Herd Health Planning

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A farm or boarding facility with multiple horses always needs a good herd health plan. This involves more than just vaccinations and deworming. Often the way you handle preventive medicine on your farm or at your facility will depend on where you are, what the horses on your farm do and whether they travel on and off the farm.

Amy Burk, PhD, an associate professor and Extension Horse Specialist at the University of Maryland, said this type of scenario can be challenging when there are different types and uses of horses on one property. “It is imperative to have good records,” she noted. “I encourage preventative health care, such as keeping vaccinations up to date, good dental and hoof care, and a good feeding program.”

Biosecurity

An important key to good herd health is trying to keep disease from coming onto the farm in the first place. “If disease appears, then it becomes crucial to prevent spread,” said Burk. “One of the most important things on a farm or boarding facility is a quarantine stall/paddock that also can double as an isolation stall/paddock. It should be at least 50 to 100 feet away from other horses. A paddock can have a run-in shed for shelter.

“New horses should be quarantined at least two weeks before entering the herd so you can keep an eye on the horse to make sure it doesn’t have a runny nose, fever, go off feed or show any other signs of a disease it was exposed to before arrival,” she added.

Many farms have an isolation area of sorts; if a horse gets sick they put it at the end of the barn aisle, but often that’s still too close.

“It pays to invest in a quarantine paddock away from everything else. It could be used for other horses, but when new horses come in, whatever horse is out there could be put somewhere else temporarily,” she explained.

“The isolation or quarantine area should have signage to let people know not to enter unless authorized,” said Burk. “Employees should be trained how to use it (the facility). All resident horses that are healthy should be fed and cared for first and the potentially sick or currently sick horses should be cared for last, so as not to expose the healthy horses.”

Vaccinations

One challenge with a boarding operation is that often boarders are allowed to make decisions about which vaccinations will be given to their horses, when they are given and by whom, said Burk.

“The boarding manager should very involved in keeping track of which horses have been vaccinated, and perhaps establish more stringent rules about required vaccinations,” she said. “I advise a rule that states all horses at this barn must have X set of vaccinations by such-and-such date in the spring and by such-and-such date in the fall, and please submit a copy of your veterinarian’s bill or record that states when and what was given.”

She said some boarding managers have a specific veterinarian do all of the vaccinations for the farm, and the managers ask their boarders to sign their horses up to be done at that time, said Burk. The “herd” is not truly protected if only part of the group receives vaccinations for diseases that might be contagious horse-to-horse, or even for diseases such as West Nile virus or Eastern and Western equine encephalomyelitis, which are spread by mosquitoes.

Burk recommended using the AAEP list of core vaccines (which can be found on aaep.org), or what their local veterinarian recommends. Some groups of horses need a different set of vaccinations. The horses that travel frequently to shows and competitions might need to be protected against more diseases than the lesson horses that stay home. Broodmares have their own set of vaccination needs.

Group Horses According to Disease Risk

“Keep horses of similar disease risk together,” advised Burk. The horses that don’t leave the farm are at lower risk than those that are going in and out and being exposed to other horses and situations. The latter group should be on the same side of the barn (or in a separate barn) and not mixed with horses that usually stay home, said Burk.

When horses return from a show or outside ride where they mixed with other horses, they should be considered “at risk” for spreading disease to your stable and monitored more closely. “Pay close attention to horses that travel,” she said. “They should have their temperatures checked daily as a routine precaution; fever is often the first sign of disease. This is quick and easy to do with a digital thermometer.”

Control Human Traffic

“Older barns funnel visitors through the barn aisle, with access to all the horses,” noted Burk. “I prefer barns constructed with an office in the front where all visitors come to. Then if they have authorization, they can go back with the horses. In the old-style barn, you don’t know what your visitors might be bringing in or feeding to the horses.”

Also have some control over contracted personnel who come into the barn, and when they come. “Many barns have lesson instructors who come periodically,” said Burk. “Have good communication with them to know if they are coming from a farm that has a disease outbreak, or have been in contact with a horse that’s running a fever. You need to know where your staff or crew is coming from.”

If those outside folks come from other farms to your facility, do they change shoes? Wash their hands? Have a different set of clothing?

Another example is hiring a stall-cleaning crew. “You’d want that crew to come to your farm first,” said Burk. “Then you know they are always coming in with clean clothes and hopefully clean equipment, with less chance of bringing something you don’t want from some other farm.”

The same can be true of service providers such as your farrier and veterinarian.

“With our farrier and veterinarian, we always try to be first on the list that day,” she explained. That might mean an early morning for you, but more safety for your horses.

Deworming

“Rotating dewormers on a certain schedule is no longer recommended because of parasites’ increasing resistance to deworming drugs,” stressed Burk. “Now we recommend that all horses on the farm or a certain sub-sample be tested (fecal egg counts). If the deworming program is adequate and fecal egg count is low or zero, the horse or horses do not need (to be) dewormed. Only horses with a moderate or high load of parasites require deworming.”

A bonus to this is because a small percentage of any herd will shed the most parasite eggs, the amount of chemicals given to the group of horses is reduced, and overall owners save money.

“Here at the University of Maryland, we do a fecal egg count once a semester to see which horses have a heavy parasite load and which ones don’t,” said Burk. “In our group, we generally find very low parasite load or zero. If we have a horse with a moderate or high parasite level, we deworm that one and not the others. When new horses come in, we quarantine them to make sure they aren’t bringing disease, and we also do fecal parasite counts to see which parasites they have. If a horse has a heavy parasite load, we deworm that horse twice while it is in quarantine to make sure we get those parasites knocked down before that horse goes into our paddocks, where it might spread parasites to resident horses.”

Take-Home Message

Planning your herd health management routine can make a difference in not only the health of your boarders’ horses, but in the success of your business. While some owners might resist some of the quarantine, vaccination or other measures, it is your farm, your business and your responsibility. Have a good rapport with your employees and service providers so you know if they have been around sick horses.

SIDEBAR

Management Challenges

Every horse needs to be managed as an individual, and this is diffi cult. “You can try to manage your farm as if all the horses are the same, but generally this doesn’t work very well,” said Amy Burk, PhD, an associate professor and Extension Horse Specialist at the University of Maryland.

Horses need individual care, and that means keeping them all on a good program for hoof and dental care.

“Usually when the veterinarian comes in the spring and fall to give vaccinations, the horses should also get a general wellness check and have their teeth checked,” said Burk. “The farrier visits are a bit different because this can vary with the individual horse—how fast the feet grow, whether it is competing and whether it needs to be shod or is barefoot.”

Caring for a group of horses is always a juggling act. You have to manage herd health and at the same time give each horse (and owner) the attention needed.