Flu Boosters

In August it was six months since Phoenix’s last flu vaccination. Despite there still being an abnormally high number of equine flu cases in the UK in 2019 it’s dropped from most people’s radar. Every so often I hear of a case nearby, but it soon blows over.

Back in February the equestrian population was advised to ensure their horse had been vaccinated within the last six months as that was when vets had started using a vaccine effective against this strain of flu.

A lot of competition venues, yards, training centres started enforcing that all horses had to have been vaccinated within six or twelve months. There was a discrepancy between requirements which meant lots of double checking before entering a competition. And it has helped reduce the spread of equine flu.

Some places have relaxed their rules from six monthly vaccinations to annual. British Dressage require competing horses to have had their most recent booster within twelve months, whilst British Eventing requires it to be within six months. British Riding Clubs have tightened their already stringent vaccination checks, which has competitors quaking in their boots at area qualifiers.

Phoenix was due her annual vaccination in February, so she was done then and I pushed all thought of boosters from my mind as we weren’t doing much. In August I squeezed in a cross country schooling session as a centre two days before her six months were up. Then I was in a quandary, unsure what to do. I didn’t need to vaccinate her at six months; my vets weren’t recommending to given that she’d had a booster since the initial outbreak. They felt that annual vaccinations provided enough cover. If we weren’t going out anywhere other than local hacking then I’d feel that annual vaccinations will suffice. I definitely feel that horses like Otis, retired or in light, non-competitive work are fine with yearly boosters.

When I planned my autumn play dates, I had a couple of events which did require her to have been vaccinated within six months of attending. So I had her done. I also decided that by taking her out to a variety of competitions in different areas there was a risk of her picking up the virus, so it was best to give her a booster.

I did however, have an interesting discussion with the vet who came out about these rules. We both agreed that whilst ensuring the majority of horses, with the consciousness owners, were vaccinated annually, there were major flaws which needed addressing in order to control the spread of equine influenza.

Firstly, the fact that although most competitions are insisting on vaccinations being up to date, very few check this upon arrival. So you could take an unvaccinated horse to a significant number of events and get away with it. Yes, it’s another thing to organise, but checking passports as people drive into the car park is the most effective. Then of course is the fact that some people sneakily take the wrong passport. So the passport meets requirements, but it doesn’t belong to the horse inside the lorry. This has led to some competitions doing spot checks, and going inside vehicles to check that the horse matches their ID.

I was talking to someone today, who transports horses for a living and she was telling me how she jet washes her lorry between outings and mists disinfectant in to minimise the risk of spreading disease – be it equine flu, strangles or equine herpes. Do all transporters do that? Well no, not when you consider that some will plan a route up the country and pick up and drop off several horses en route. This is perhaps a factor to consider if you hire transport.

Thirdly, there is a major hole at the UK ports. Only last month a local horse dealer went over to the Irish sales and picked up a lorry load of youngsters. They brought them into the UK via a ferry, stressed them with a long, hot journey, without a single vaccination amongst the horses. Then proceeded to advertise the horses and book viewings from the day they arrived. Regardless of the lack of vaccinations, the poor horses are susceptible to any illness because they were tired, dehydrated and stressed. So they could develop equine flu upon arrival, or in the first few days of being in the UK. They might be carrying the virus, cough over a potential buyer, who then goes to another yard to view another horse, taking the virus with them. Thus the disease spreads.

Horses coming into the UK, from Ireland or the continent, need to be innoculated against equine flu and have some form of an isolation procedure. It’s not the private individuals the BEF and AHT need to target with vaccination rules, it’s the professionals who are transporting horses on a daily basis, and those importing horses. Look at the Icelandics. They don’t let any pony who has left the island to return, regardless of vaccinations, as they may bring disease back. Recently, they culled a load of sheep who became infected from an imported ram. Perhaps this is a bit extreme, but we need to tighten control of our borders. Sorry, that sounded a little bit Brexit.

Research is suggesting that there will be a move towards six monthly vaccinations, but I hope that legislation retains some common sense and doesn’t require equines who don’t travel much to have two boosters a year, whilst competition horses or those who travel a lot would benefit from increased protection and would help reduce the risk of the virus spreading.

X-Rays 

X-Rays, as with humans, is a useful diagnostic tool to identify the cause of equine lameness. It is used if hard tissue damage is suspected. Although I’ve assisted friends while their horse is X-rayed, it was only in August that I had a horse of mine X-rayed.

