Horse-Show Biosecurity: Is Your Horse at Risk?

Protecting your horse’s health must be a priority at all times, not just when it’s convenient.

Dressage riders are known for being particular about the comfort and safety of their horses and themselves, from blankets and polo wraps to shipping boots and helmets. But it’s the unseen dangers surrounding horses at a show that may pose the greatest risk. 

Temporary stalls with open sides like these, often seen at horse shows, are a big biosecurity no-no as a pathogen can easily be passed from horse to horse during their stay. (Credit: Jennifer M. Keeler)

While many exhibitors would not dream of riding their horses without applying brushing boots for protection, some don’t give a second thought to putting their horse in a stall which may have been used last week by a hunter from another state who happened to have a nasty case of the flu. These unseen pathogens are not only waiting to find a new host in your horse, but are also happy to hitch a ride home and infect his stablemates.

“Going to an equestrian event and commingling with other horses of unknown status is always a risk, and basic biosecurity practices are the best way to address that risk,” explains Robert C. Stout, DVM, who had 30 years of experience in private equine practice before becoming Kentucky’s state veterinarian in 2004. “In the horse world, we see attitudes regarding biosecurity that run the full spectrum, from completely lax about any sort of health protocol to the incredibly intense preparations that we had in place during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games here at the Kentucky Horse Park, where every possible scenario was analyzed and prepared for months ahead of time,” says Stout. “Unfortunately, the majority of what we see among horse owners is a perception that it can’t happen to their horses, so they aren’t proactive about biosecurity. Sure, there are things that can be completely out of your control, but there are plenty of things that owners can easily do to reduce risk. So, in my opinion there’s no reason not to practice them.”

Even though many exhibitors don’t like to think about it, the invisible danger to show horses from the common pathogens that cause influenza, rhinopneumonitis and strangles is very real. Besides the obvious health risk, even a short-term illness can disrupt training trajectories and show campaigns. If an incident occurs in a commercial boarding or training barn, the effects on a professional’s business can be anything from a minor inconvenience to a devastating event. And as illustrated by areas across the country affected by recent neuropathic equine herpesvirus (EHV) fatalities, the fear of a deadly outbreak can paralyze the equine community. “Protecting the health, safety and welfare of horses is, of course, of paramount concern for the United States Equestrian Federation,” says Stephen Schumacher, DVM and chief administrator of the USEF Drugs and Medications Program. “I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but the fact is that the spread of equine disease can occur at any competition, from small local shows to large national championships, and it is a risk we take very seriously.”

Before You Show

Long before a competitor thinks about heading to his first show of the season, an effective biosecurity strategy has to start at home. Biosecurity is simply defined as a set of preventive measures to help avoid the transmission of infectious diseases. “I think it starts with your individual health program that you have for your horse, whether it’s a vaccination or deworming program, hygiene practices in the barn, a policy regarding the introduction of new horses on the premises…all of these things are generally good practices for every horse owner and every farm to do on a regular basis,” Stout advises. “It’s like a soldier going to war; he gets all of his vaccinations for diseases he may be exposed to in a foreign land before he ever gets on the ship.”

While a comprehensive and up-to-date vaccination program should include protection against the three most common horse-show diseases—influenza, rhinopneumonitis (herpes) and strangles—Schumacher says it is important to understand that vaccination does not guarantee protection against equine diseases nor does it eliminate the need for good basic biosecurity measures. Stout agrees. “Some vaccines work better than others, but at the very least a good vaccination program tends to reduce the degree of the disease that manifests itself in the horse. It may not prevent the disease entirely, but it certainly lessens the effect.” 

In the battle to keep your dressage star healthy, knowledge is power long before heading down the highway, and your own veterinarian can be your best ally. “Keeping up with what’s going on out there starts with your own veterinarian,” explains Stout. “State veterinarians’ offices regularly distribute information to vets about what’s happening in the field, and your vet can easily contact the state office where your competition is being held to see if there are any reported outbreaks in the region. The American Association of Equine Practitioners [AAEP] website can also be a good resource for individuals. Additionally, communicate directly with the show manager, as most will be upfront with you about any current health concerns in that area. 

“Taking a few extra minutes to seek out information before the show can help competitors minimize or avoid a possible infection risk for their horses,” Stout continues. “But a word of caution: In today’s digital world, news travels fast about outbreaks. Social media can actually have a negative impact if a report is false or made out to be much more of a threat than it really is. There is a propensity for overreaction in some cases, so discuss any concerns with your veterinarian.” 

