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National Farm and Facility Level Biosecurity User Guide for the Equine Sector
Section 2: Introduction and background

Biosecurity: Cost-effective health insurance for your horse and all of Canada's horses

This biosecurity user guide supports the national biosecurity standard. It provides greater detail and practical information on specific biosecurity measures at the farm and facility level, including tools to assist horse owners and custodians in developing and implementing biosecurity. The guide is organized using the same framework as the biosecurity standard. (Refer to Annex 1 for information on development of the user guide).

Infectious diseases of horses are a common occurrence and are a reality that horse owners and custodians must face. As a horse owner or custodian, you care about and are ultimately responsible for ensuring the health and welfare of your horse(s). The choices you make (whether selecting a boarding stable, locations for riding or the competitions/events you wish to attend) affect the disease risks your horse(s) are exposed to and your ability to provide for and protect their health and well-being.

Biosecurity can manage disease risks

A photograph of a group of 5 horses commingling in a pasture surrounded by forest
Photo courtesy of Sini Merikallio

2.1 What is biosecurity?

Biosecurity is a set of measures used to protect horse health by reducing the spread of contagious diseases and pests.

Biosecurity is: "A set of practices used to minimize the transmission of pathogens and pests in animal and plant populations, including their introduction (bio-exclusion), spread within the populations (bio-management), and release (bio-containment)."

Good biosecurity is practiced every day, not only in the event of a disease outbreak. Biosecurity practices are difficult to "ramp-up" if not already a part of the daily routine. The level of biosecurity required often depends on the size of an operation, the venue and risks that are present. For example, biosecurity considerations at a large international show or racetrack with a large population of visiting horses are more complex than those needed at a small stable where horses seldom travel.

The threat of infectious disease is always present. Ideally, biosecurity would eliminate disease threats by preventing exposure to pathogens and their spread. Eliminating all threats is impractical and rarely achievable, therefore, at the farm level think of biosecurity as risk management.

Biosecurity requires balancing the:

  • risk of disease transmission;
  • consequences of disease occurring; and
  • measures required to minimize disease.

As a horse owner or custodian, your tolerance for disease risk likely varies from other horse owners. Similarly, farm and facility owners and managers may have different disease risk tolerances depending on the use of their property and the clientele (boarders or participants) they may serve. It is important to recognize these different disease risk tolerances because it influences the:

  • extent of the biosecurity measures that are implemented on farms and facilities; and
  • willingness of horse owners and custodians to implement and comply with biosecurity measures.

Biosecurity measures need to be tailored to the needs of individual farms and facilities. The plans should be developed with the assistance of the attending veterinarian taking into account your goals, management practices, and the internal and external disease threats. Biosecurity plans must be understood, practical, achievable and sustainable. Because the consequences of disease are many and far reaching you should not look at your biosecurity practices and risk tolerance without considering the rest of the industry.

10 Biosecurity considerations for all horse owners and custodians

  1. Apply biosecurity every day and not just during a disease outbreak.
  2. Work with your veterinarian to develop an infection control plan that is right for your horse(s) and farm or facility.
  3. Define the biosecurity needs and take steps to reduce the risk of disease introduction and spread.
  4. When doing a risk assessment, consider the level of risk you are willing to tolerate on your farm, facility or property. For example, an active training stable of healthy adult horses can have very different needs than a breeding facility that houses foals at high risk for serious disease if exposed to certain pathogens. The focus of all farms and facilities should be to reduce the occurrence and impact of disease rather than complete prevention.
  5. Recognize that horses and humans are not the only biosecurity risk to your herd. Minimize the presence of rodents and insects by keeping feed secure and eliminating standing water.
  6. Vaccinate your horses against disease risks. Vaccination is one of the pillars of biosecurity, which will help in reducing the risk of infection for specific diseases.
  7. Do not use communal water sources or share equipment, and keep your horse(s) under your control (when around unfamiliar horses).
  8. Ask people to wash their hands before handling your horse for any reason.
  9. When transporting horses or housing them in stalls away from home, clean and disinfect stalls prior to introducing the horse to its "home away from home."
  10. Monitor your horse daily for clinical signs that may result from an infectious disease such as reduced appetite, depression, fever, nasal discharge, coughing, diarrhea, or acute onset of neurologic distress. Know how to take your horse's temperature and learn what their normal is (normal for adult horses can range from 37.0-38.5°C [98.6-101.3°F]). Having a baseline will help recognize when something is wrong. When in doubt, call your veterinarian!

