A good starting point to developing a bio-security protocol is to undertake a methodical risk assessment. This will establish risks to the yard itself as well as to the individual horses, ponies and donkeys on the site. Factors to be taken into consideration include: animal risk factors, such as the ages of the horses (youngstock may be more susceptible to diseases) and what they are used for (competition horses vs. hackers); the type (big livery yards vs. private yards), facilities (on-site vs. off-site hacking) and the nature of business at the yard (competitions, dealing, breeding). Visitors to the yard (farriers, vets, paraprofessionals, saddlers, trainers etc.) the geographical location of the yard itself and its boundary fencing should also be included in any risk assessment.

The main principle underpinning good biosecurity protocol is to avoid unnecessary contact between individuals. Horses should be grouped either by their life stages or the jobs they do (youngstock vs. ridden, retired vs. competition horses) or by their primary care giver. It may sometimes be more practicable to group horses by the grooms looking after them. Horses stabled in proximity should ideally be turned out together.

Nose-to-nose contact either at shows or out on hacks with horses that do not ordinarily live together is to be avoided. Horses should not drink from the same trough, water buckets are not to be shared, and blankets, tools and tack should not be shared between horses. It is a good idea to ensure that horses do not graze when at shows or competitions. Transport used for different horses from different sites should be thoroughly disinfected between each use.

All new arrivals to a livery yard should ideally be quarantined in a separate stable block away from other animals for 14-21 days. Horses in quarantine are to be handled by separate staff and must not use shared facilities on the yard. Ideally, horses returning from shows and competitions should also be treated as new arrivals and quarantined. Of course, that is not always possible, but the animals should, at the very least, be closely and regularly monitored. It is therefore important to familiarise yourself with your horse’s clinical signs and through daily temperature-taking, understand what the normal baseline is.

Sick horses should not be travelled to shows and events, so it is important to keep a watch for symptoms such as fever, nasal discharge or loose faeces.

Routine preventative care

Implementing good preventative measures is vital to good biosecurity. It is best practice to ensure your horse is up-to-date with all its relevant vaccinations including Tetanus, Equine Influenza and, if appropriate, Equine Herpes Virus (EHV). Encourage anyone entering your facilities (trainers, farriers, staff, vets etc) to wash their hands before handling different horses. Regularly disinfect and thoroughly clean all tack, rugs and other equipment and prevent sharing of these if at all possible. Be mindful that returning from a show always brings with it the risk of introducing an infection to the yard, so it is important to clean and disinfect transport regularly and only take as much bedding and feed as required, as no used or opened bedding or feed should be returned home.

Main image courtesy of Catch it Quick Photography.