Biosecurity for Horses: Safe Practices of Traveling

Biosecurity for Horses: Safe Practices of Traveling

Disease prevention practices are important to know when traveling with your horse.

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By Megan Arszman

One of the worst feelings as a horse owner is preparing for one of the biggest shows of the year and having your horse come up ill just days after arriving. He was perfectly healthy before you left the farm. What could have happened?

This question stresses the importance of practicing basic biosecurity when you’re on the road with your horses. Diseases such as equine herpesvirus-1, equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy, strangles and equine influenza can strike fear in the hearts of horse owners, event managers and veterinarians everywhere.

That’s why, when it comes to preparing and packing for the next show circuit, it’s imperative to take a few extra minutes to do what you can to try to avoid the heartbreak of disease.

Start With a Healthy Horse

One of the most important things you can do to ensure your horse, and those of your barn mates and fellow competitors, stay healthy on the road is to start with a healthy horse.

Dr. Katherine Flynn is the equine staff veterinarian for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, animal health branch. She recommends that attention should be paid to the health of each horse prior to loading onto the trailer.

“Before leaving the home stable, the horses should have their temperatures taken and be examined for any clinical signs of disease, such as nasal discharge, abnormal feces and any abnormal movement,” she says. “Any temperatures over 102 degrees Fahrenheit or observed clinical signs should be reported to a veterinarian, and that horse should be isolated.”

Know Health Requirements Before Traveling

In the weeks leading up to the event, you should be aware of what, if any, health requirements there are for entry onto the event grounds, as well as checking with the office of the state veterinarian of the destination state to determine entry requirements. Most states require a certificate of veterinarian inspection (aka health certificate) within 30 days and a negative Coggins test for equine infectious anemia. Some events might require certain vaccinations, and proof of vaccination. Finally, when it comes to packing the trailer, biosecurity starts at home.

Clean Items Before Leaving

Dr. Flynn recommends cleaning and disinfecting the following items to minimize potential diseases spreading from home to the event:

  • Feed equipment: buckets, scoops, hay racks.
  • Cleaning tools: shovels, pitch forks, wheelbarrows.
  • Grooming equipment: clippers, combs and brushes.
  • Vehicle and trailer: inside and outside.

Have everything labeled for the correct horse, and remind everyone in the barn to not share items with other horses. If the items are used on or with other horses, those items should be cleaned and disinfected again.

Traveling to Event

prior to hitting the road, if you’re looking at a long-distance drive, know the location of emergency veterinary clinics along the route and have their contact information handy in case of an injured or sick horse. Time your travels to avoid major traffic jams and plan where you’re going to stop to rest the horses.

“Any layovers with horses should be planned well in advanced of the trip,” Dr. Flynn says. “If you have to have a layover, it’s imperative that similar biosecurity precautions are taken as you would when you arrive at the show.”

What to do Before Unloading Trailer

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, the real fun begins. Prior to unloading the trailer, inspect the stabling area for any immediate safety or health concerns, Dr. Flynn says. Don’t hesitate to ask the stall manager whether the stalls have been disinfected recently, and ask for proof. If the answer is no or the manager is unsure, disinfect your stalls before laying out bedding and unloading the trailer. 

“The choice of disinfectant is dependent upon the stall’s construction material, as well as the cleanliness of the stall,” she says. “In general, a 1:10 dilution of bleach to water is an effective disinfectant. However, in most stall situations, organic material cannot be completely eliminated, therefore it is necessary to use a disinfectant that has activity in the presence of organic materials.”

Dr. Flynn recommends using disinfectants like a phenolic (1Stoke Environ or SynPhenol-3 or Tek-Trol) or an accelerated hydrogen peroxide product (Intervention or Virkon S or Trifectant), all of which have activity in the presence of organic materials. All disinfectants should be used according to manufacturer recommendations and label instructions.

Mucking out, cleaning and disinfecting a stall should be done within four hours of a horse leaving the stall, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. All feed, bedding and manure should be removed, right down to the smaller particles caught up in the broom.

How to Disinfect a Stall

Washing and scrubbing should be done from the top of the walls down, and done in the following order:

1. Scrub each wall, starting with the top left-hand corner of the back wall.

2. Scrub an area 18-24 inches wide, using horizontal strokes from top of the wall to the bottom, then rescrub the same area using vertical strokes.

3. Move 18-24 inches to the right on the wall and scrub another section measuring 18-24 inches, slightly overlapping the previously scrubbed area in the same manner from the top of the wall to the bottom.

4.Continue this process until you have scrubbed all four walls and the inside of the stall door.

5. Use the same scrubbing pattern on cement floors. Don’t forget to scrub gate hinges, waterers, hay racks, pipes, latches and ledges, using a different, designated brush. Rinse off the cleaning agent and inspect your work – are there any areas with manure, blood or caked-on dirt? Do a second scrubbing over those areas.

Once the stall is cleaned, disinfect all stall surface areas, again spraying the chosen disinfectant on the inside of the stall door, all four walls and the concrete floor and using a stiff-bristled brush to repeat the double-scrubbing pattern used to initially clean the stall. Let the disinfectant soak in. If you’re using a 1:10 bleach to water solution, the minimum contact time is recommended to be 10 minutes, but other commercial disinfectants should include directions on soaking time. Once that time is completed, gently rinse all areas.

Preventing Disease at Event

While at the show, play defense when it comes to your horse’s overall health. Dr. Flynn recommends limiting horse-to-horse and horse-to-human-to-horse contact to minimize disease transmission risk. Ensure that anyone helping around the stalls knows to look for labels for each horse’s bucket, grooming tools, tack, etc. If sharing equipment can’t be avoided, thoroughly clean and disinfect tools and equipment between each use.

Keep feed and equipment covered in the tack room to reduce the risk of contamination, and keep the area locked up when not in use. Use a dedicated hose to fill buckets, and don’t allow the end of the hose to sink into each bucket. Make health inspections part of the morning and evening routine while at the show.

“Monitor the health of the horses by taking their temperatures twice a day and noting clinical observations,” Dr. Flynn says. “A temperature over 102 degrees Fahrenheit, or any observation of clinical signs of illness, should be reported to a veterinarian.”

Avoid tying your horse to a fence or in an area with multiple horses of unknown health status and don’t allow your horse to drink from a communal water trough. Diseases such as EHV-1 can be spread with these high-risk practices, as well as using communal wash racks and exercising horses in confined spaces.

Traveling Home

Before you pack your trailer, make sure your equipment is clean and disinfected. When it’s time to go home, take some extra time prior to packing up the trailer to disinfect all the equipment used (buckets, pitch forks, grooming tools, etc.). Dr. Flynn also advises that any unused hay, feed and bedding should be discarded at the event grounds and not taken home, in case of any unknown contamination.

When you finally get home, remember that even if you have followed every suggestion by the book, scrubbed every inch of every horse item you own, as well as the stalls and perhaps even yourself, things can still go wrong.

“The possibility of exposure to disease agents can occur with even the best biosecurity practices at the event,” Dr. Flynn says. “Since the horse might have been exposed and could be harboring disease agents without clinical signs, horses returning from the event should be isolated for 10 days to two weeks from other animals and pets.”

Dr. Flynn suggests monitoring the horses in isolation daily for any signs of illness and contact a veterinarian if any unusual symptoms are observed. Any chores and care for the horses in isolation should be done last, to minimize any possible chance of disease spread.