In an effort to distribute timely and correct information about incidents of disease, Schumacher explains that a cooperative effort between several equine organizations, including the American Horse Council (AHC), the AAEP and the USEF, in partnership with a multitude of generous donors has resulted in the recent unveiling of the Equine Disease Communication Center (EDCC). “Even though the EDCC is still in its infancy, it’s designed to be a clearinghouse for information about equine disease outbreaks and to be a central location where state veterinarians, local vets and horse owners can easily look up or report issues in any area across the country,” Schumacher explains. “If you’re a competitor and you have a question about a possible outbreak in a location where you may be traveling for a show, don’t go to Facebook or Twitter. Go to the EDCC website and in just a couple of clicks you have real-time, verified information similar to how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alerts the human population about diseases in people.” 

One last pre-show tip: If you are traveling a considerable distance to a show outside your home area, ask your veterinarian for recommendations of equine vets and hospitals near your destination as well as along the route. Having contact information ready at your fingertips can prevent panic and wasted time scrambling to find a vet to assist, should your horse spike a fever or if an emergency arises. 

USEF-licensed competitions are required to publish contact information for the official show veterinarian in the prize list, and many large events have a vet on site versus on call during competition hours. Find out from the competition manager who the veterinary officials will be, where the vet’s name and number will be posted at the show and, if possible, keep a copy of this information handy.

Use Some Elbow Grease

Upon arrival at the showgrounds after a long haul, competitors are often anxious to unload horses and equipment and give their charges a chance to get settled in their stalls. But as with pre-trip preparations, Stout explains that a few extra moments of time and effort devoted to biosecurity can make a big difference in the long run.

Water hoses can be a major culprit in the spread of disease at shows. Use your own hose if possible, but if a shared hose must be used, do not immerse the nozzle in water when filling buckets. (Credit: Jennifer M. Keeler)

“The first thing I look at is the general hygiene of the premises. Are there manure piles everywhere? Are the stalls clean? Is there a clean water source or is everyone having to use a common water source? Those sorts of things are a problem for me,” says Stout. “I like to see open-air barns, because the best way to transfer airborne disease is in tight, closed-up quarters. Movement and dilution of the air is best, and barns constructed of nonporous surfaces are much easier to clean and less likely to harbor pathogens.” Stout also noted that open bars and grills, which are often seen in wall panels of temporary stabling, are a major biosecurity concern. “Stalls should always have solid walls going high enough so that the horses shouldn’t be able to touch noses over the top, and there shouldn’t be any gaps or cracks in the walls.”

While show facilities regularly strip stalls between events to remove bedding and debris from the floor, a much less-obvious danger can still be present: Many disease agents in saliva and respiratory secretions can remain in the dirt floors and on barn surfaces, such as walls and doors, for extended periods of time, easily surviving the week between horse shows. 

The key to disease control is cleanliness, and not just any level of clean will do: For best results, a surface should be free of dirt and organic matter, such as manure. Remove all loose material from the stall area, then wash, scrub and rinse the walls and surfaces. If the stall floor is solid such as asphalt, it should also be cleaned. While washing, take the opportunity to thoroughly inspect the stall area for loose nails, debris and any other dangers to your horse’s physical safety.

Simply cleaning a stall with laundry detergent and hot water can make a big difference, but for best results, the stall should also be disinfected. A variety of options exist from basic Pine-Sol to high-tech industrial products, but different classes of disinfectants work very differently and not all are suitable for agricultural application. 

Most products, including bleach, are rendered ineffective by the presence of organic matter or on porous surfaces, which means wood stall walls and dirt floors are a problem; however, phenol-based disinfectants tend to remain effective even in the presence of organic matter such as manure. Research products ahead of time and ask your veterinarian or local equine veterinary hospital for recommendations. 

Whatever you choose, be sure to follow label directions regarding dilution rate, application method, whether rinsing is required and the amount of drying time needed before a product has killed any organisms which may be present and the surface is safe for a horse to come in contact with.

Schumacher recommends that competitors not share equipment and tools with others, but if they must, ideally the equipment should be scrubbed with detergent and allowed to dry completely before the next use. “Use only your own feed and water buckets, label them with each horse’s name and don’t use them for any other horse to avoid cross-contamination. Also, don’t fill buckets or allow a horse to drink from a communal water tank.” 

