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National Farm and Facility Level Biosecurity User Guide for the Equine Sector
Section 5: Preventive horse health management program

Goal: There is a horse health management program implemented at the farm or facility that details daily care, disease prevention, and control practices. Every horse on the farm or facility is in compliance with the program to optimize disease prevention in a commingling environment.

Description: Preventive health management programs can improve the health and welfare of horses and increase participation at stables and events by reducing concerns over disease spread. It is important to realize that just as important as your own horses' health is the health of other horses.

5.1 Communication

Goal: The identification or suspicion of horse sickness is promptly communicated to maintain the health and welfare of other horses within a barn or facility where horses are kept. The staff and all the personnel are fully informed of the program and its importance.

Description: Disease notification procedures at farms with a few resident horses and where all owners know each other may be as simple as knowing each other's contact information. At event facilities with large numbers of transient horses that are owned and cared for by various people, communication strategies need to be well planned and documented. A simple, clearly written plan for communicating disease concerns provides a sound foundation for effective management.

Prompt communication of reliable information upon the suspicion or diagnosis of disease is important in:

  • consulting with your veterinarian;
  • ensuring horse owners, custodians and participants at the farm or facility understand the biosecurity measures being taken and what they need to implement;
  • advising neighbouring horse farms and facilities of the disease risk; and
  • minimizing anxiety, panic, and overreaction of horse owners and the public.

Figure 7: Example of a simple disease communication and response strategy

There are four arrows in a row each pointing right. Description follows.
Description for flowchart – Figure 7: Example of a simple disease communication and response strategy

There are four arrows in a row each pointing right. There is text written inside and below each arrow. From left to right the text in and below the arrows state:

  1. Inside the arrow: "When - identification of disease". Below the arrow: "Horse appears to be sick. Establish health criteria that would indicate your horse may be sick - for example a list of clinical signs including changes in behaviour and activity level."
  2. Inside the arrow: "Who - owner contacts veterinarian". Below the arrow: "Horse owner consults with their veterinarian to determine the cause of sickness and potential treatment and management options."
  3. Inside the arrow: "What - communication". Below the arrow: "If the disease is easily spread and exposure of other horses is likely to occur, be a good neighbour and let other boarders and neighbours know that your horse is sick."
  4. Inside the arrow: "How and why - movement controls". Below the arrow: Separate your horse from other horses on the property to the degree possible. Implement movement controls for horses, people, equipment and materials as appropriate to reduce disease and spread."

In situations where multiple horses commingle and many custodians are involved, there needs to be a communication strategy with a designated spokesperson. Inaccurate or inappropriate information may negatively impact the credibility of the farm and facility and the greater horse industry.

It is important that custodians are able to react quickly to minimize the spread of disease to other horses. Owners and operators of farms and facilities where horses commingle (which include events, agricultural fairs, racetracks and auction marts) should have a communication strategy and disease response plan. Participants should be aware of the communication strategy and disease response plan in advance.

Best practices:

Develop a communication strategy tailored to the farm or facility that includes:

  • developing a written and signed contractFootnote 7 between the custodian of the farm or facility and the horse owner or specified agentFootnote 8 that requires:
    • aligning the preventive care of the horse with the farm or facility requirements;
    • sharing all information regarding a health event that could affect other horses on the property;
  • pre-arranging a process for disease disclosure to minimize disease spread;
  • if your veterinarian is identified as being responsible for disease disclosure, you must provide your veterinarian with written permission to discuss the health concerns of your horse with the owner or operator of the facility;
  • identifying an individual to be the point of contact for horse health information from owners and custodians;
  • informing the designated individual promptly when a horse is suspected to be sick. If a different custodian provides for the daily care and observation of horse health, give him or her permission to communicate the health concerns;
  • identifying a spokesperson in advance who is responsible for sharing information publicly. The spokesperson's knowledge and experience is important for ensuring that the information provided is accurate and presented clearly;
  • developing and reviewing the information annually or if any significant changes occur; and
  • identifying who is "doing what"; the roles and responsibilities:
    • establish and define the biosecurity protocols for the disease situation, how are they different from the routine biosecurity measures and who and how is staff being informed. Ensure the current staff has been trained on the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for managing disease.

Considerations for boarding agreements/contracts and horse health

  • A written boarding agreement or contract can improve communication between stable owners and boarders. By clearly outlining roles, responsibilities and expectations, an agreement can provide a predictable outcome when issues arise.
  • Provide written permission on who can share information on disease.
  • In addition to boarding costs, and services provided, ensure health requirements such as routine vaccinations, parasite control and preventive health care are identified.
  • Confirm procedures for communicating medical and non-medical emergencies and providing medical attention for sick, injured or emergency medical situations to ensure the health and welfare of your horse and clarify the financial and legal obligations of both parties.

