Most US owners not too worried about disease risk at horse shows – study

"The fragmented movement of horses combined with numerous sites of co-mingling makes tracing the potential spread of a disease outbreak a necessary part of an infection control plan, both locally and nationally."

Most horse owners in the United States are not highly concerned about the risk of disease or the use of biosecurity measures, the findings of fresh research suggest.

Ninety-two percent of owners who responded to a nationwide survey considered co-mingling of horses at events, such as shows, race days or trail rides, to present only a slight to very low risk for contracting an infectious disease.

Nathaniel White and Angela Pelzel-McCluskey set out to determine horse owners’ understanding and knowledge of biosecurity strategies for preventing infectious diseases in the US.

The results, reported in the journal Animals, will be used to create tools and information that horse owners and veterinarians can use to implement appropriate biosecurity measures for different types of horse uses and events.

White, with the Equine Disease Communication Center, and Pelzel-McCluskey, with the Department of Agriculture’s Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service, said horses are transported in the US more than any other livestock species, mingling at various events.

Thus, they are considered to be at an increased risk for infectious disease transmission.

“The fragmented movement of horses combined with numerous sites of co-mingling makes tracing the potential spread of a disease outbreak a necessary part of an infection control plan, both locally and nationally.”

The cross-movement of personnel with horses and the persistence of endemic diseases make biosecurity implementation an ongoing challenge, the researchers said.

“Although many of the risks for infection are known, there is limited documentation about the usefulness of prospective control measures.”

The pair’s website-based 24-question survey was brought to the attention of owners through horse organizations, who emailed their members.

Questions covered owner demographics, including the disciplines in which their horses were engaged.

In all, 2413 responses were collected from 49 states. The proportion of responses from horse owners was similar to the estimated population of horses in each state

The researchers’ analysis included cross-tabulation to identify any differences in biosecurity knowledge and awareness depending on horse use.

The authors identified significant differences in horse use in terms of vaccination, biosecurity planning, use of isolation, disease risk, monitoring for diseases, co-mingling of horses, sanitation, medical decision-making and health record requirements for horse events.

Of the 2413 horse owners, 76.3% owned 1 to 5 horses. Owners’ disciplines varied by region in the US, with English Show predominating in the country’s Northeast, breeding being significantly higher in the South and Midwest, and no significant difference found in the Western US.

A majority of horses were found to be used for pleasure/trail riding (55.5%), followed by English showing (40.2%), Western showing (27.6%) and lessons or schooling (14.3%). A total of 27.4% of horses were described as retired. Horses involved in breeding represented 18.8% of horses, followed by ranch/farm work (11.3%), racing (2%) and driving (1.7%). The remaining 2.6% pursued a range of other activities and were classified as “other.”

Most owners said they were the primary decision-maker for their horse’s medical care (91.6%) compared to trainers and veterinarians.

Nearly all of the surveyed horse owners (98.8%) ranked veterinarians as their top source for infectious disease information. Most owners (93.2%) relied on veterinarians to determine the appropriate vaccines for their horses, with 78.6% of vaccines administered by veterinarians.

Sixty percent of owners kept their horses on their own property, with the rest keeping them at boarding facilities.

Seventy-five percent of owners indicated that their horses came into contact with non-resident horses on one or more days during the year, with this being significantly higher in the Western show discipline. However, 60.2% of owners considered contact with non-resident horses to be of average to low risk for disease transmission.

Fifty-four percent of facilities had a plan for the isolation of horses with an infectious disease. Similarly, in a separate question, it was found that 54.4% of facilities required separate housing for new horses moved to their facilities, which was higher again for breeding establishments, ranches, farms, and racing facilities.

When evaluating the effectiveness of biosecurity techniques for respiratory diseases, such as influenza, strangles and equine herpesvirus, owners ranked vaccination as the most effective, whereas taking a daily temperature ranked the lowest.

Regarding biosecurity practices at facilities, the isolation of sick animals ranked the highest (59.6%), while taking the temperature ranked the lowest (2.5%).

Owners selected hand sanitation as the most effective precaution after contact with a non-resident horse, and this was selected nearly three times more than any of the other listed precautionary options.

Taking the horse’s temperature was highly ranked for those showing signs of respiratory disease (96.9%), while taking their temperature before travel for an event was not selected as often (29.5%).

Owners considered the most common biosecurity provisions in place at facilities where horses are taken for competitions or events to be requiring health certificates and vaccinations for entry, while having an event isolation plan came in as the lowest at 10.2%.

When owners were asked to identify their first choice for obtaining information about biosecurity, 50.5% selected a website, followed by a publication at 14.6% and a video at 11.7%.

White and Pelzel-McCluskey said their goal was to identify horse owners’ understanding and use of biosecurity techniques.

The results suggest that most owners are not highly concerned about the risk of disease or the use of biosecurity.

However, based on the responses, there are several biosecurity applications and techniques that can be increased and will benefit horses and the horse industry, they said.

“Specific topics include reliance on temperature monitoring, isolation of new horses at facilities, risks of horse mingling, entry requirements such as vaccination and health certificates at events, and an emphasis on having biosecurity plans for facilities and events where horses co-mingle.”

Educating owners about assessing risk in different environments is needed to show why specific biosecurity actions can decrease infectious disease prevalence, they said.

“Because significant differences in biosecurity use were identified for different disciplines and horse uses, biosecurity information can be targeted by discipline and breed organization.

“Examples from our study include establishing biosecurity plans at pleasure/trail riding facilities and encouraging an isolation requirement for new horses coming to English show facilities.”

Veterinarians should find the results helpful when helping horse owners to establish biosecurity plans for the management of their horses, they said.

“Coordinating biosecurity recommendations on industry websites and through the publication of information in horse industry media will be the best way to reach and educate horse owners.”

White, N.; Pelzel-McCluskey, A. Cross-Sectional Survey of Horse Owners to Assess Their Knowledge and Use of Biosecurity Practices for Equine Infectious Diseases in the United States. Animals 2023, 13, 3550.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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