The BHS, along with many other organisations, recommend that yards all have an isolation procedure and adhere to it with all new horses.
The ideal isolation procedure involves a separate building of one or two stables, at least a hundred metres from the main yard and fields. There should be a complete set of equipment that is only used for these boxes and the staff should disinfect themselves after handling the isolated horses. Horses are recommended to stay in isolation for three weeks. Isolation boxes and equipment should be disinfected between visitors.
All of this sounds ideal, but also very impractical. For example, how many yards have the space to have a separate building one hundred metres away from fields or stables? I think that even if you cannot provide a separate building it’s important to have a couple of stables at the back of the yard which can be used as isolation boxes, which have solid walls between them to minimise contact between new arrivals and established liveries. At the yard I grew up on the stables were in pairs with stone walls between, so the end stable could be used for horses who looked a bit sickly. When strangles hit the infected horses were stabled in the back stalls, which meant that the front of the yard and majority of loose boxes could still be used for the healthy horses.
Another impracticality of the ideal isolation procedure is the duration of the isolation. Imagine bringing your new horse home only to find that he can’t leave his stable for the first three weeks? You can’t wait to get started with him, and he’s going to take longer to settle and be more uptight because he is effectively on box rest. You can also have complications organising farrier visits, saddler checks and other routine visits.
I guess that the yards individual procedure will depend on the new arrivals. If you are importing horses or they have come from an auction, then you need a more stringent isolation procedure because they have a high risk of contamination due to the number of horses they will have been in contact with or the fact their long journey could weaken their immune system. However if a new horse has come from a small yard a few miles away you may decide that a shorter time in isolation is sufficient. I don’t think less than five days is a good isolation procedure as often symptoms can take a week or more to develop. Preventing direct contact between horses is a major factor in preventing the spread of disease, but airborne infections will still spread.
On a working yard it can be tricky organising the care of isolated horses as all horses expect breakfast first thing, but putting one member of staff in charge of the isolated horses will ensure that they have a routine whilst still minimising the risk of cross contamination.
Yards tend to pay attention to new arrivals, but should we focus more on the current liveries and their comings and goings. Let’s face it, people meet up with friends for long hacks, go to riding club clinics, shows, sponsored rides, and other competitions. There is a huge amount of travelling nowadays and exposure to other horses, thus increasing the risk of contracting an illness. But when we return to the yard our horse goes back in his stable, sniffs his neighbour, and then back out to the field for some more nose to nose contact to spread any germs. I guess professional competitors have their own strict routine for horses, especially when going abroad for shows or to large venues, and will have separate equipment for each horse and individual loose boxes and turnout to minimise contact and the spread of germs.
It’s a tricky conundrum and with the best will in the world horses will contract diseases, but having an isolation box for suspect cases is paramount and being careful with horses arriving, whether for the first time or returning from a large competition to make sure contact with other horses is limited and vital statistics monitored will help reduce risks.