As provincial acts and regulations differ, research and consult professional advice on when developing boarding agreements/contracts.

5.2 Horse (herd) health management program

Goal: To achieve and maintain a consistent high level of health for all the horses within a farm or facility, develop, implement and maintain a horse health management program.

A preventive health program is only effective if you and other horse owners or custodians comply with the program to establish and maintain horse health. This also applies to horses that are temporarily at the farm or facility including: horses that are visiting, onsite for a short-term event, or only using the facility as a rest stop while in transit.

In facilities where horses are commingled and have been exposed to various environments (for example, shows, events, and other housing facilities) and potential diseases, it is important that the basic health status of the horse be determined and a consistent approach to health management be implemented to ensure the potential risk to resident horses and new arrivals is minimized.

Best practices:

  • develop and document the farm or facility health management program in consultation with owners, custodians, veterinarians and other sources of biosecurity expertise (provincial government livestock and extension specialists, industry associations and universities)
  • elements of a horse (herd) health program may include:
    • premises identification and individual horse identification;
    • vaccination requirements prior to entry and protocols post entry;
    • disease testing requirements;
    • parasite control program (deworming: type of product, timing, testingFootnote 9);
    • observation and monitoring procedures for horse health;
    • identification of sickness and response procedures; and
    • hoof care (including: farrier area scheduling and cleaning; emergency contact info for farrier).

Horse owners and custodians must ensure the horses under their care and the properties they reside on or visit can be distinctly identified to allow appropriate horse health management.

5.3 Monitoring and maintaining animal health

Goal: To promptly identify disease, to minimize potential spread to other horses and to manage the well-being of the sick horse.

Early detection and treatment of sickness provides the best opportunity for a full recovery and reduces the likelihood of disease transmission.

Best practices:

  • maintain up-to-date records of management practices (for example, vaccinations and horse arrivals, departures, and contact groups);
  • routinely observe and monitor horse health. As a minimum, observation should occur on a daily basis. Increase the frequency of observation and monitoring when horses travel to and return from events, shows, tracks and other activities where commingling occurs (Refer to Annex 4 for information on conducting a horse health check, and Annex 5 and 6 for sample record sheets);
  • observation and monitoring of horses includes, but is not limited to, identifying changes in:
    • gait and movement;
    • appetite;
    • manure and urine production;
    • mood or disposition and appearance; and
    • temperature, pulse and respiration rate.
  • establish criteria for identifying a sick horse which would then signal additional action. For example, an increase in temperature above the normal range of 37.0-38.5°C (98.6-101.3°F) should prompt a call to your veterinarian;
  • know the normal range for horse vital signs. For an adult horse at rest:
    • temperature: 37.0-38.5°C (98.6-101.3°F)Footnote 10;
    • heart rate: 28-44 beats per minute;
    • respiratory rate: 10-14 breaths per minute.
A photograph of a veterinarian evaluating the health of a horse - checking its heart using a stethoscope.
Dr. Wayne Burwash

If there are health concerns, consult a veterinarian. The best practice to minimize suffering of the horse and protect other horses from potential disease, is to ensure there is the capacity for an immediate response.

5.4 Disease response and emergency preparedness protocols

Goal: To protect the health and welfare of horses, develop and implement a disease response and emergency preparedness protocols. All emergency preparedness protocols should include biosecurity considerations. In a disease response, the welfare of the sick horse(s) is protected and measures are implemented to minimize the potential disease risk to other horses. For non-disease emergencies such as flooding and fire, the health and welfare of all the horses are protected during evacuation, transport and housing in an alternative facility.

Description: An immediate response may be required for disease and non-disease related situations. In both circumstances, it is important to have response protocols developed and custodians trained prior to the event. The suspicion or identification of disease at a large facility, particularly a horse show or race track, can result in unnecessary panic, horse movements and other actions that increase disease risks to individual horses and the industry. Events that impact the safety of horses at the facility such as fire, lightning damage and flood may result in the need to evacuate the horses. Evacuation requires pre-planning for transportation and options for alternative facilities.

Best practices:

Animal and premises identification

  • ensure all horses at farms and facilities are readily identifiable by all custodians. Post the following information on stables, stalls and paddocks: horse identification (for example, name and accompanying identification including markings, brand, tattoo and microchip ID), charts, and name of owner or individual responsible;
  • ensure all premises are distinctly identified; and
  • facilitate traceability by permanently identifying horses and maintaining a record of their home premises and owner's contact information.

Roles and responsibilities

  • for disease responses and non-disease emergencies, ensure protocols, roles and responsibilities, emergency contact numbers and facility identification (geographic location) are visibly available.