Spot the biosecurity concerns

Everything changes over time, including the way we interact with our surroundings. We grow accustomed to our own environments and this familiarity can reduce critical observation. Issues that may be important can be overlooked: the deteriorating fence, water runoff from spring thaws and summer rains, and broken or missing equipment. It is important to critically examine the routine tasks and details on your horse farm or facility as they play a vital role in managing disease.

The following pictures depict a small horse farm with a number of biosecurity concerns that are not being managed. Before reading this guide, take some time to identify as many biosecurity issues as you can. After reading the guide, review the diagrams again to determine if there are any issues that you have missed. Answers are provided below each diagram.

Figure 1: Identify the biosecurity concerns

There are a number of biosecurity concerns on this property. How many can you identify?

a picture of a small horse farm. Description follows.
Description for image – Figure 1: Identify the biosecurity concerns

a picture of a small horse farm. The horse area is located on the front portion of the property and is separated from the house which sits behind it by a wooden fence painted white. The gate to the farm is open and there is a large sign next to the gate that states: "Majestic Manes Ranch. Everyone Welcome. If you can sit you can ride." The farm is primarily grass, a few trees and in the center of the property is a small pond that extends into the property the house is on. There are multiple horses on the property. There is one horse next to the pond that is lying on its side and appears to be dead. There is a coyote standing near the front gate. There are a number of trailers and pick-up trucks scattered throughout the property in a disorderly fashion. There is a wooden horse barn on the right side, the doors to it are open and a large stack of hay bales is sitting in front of it. There are number of large metal drums stacked next to the barn as well as a large pile of manure with a pitchfork sticking out of it. There is a wheelbarrow filled with manure next to the hay bales.

Biosecurity concerns

  • Access: There is little to protect horses on this farm from diseases that may be transmitted by people and equipment contaminated by pathogens and sick horses. The farm gate is not secured, the barn doors are open and no biosecurity zones or biosecurity signage is present. The farm sign encourages visitor entry and provides no guidance on what biosecurity procedures, if any, are required. No owner contact information is provided for visitors seeking guidance. There is no designated area for visitor parking; vehicles and trailers are parked in various locations in horse pasture and adjacent to the barn.
  • Traffic Flow: There are no laneways or pathways onsite to manage the traffic flow of people and animals. There are no paved surfaces aside of the barn floor. Wet conditions will result in tracking mud, manure and other debris into and out of areas. It will be difficult to minimize the spread of disease without clean, hard-surfaced pathways for movements.
  • Wildlife and pest control: A coyote is visible near the front of the property. There are some manure piles on the property and some barrels adjacent to the barn, and this may provide habitat for rodents, insects and other pests. Vehicles and livestock trailers may also provide secure habitat for some pests.
  • Feed and water: Feed and water sources are not protected from contamination. Hay bales are stacked outside providing access to horses, other livestock and wildlife. Horses have access to pond water, which can be contaminated by wildlife, horses and runoff from manure piles.
  • Manure: Manure can be a source of pathogens, can contaminate feed and water sources and can provide a breeding site for insects. Manure is improperly stored: there is a large pile adjacent to the barn and a smaller pile in the horse pasture. There is a wheelbarrow with manure in it close to the stacked hay. Ideally manure should be composted and stored to prevent access by pests, wildlife and horses.
  • There is no ability to separate horses outside, no turn-out pens and only one fenced outdoor area that all horses share. One horse appears to have died and has not been properly disposed of.

Figure 2: Identify the biosecurity concerns

There are a number of biosecurity issues in this barn, look carefully and identify them.

The picture is of the inside of a small wooden horse barn. Description follows.
Description for image – Figure 2: Identify the biosecurity concerns

The picture is of the inside of a small wooden horse barn with a concrete floor. In the middle of the floor is a large pile of manure, a water puddle and a number of mice or rats can be seen. There are four horse stalls; three of the stalls are on the back wall and two of the stalls contain horses. The other horse stall is on the bottom wall close to the door. There is a wash stall on the left rear wall of the barn which has a few bales of hay on the floor, a pair of boots in front of it and a bucket of water with a hose in it.

On the outside of the wash stall are some clipboards and some tools. On the ground in front of the stalls containing horses are some toolboxes and bottles of medication.

