Keep your hands off my horse!
It sounds mean. It sounds harsh. It sounds selfish. It is. It does. It is.
But, it is necessary.
The medical community has long known, people pushing their babies around in strollers, who allow people to touch their children, are taking a risk of transferring any of thousands of communicable diseases. Parents are becoming much more aware of the hazards of allowing people to pinch junior’s nose, or play with junior’s fingers. Those fingers go straight into the child’s mouth. Any skin born disease is then potentially transferred to, you guessed it, JUNIOR. We take great strides to protect our children, we need to take the same steps to protect our animals.
Until reading about various communicable equine diseases, and how they are communicated, I never thought twice about petting someone else’s horse. I didn’t care where it came from. I never asked if the horse had been vaccinated. All I cared about was making friends with the horse. There is nothing at all wrong with making friends with horses. Or is there? If you really care about your horse, or your herd, there is something wrong with getting touch friendly with other horses, especially horses belonging to owners unknown to you.
Biosecurity or, in layman’s terms, protecting your horses’/herd’s health, is as important now as it had ever been. More people are getting back into recreational riding and riding for sport. More contact is being made between your horse, other horses, and humans. These contacts contain risk, manageable risk, but risk nonetheless. This entry, and those that follow, will look at what we, as humans can do to lower the risk of transmitting diseases from one horse to another, and from ourselves to our horses.
Humans and horses, for the most part do not catch each others’ diseases. There are diseases like encephalitis that can be contracted by humans through contact with the horse or through various vectors like insects, rodents, or other disease carrying animals.1 Once infected, humans can then transmit these diseases to other horses, within and without their herds. A short list of diseases, known as zoonotic diseases, transferred between humans and horses are Rabies (rare), skin diseases, leptospirosis and Anthrax.1
Other diseases, like Equine Infectious Anemia, a disease transmitted to horses by bite and suck insects such as horseflies, while not harmful to humans, can be transferred from an infected horse to a healthy horse by human touch. More horses catch EIA through horse to horse contact than through fly to horse, even though the initial outbreak is caused by the fly. Horses contract the disease when they rub noses, lick stalls or posts contaminated by an infected horse, or come in contact with a human who has touched an infected horse’s nose, or otherwise come in contact with bodily fluids.
This is where we, as the smarter animal can stop the spread of disease on a very personal level. You don’t know my horses. You are completely unaware of my vaccination protocols. You don’t even know, when I tell you I vaccinate for everything under the sun and over the moon, whether or not I am telling the truth. Likewise, unless I see you injecting the vaccines in your horse, I know as little about your program as you do about mine. Does this mean we are liars? Of course not. It means we are concerned for the health of our horses and the herds in which they may live.
There are very simple ways to protect our animals from becoming sick or, in worst case, dying.
- Hand washing: After touching strange animals, or even your own animals, and before touching other animals, thoroughly wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap. The same applies to faces if there is a chance you are going to nuzzle mine, or any other horses. Sharing breath, while a beautiful form of bonding and communication with a horse, is also a number one way to spread diseases.
- Hand sanitizer: If no hot water supply is available, carry a container of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer. Use this to cleanse your hands in between touching horses.
- Rubber gloves: When grooming or working with a horse that is not from the same herd as the next horse you will be working with, wear rubber gloves. These are available from any pharmacy in sterile and non-sterile forms. Before touching your own horse remove the gloves without touching the external surface and dispose of them. Your hands are clean!
- When visitors arrive at your facility, ensure they have access to the above methods of protecting your horses. You don’t know where they may have come from, or what diseases they may have been in contact with. Never assume they are not carriers. Insist on them taking steps to protect your animals.
The hardest places to practice good biosecurity are shows, trail rides and the like. Everyone is wanting to meet everyone else’s animals. Unfortunately, there are those who may bring a sick, or exposed animal to a show, unconcerned for the well being of the other animals at the show. With more and more facilities requiring steps, such as Coggins Tests, and vaccination records prior to an animal coming to their facilities, less of these people will get sick or exposed animals into the barns. Unfortunately, there is still the outside chance of an exposure happening. The best, tried and true method of limiting exposure, again, is to not let people touch your animals. Likewise, when on a trail ride, resist the urge to pet other riders’ horses. Enforce the “Don’t touch my horse” rule, and while this is the most difficult, keep your horse from getting overly friendly with other horses. Remember, breath sharing and nuzzling are the number one ways horses transmit disease to each other. Tie your horses to non-porous posts, away from strange horses. I never worry about my horses being together with their herd mates while away from the farm. They will stick to their own, avoid others and have all have had the same vaccination protocols (3-way (WEE, EEE, Tetanus) + 2) flu-rhino separate + 3) West Nile, and (4)strangles intra nasal vaccine). When on a break from riding, tie horses away from each other and go visit your friends. Don’t bring your horse. When back at base camps, tie your horse to your trailer or a non-porous tie rail, away from other horses. Don’t tie to your friends’ trailers.
Working at animal hospitals and rescues, while a noble and commendable thing to do, brings with it possible inherent risks to your own animals. While working where there may be infected animals, it is YOUR responsibility to keep your herd’s safety in mind. Never wear the boots, pants, gloves, shirts, or hats to the rescue or animal hospital that you would wear around your animals. Always wear gloves, and even though you have worn gloves, wash with hot water and antibacterial soap before leaving the facility. The best bet is to have separate muck boots and coveralls for wearing when working with rescue animals or at vet clinics. After I have been at a rescue, or at a facility with a sick animal, I won’t go see my animals until I have showered and changed clothes.
I will discuss quarantine and vaccination procedures in another article. For now, suffice it to say, I am mean, I am selfish, and I am rude. I try not to be the third, but will be to protect my animals and those in the herd they return to after shows, trail rides and other outings. If you must pet my animals, simply ask. If you don’t have rubber gloves, I will provide you with a pair. If you don’t have hand sanitizer, I do. IF you don’t ask, or don’t take precautions before proceeding to touch my animals, you will hear, “Keep your hands off my horse!!”
For more on Herd Health and biosecurity:
Equine Biosecurity Principles and Best Practices: A well written, easy to read introduction to biosecurity, produced by AEF and ABVMA in conjunction with the Canadian Government and the Government of Alberta
Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada: Some great links to biosecurity information and plans.
Equine Guelph: Online e-course to learn more about equine biosecurity.