Disease response

Disease response principles for all horse premises and situations are similar; the principles can be applied to one horse in a small farm or facility or for many horses at a large event that are suspected of being sick. The following response can be used for boarding stables or events.

Signs of sickness are identified in a horse - Enhance your biosecurity

  1. Notify
    1. Notify the horse owner, or person authorized to act on the owner's behalf, and the farm or facility manager.
    2. Notify the veterinarian.
  2. Separate
    1. Whenever possible, physically separate suspect and sick horses from the other animals and manage them as a distinct group by moving them to a location where contact with other horses cannot occur.
    2. Depending on the farm or facility size and configuration, this may include housing in a separate stall, a separate barn or pen.
    3. If physical separation is not possible, restrict access to the horse(s), cordon off an area of the barn or pen to create a temporary separation and indicate that there is a disease concern.
    4. For both situations wear designated clothing while working with horses, and clean and disinfect footwear, hands and all equipment prior to contact with other horses.

    Refer to section 6 for additional details on separation.

  3. Obtain a diagnosis
    1. Consult a veterinarian to determine if the horse is infected with a disease that can spread to other horses. If a veterinarian cannot immediately examine the horse, request advice from the veterinarian on measures to prevent further spread.
    2. The nature of the disease will direct the level of communication and measures of enhanced biosecurity that will be expected to minimize the spread of the disease (Refer to Annex 2 for equine diseases)
  4. Respond and communicate
    1. Implement your communication strategy. By sharing accurate information with people directly affected, this will improve disease management and minimize unnecessary overreaction.
    2. Having your designated spokesperson communicate the information will ensure consistency.
    3. For large facilities and events, a team of individuals with different backgrounds and expertise is useful for managing the situation.
    4. Your veterinarian may be required to report certain diseases to the federal or provincial government.
  5. Identify exposed horses
    1. Identify other potentially exposed horses - While obtaining a tentative diagnosis, determine which other horses may have been exposed. Focus on those that may have had direct (nose-to-nose) or indirect contact (for example, shared equipment, adjacent stall, shared water, and contact with other participants).
    2. In general, horses with direct contact are high-risk animals, horses with indirect contact are medium-risk animals, and horses with no known direct or indirect contact can be considered low-risk animals for infection and spread of disease. Knowledge of the disease is important to identify potentially high-risk horses.
  6. Restrict movement
    1. Temporarily restrict movements of sick, suspect and exposed horses, along with their handlers, until a veterinarian has made a tentative diagnosis and a response plan is implemented.
    2. In many situations, a veterinarian will be able to narrow down the possible cause of the disease by obtaining a thorough history, a review of associated horse health records, and a physical exam of the horse.
    3. Depending on the circumstances, low- and medium-risk horses can continue to compete; however, minimize direct and indirect exposure.
    4. Restrict movement of other animals on the farm or facility.
  7. Monitor horses
    1. Observe sick and exposed horses for changes in health status as per veterinary instruction. Twice daily observation and monitoring of rectal temperatures is a good practice for all horses attending the event.
  8. Release horses
    1. Prior to removing movement restrictions, consult with the attending veterinarian.
    2. Brief all participants leaving the facility or event about the disease and the need to monitor their horses for sickness.
    3. Horses that are sick and/or exposed through direct and indirect contact should upon their return home, be separated from other horses and monitored, and treated as appropriate until their sickness clears or their health status is determined.
    4. Unexposed horses may be transported to other venues. It is a good practice to disclose your previous attendance at an event where an infectious disease was present.

Non-disease response - Emergency preparedness action plan (for example, flood, fire, natural disaster)

  • Develop an evacuation, transport and alternative facilities plan to protect the health and welfare of horses while considering biosecurity continuity. The evacuation protocols should minimize chaos and optimize the timely removal of horses in a systematic process that includes continuity of identity. Establish and pre-arrange an emergency transport plan and housing in an alternative facility for short- and longer-term emergencies;

    A photograph of four fireman directing a stream of water from a firehose into horse barn fully engulfed in flames.
    Emergency personnel responding to a fire at a horse barn in Ontario. Photo courtesy of Gary Dinkel
  • Recognize that horse behaviour, particularly when frightened by the threat of fire or other disaster, can be unpredictable. Practice evacuation plans to increase the opportunity for success;
  • Ensure there are sufficient halters and lead ropes stored in a location away from the barn that are easily accessible;
  • Designate custodians to specific tasks. For example, a person designated to manage transportation, manage the systematic removal of horses and ensure identification is available for each horse during transport and subsequent placement at the alternative facilities; and
  • The preservation of life is the primary objective. Once the threat has been mitigated, if biosecurity protocols have been compromised, then perform a situation assessment and implement appropriate biosecurity measures.
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