Biosecurity concerns

  • Horse stalls permit direct contact with neighbouring stall mates - one horse is taking full advantage of this.
  • The stall designated for sick horses (first stall on the far side) permits contact with healthy horses. The location of this stall near the entrance places it in heavy traffic flow allowing unnecessary contact and exposure to people and horses entering and exiting the barn.
  • Only one of the horses has any identification information posted on the stall (Bella's Pride). Additional records are posted on a clipboard near the stall door. The horse in pen 2 has no identification or records posted.
  • There are no biosecurity standard operating procedures (SOPs) posted - the clipboard is empty; however, an arena riding schedule is present. Arena schedules are a good biosecurity practice as they can help to minimize interactions between horses; however, it likely offers little benefit on this site.
  • Pooling water is present and manure is piled in the alleyway of the barn. These are attractants for pests and can be a source of pathogens. Horses can be exposed when being moved from their stalls and by owners or custodians walking through the barn and into horse stalls. Pests are present - rodents are visible near the manure pile and wash stall.
  • Hay is improperly stored on the floor of the wash stall, preventing use of the stall and allowing contamination of the feed. Feed also serves as an attractant for rodents.
  • Horse medications and materials are improperly stored and left on the floor of the barn outside the stalls. Not only does this increase the opportunity for them to be contaminated, it may affect their efficacy and it poses a safety hazard for pets and children.
  • The hose submerged in the water bucket can become contaminated if the bucket belongs to a sick horse. Disease can then be spread to other horses when filling their water buckets.
  • A pair of rubber boots is present which is a good biosecurity practice; however, no other outer clothing/cover-ups/coveralls are present.
  • Doors to the barn are open, which may present a risk for access.

2.2 Why is equine biosecurity important?

Infectious disease in horses continues to rank as one of the major challenges to the equine industry, leading to sickness (and potentially death), financial costs, welfare concerns and potential risks to human health. Measures to reduce the occurrence and severity of disease in the Canadian herd are important as disease risks change locally and globally.

Goals of the user guide: To assist horse owners and custodians in protecting the health and welfare of their horses by supporting the implementation of biosecurity on all horse farms and facilities in Canada.

Goals of the national standard:

  1. To assist horse owners and custodians in protecting the health and welfare of their horses by minimizing the transmission of contagious diseases and reducing the frequency and severity of disease if infection occurs.
  2. To achieve a Canadian national herd that has a high health status with horses in good condition, with strong immunity to pathogens and an overall decrease in the number of pathogens.
  3. To maintain a country that is eligible to export horses worldwide.
A picture of a farm biosecurity sign. Long description: a picture of a biosecurity sign with room for providing contact phone numbers. The sign states: Visitors please respect farm biosecurity. Please contact the manager before entering. Do not enter without prior approval. Keep to roadways and laneways.

The impacts of infectious disease in horses are significant and can be devastating. Disease can range from mild sickness to death, from occasional cases to extensive disease outbreaks. Even mild disease can result in permanent damage and impaired function. Farms and facilities with poor biosecurity may become a significant risk to the rest of the industry. It is important that every horse farm and facility develops and implements a biosecurity plan.

Some equine diseases can spread quickly, particularly in populations of horses that have never been exposed or developed resistance to the disease. An example of the rapid spread of disease is equine flu in Australia. In North America, equine influenza (equine flu), a contagious viral respiratory disease, is relatively common and vaccination is used to help protect the horse population. However, in August 2007, a serious outbreak equine flu occurred in Australia, a country previously free of the disease, following the importation of an infected stallion. The virus rapidly spread into the horse population; over 70,000 horses were infected on approximately 9000 premises.Footnote 1 Conservative estimates of the costs incurred by the Australian Government to eradicate the disease were in excess of $342 million.Footnote 2 The movement restrictions imposed on horses resulted in the cancelation of hundreds of horse events, financial hardship and impacts to human health, including psychological distress.

Equine herpesvirus (EHV1) infection in horses can result in respiratory disease and fever, neonatal foal infections, abortions in mares and neurologic disease referred to as equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy. In April and May 2011, a large outbreak of equine herpesvirus in Utah at a national event resulted in approximately 90 confirmed cases of equine herpesvirus and equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy in 10 states.Footnote 3 Over 2000 horses were deemed exposed (either at the event or from a horse that attended the event) and 13 horses either died or were euthanized.Footnote 4 In Western Canada, 17 horses in 3 provinces were infected with the neurologic form of the disease.