Playing a critical role in the transmission of disease is an item many exhibitors easily overlook: the water hose. The bottom line? Always use your own hose, or if you must use a shared hose, do not submerge the end or nozzle in your horse’s bucket. “We’ve found with strangles that one of the best conduits of disease was a water hose, and you see this all the time at shows, where competitors and grooms use the same hose in a barn,” says Stout. “What better way to move the disease from stall to stall and between horses who never actually come in contact with each other? We had one major strangles outbreak at a racetrack where we could track it right down the barn aisle where the same hose was used to top off water buckets.” 

Stay Diligent

In addition to actual competitions, dressage shows are also social occasions. Who doesn’t want to visit with long-lost friends from out of state or meet a trainer’s fancy new FEI prospect? But remember, being too friendly can make someone an unwitting vessel for transport of equine disease, as some pathogens can easily hitch a ride from horse to horse via direct contact or even human touch. 

“It’s great for two riders from different barns who just met to chat under a tree at the show, but not so great when their two horses start nuzzling each other or they’re petting and feeding treats to each other’s horses,” notes Stout. “That’s why everyone needs to have a solid individual health program for his horse and know who he is mingling with in a public venue. So hang out with your friends and let your horses graze together as long as you have confidence that your friends are using the same safe health practices that you are, thereby keeping the risk minimal.” 

Stay on the safe side: avoid strangers, and keep your horse a safe distance away from others. Don’t allow him to touch noses with other horses, and avoid grazing in common areas. Be social with friends, but discourage others from actually touching your horse when visiting and return the favor by not petting their horses. And just as with human hygiene during cold and flu season, wash your hands frequently and consider carrying handy disinfectant gel or wipes to use not only for your hands but also on surfaces you often touch, such as door handles, stall latches, water faucets, etc.

Home Sweet Home

Practicing good biosecurity doesn’t stop when you and your horse are safely home from a show. Any horse who has been in a public environment can pick up a pathogen and incubate an illness for several days without showing any outward symptoms.

Disease agents can remain in the dirt floors and on barn surfaces, such as walls and doors, for extended periods of time, easily surviving for the week between horse shows. Disinfection is best, but even simply taking a few moments to wash walls with hot, soapy water is better than nothing. (Credit: Jennifer M. Keeler)

Even more nefarious are horses that become shedders of a virus or bacteria, infecting others without ever showing any signs of the disease themselves. “Ideally every horse that goes to a show should be segregated from others for at least a week—two weeks is even better,” says Stout. “But for many barns, it just isn’t practical to keep show horses in isolation from the ones left at home. In this case, any measures that can be taken, perhaps those as simple as moving a returning show horse to an end stall, can help minimize the risk to the entire population.”

Again, cleanliness is critical to success. Wash clothes and equipment after returning home from a competition and before coming in contact with other horses. Thoroughly clean the inside of the trailer. Monitor your horse for any developing signs of illness, such as a cough, nasal discharge, lethargy, decreased appetite or elevated temperature, and have a plan in place in the unfortunate circumstance that he does develop a symptom of infection.

“Have a personal biosecurity plan in place long before you ever need it,” advises Stout. “The most important things you can do are call your vet and immediately isolate that horse, then monitor the rest of the population. Having a plan of action already in place makes it much easier to handle a scary situation when it actually arises.”

Ultimately, Stout emphasizes that it is every owner’s responsibility to help protect the health of his horse—and others—by taking the risk of illness seriously. “Most people don’t really understand biosecurity—it sounds like a scary word that happens to other people with doctors wearing biohazard suits,” he explains. “But I think it’s critical to understand that you should practice biosecurity all the time, not just when it’s convenient. It’s got to be a habit and must be practiced every single day. You can still enjoy your horses and go to a show, but use common sense and understand the risk you are taking. Some risks are minimized by the practices you do and outweighed by the benefits from participation. But you can’t have a cavalier attitude and think that since you’ve had a horse for 10 years and he’s never gotten sick, he never will. It can happen to anyone, anytime.” 

Stay Informed

The new Equine Disease Communication Center (EDCC) works to protect horses and the horse industry from the threat of infectious diseases in North America. According to the website, the goal of the EDCC is to alert the horse industry about disease-outbreak information to help mitigate and prevent the spread of disease. Working in cooperation with state animal health officials and the United States Department of Agriculture, the EDCC seeks information about current disease outbreaks from news media, social media, official state reports and veterinary practitioners, and once information is confirmed, it is immediately posted on the EDCC website and messages are sent to all states and horse organizations by email. Daily updates are posted until each outbreak is contained or deemed no longer a threat.