Now whilst it’s a useful diagnostic technique, and completely necessary for Otis, I was slightly concerned that I would see something in addition to the problem, or see the early signs of a future problem.

Otis was having his feet X-rayed, so on the level surface of the barn we set up the equipment. A lot of horses need sedating, but my very patient Otis stood perfectly still. His front hooves were placed on wooden blocks, and he had to remain stationary from that point on.

I held him while the vet’s assistant held the panel on the inside of Otis’s left fore, and the vet angled the board so it would reflect the X-rays correctly, before angling the machine and taking a shot. Of his left fore, she took a couple of shots from different angles. This was because his coffin joint is angled so that it points inward. Then she took an X-Ray of the right fore for comparison.

It’s amazing really, that instantly we can study the images, take another angle, or retake the image so that the vet has the best records to analyse later, and to keep for future reference.

What we did find was that there was some sidebone on the outside of Otis’s left fore. I kind of knew it was there anyway because a hard lump developed after an overreach boot rubbed him about eighteen months ago. Anyway, on the X-Ray it looked rather furry, which suggests that it is active. Which could be causing him some pain. Once settled, sidebone usually doesn’t cause lameness, particularly when it is not near a joint, like this lump.

On both coffin joints there was a small spur, which is apparently to be expected with heavier horses who have quite an athletic lifestyle. The image below is not Otis’s, but it’s a fairly clean X-ray which should give you an idea of what a lower leg should look like.


Then the vet decided to X-ray Otis’s right hock… I really didn’t want to because I didn’t want to see any of the numerous hock problems developing that could cause future problems. The vet’s reasoning behind her concern for his right hind, despite the lameness being in the left fore, was that when we nerve blocked his left fore foot his right hind leg started wobbling all over the place!

Much to my relief, Otis’s X-ray of his hock was clean, so we refocused our attention on his left leg and booked the farrier to shoe him with remedial shoes before injecting his coffin joint. Which didn’t solve the lameness, but that is another story!

The Stigma of Strangles

As many people will now, strangles is doing the rounds in the UK. 

It’s a horrible, infectious disease, but made all the worse by the stigma attached to it.

If you’ve got strangles at your yard or you’ve been in contact with a strangles case then JUST ADMIT IT! I know, it’s a pain in the bum and disinfecting everywhere is a huge inconvenience, but by being a responsible horse owner, yard owner, farrier, chiropractor, saddler, you are helping prevent the spread of the disease.

Contracting strangles is like getting head lice. With the best will in the world it can happen. It’s not a reflection on your stable management or hygiene, it’s bad luck – being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What is a reflection on your stable management is how you deal with your situation. Calling the vet, isolating the case, informing visitors to the yard (this week’s and last week’s), stopping horses entering and exiting the site, disinfecting contaminated stables and equipment, informing large local yards and competition venues, and withdrawing from competitions. Not acting responsibly reflects badly on you, and ruins your reputation for years. 

Plus, think about it this way. You don’t tell your farrier you have strangles, even just the one known case, but one of the horses being shod is incubating the disease. The farrier gets contaminated on his apron, tools, van, everything. Then he packs up his gear, and heads off to another yard. He has another five yards to visit that day. Shoeing two horses per yard means that there are now ten horses infected. That doesn’t include the two that he patted on the way past, or the owner who’s hand he shook, or the wrong head collar he picked up…

But if the farrier had known your yard had strangles he would have come last thing in the afternoon, and gone home to wash himself and his tools. And what do you know, no spread of strangles!

No professional wants to be implicated in the spread of an illness; their reputation is at stake too. Welfare of the horses they work with is paramount to them, after all, no horse no work. Plus take into account the fact that most professionals have their own horse, who’s health they definitely don’t want to risk.

We, as the equestrian community should remove the stigma from strangles, to enable everyone to talk openly about the disease so that it can be more easily monitored and controlled. No one wants the disease, so why inflict it upon others because of your ignorance? Even the professionals who move between yards have to shoulder responsibility for reducing the risk of contamination, but they can only do that if yard owners are honest with them!

Rant over, I apologise if anyone needed an uplifting post today!

Isolation Procedure

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. 

Here is the article describing the ideal isolation procedure.