A photo of a horse looking out over the door of a wooden stall
Photo of "Dandy" courtesy of Christine Acebo

In recent years, outbreaks of vesicular stomatitis virus, a contagious viral disease of equines, cattle, pigs and camels have occurred in the United States. Infected animals can develop blisters that swell and rupture, resulting in sloughing of the skin in their mouth, on their tongue and less frequently their muzzle, ears, teats and above their hooves. There is no vaccine and disease prevention relies on implementing effective biosecurity measures. In an outbreak that occurred in 2014 and 2015, 647 animals distributed over 435 premises in 4 US states were infected.Footnote 5 Another US outbreak in 2015 and 2016 affected 823 premises in 8 states.Footnote 6 Vesicular stomatitis is a federally reportable disease and outbreaks result in local and international movement restrictions and economic losses. Fortunately, Canada has remained free of vesicular stomatitis, the last outbreak occurring in 1949.

The significance of these disease outbreaks emphasizes the importance of developing and implementing biosecurity measures at the interface of all levels of horse contact and movement-from the biosecurity measures used in the daily care of your horse to those required when moving horses internationally.

Figure 3: Your horse - Part of a larger herd

The diagram consists of 5 circles that are different sizes. Description follows.
Description for flowchart – Figure 3: Your horse - Part of a larger herd

The diagram consists of 5 circles that are different sizes and are layered around each other. Each circle represents a different aspect of the industry. Each circle contains text inside it. Beginning at the bottom with the smallest circle, the text inside the circles states: Individual Horse. The second circle states: Your Herd. The third circle states: Your Farm or Facility. The four circle states: Provincial and National Herds. The fifth and largest circle that contains all of the four other circles states: International Trade and Movement Agreements, International Herd.

This diagram illustrates the relationship of an individual horse to the national and international horse industry. It emphasizes the impact that disease left uncontrolled from an individual horse can have on the horse industry in Canada. Modified from Equine Biosecurity Principles and Best Practices: Disease Transmission; Government of Alberta.

2.3 Who is this document for?

Biosecurity is a shared responsibility that everyone in the horse industry must participate in. If you are responsible for a horse facility or the owner or custodian of horses, you share the responsibility to respect and implement appropriate biosecurity practices. As a horse owner or custodian, you are ultimately responsible for the health and welfare of your horse(s) and the level of disease risk you are willing to accept is a choice you must make. If biosecurity risks are unacceptable at a particular facility, you can either relocate horses (if boarding) or choose not to attend a particular event.

The guidance in the document is primarily for horse custodians, those individuals directly responsible for the care of horses or who have influence on those directly responsible.

One approach some horse owners and custodians take to minimize disease risks is to maintain a "closed herd" by eliminating the movement of horses onto and off of the property. While this may be feasible on some properties and can reduce disease risks, it does not eliminate disease risks posed by pathogens transmitted by biological and mechanical vectors such as mosquitoes, flies, ticks, feed, people, and tack or equipment.

2.4 What is the purpose of this guide?

The national biosecurity standard established a set of guidelines and recommendations to assist you in developing a biosecurity plan to minimize the risk of disease to your horse(s) or horse(s) you are responsible for. This user guide provides additional details and tools to achieve and implement the biosecurity elements in the standard. This will help keep disease out of your herd and neighbouring herds.

Be a good neighbour - Practice biosecurity to prevent the spread of disease.

2.5 Organization of the guide

The guide mirrors the organization of the standard and consists of seven biosecurity components that comprise a comprehensive on-farm or facility biosecurity program:

  1. Developing your biosecurity plan: Self-evaluation assessment checklist
  2. Monitoring and maintaining animal health and disease response
  3. New horses, returning horses, visiting horses, movements and transportation
  4. Access management
  5. Farm and facility management
  6. Biosecurity awareness, education and training
  7. Farm and facility location, design, layout and renovations to existing facilities

For each biosecurity component, a broad goal is established which is supported by a number of best practices to provide the overall direction for reducing disease transmission risks. If you own a single horse that rarely leaves an isolated property, you face different biosecurity challenges than horse owners or custodians and managers at a busy boarding facility or race track. Some components of biosecurity recommendations are divided into two groups: small farms and facilities and large facilities (which include, but are not limited to, event facilities and race tracks).

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