The EDCC’s website includes easy-to-use navigation for horse owners with resource pages for reported outbreaks, contact information for state veterinarians’ offices, a library of equine diseases, vaccination information and biosecurity practices. For more information, visit

The Hidden Danger

Sarah* never thought it would happen to her. As a lifelong horsewoman and enthusiastic Adult Amateur competitor, she prided herself on the meticulous care of her four horses. Although disappointed when circumstances prevented her from competing last spring at the biggest show in her area, Sarah cheered on her trainer and friends while her horses happily munched hay back at the barn.

But less than a week later, Sarah’s promising 4-year-old wasn’t acting like himself. He was lethargic and running a fever while the veterinarian puzzled over possibilities. Antibiotics didn’t help. Three days later, onset of acute respiratory distress sent a terrified Sarah and her colt to the university veterinary hospital for a stunning diagnosis: Even though he was fully vaccinated, demonstrated somewhat unusual symptoms and hadn’t traveled off the trainer’s farm in months, Sarah’s youngster had still contracted Streptococcus equi(S. equi), more commonly known as strangles. For the next 30 days, Sarah endured the shame of her horse having contracted a “dirty” disease, the constant worry over her horse’s health as well as that of others in the barn, the inconvenience and uncertainty of quarantine and the scrutiny of the state veterinarian’s office before her horse was finally released from isolation, no longer considered a danger to others in the equine community.

What went wrong? First, Sarah mistakenly thought that the best equine care could prevent all disease. Second, a seemingly unlikely culprit: the barn’s water hose. Veterinarians determined that one of the trainer’s horses most likely picked up the disease from another horse at the large regional show. He carried the bacteria home and innocently transferred them to his water bucket as he drank. Each day, the hose in the barn was shared by all and moved from bucket to bucket, spreading the organisms to each one. However, only the youngest horse with the least-seasoned immunity (Sarah’s colt) happened to outwardly develop some signs of the disease. It was that simple.

Uncommon? Yes. Unlikely? Yes. Can it happen to your horse and your barn? Absolutely.

*Name changed upon request

Get with the Program

Last year, the USEF created quite a stir with the announcement of new vaccination requirements for every horse competing in a USEF-licensed competition in 2016, including all USEF/USDF dressage shows. In a nutshell, this rule (which became effective Dec. 1, 2015) mandates that all horses entering the grounds of a federation-licensed competition must be accompanied by documentation of equine influenza virus and equine herpesvirus (Rhinopneumonitis) vaccinations within six months prior to entering the stables.

“This type of proof of vaccination has been required at racetracks for some time, and, personally, I think it’s a really good move on the part of USEF,” said Robert C. Stout, DVM. “I think knowing that everyone has to have vaccinated his horse within the correct parameters time-wise is just good practice and makes for good neighbors, reducing the risk for everyone. Is it going to ensure we don’t have any more outbreaks? No—but it sure does help. It doesn’t hurt to do it and it’s better than doing nothing. Utilizing every available tool just makes sense.”

“After several high-profile equine herpesvirus [EHV] outbreaks in recent years that have involved the neuropathic strain of the virus (equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy or EHM), we were receiving reports of some shows and venues imposing vaccination requirements on their exhibitors that went beyond most accepted medical opinions, and that raised the concern that unnecessary requirements could potentially put a horse at risk,” explained Stephen Schumacher, DVM. “So the intent of this rule was not to impose an additional burden on horse owners regarding vaccinations, but actually to make the process easier to understand and consistent across the country by ensuring that every USEF-licensed competition complies with the same vaccination guidelines for equine influenza and equine herpes (Rhinopneumonitis) as published by the American Association of Equine Practitioners. These guidelines are reviewed by infectious-disease experts regularly, and the current recommendation is to vaccinate competition horses at six-month intervals for both equine influenza [flu] and rhinopneumonitis [EHV-1 and EHV-4]. “The rule also explains several options for administration. These vaccinations may be given to the horse by a veterinarian or by another associated individual, such as the owner or agent. An allowance is also included for horses who cannot be vaccinated due to a history of adverse reactions,” Schumacher said. “We have a vaccination form available for free download on the USEF website, and this can easily be added to the documentation already required by most competitions, including a horse’s health certificate and a negative Coggins test.” For more information visit






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