Protecting our horses: eventer speaks up after strangles outbreak

  • An eventer whose season was brought to a halt by a strangles outbreak has spoken up in hopes sharing her experience will help others.

    Connie Copestake, who has competed to four-star level, wanted to raise awareness of the signs, related issues and coping strategies that helped her deal with what has been “a bit of a nightmare”.

    Two of the 12 horses at her yard tested positive for the disease; Connie believes they must have contracted it at an event in late June.

    “It was a week to the day after they ran that the first horse spiked a temperature, of nearly 40C,” she told H&H. “As soon as that happened, we called the vet. It hasn’t been ideal but we’re coming out the other side now.”

    Owners are urged to take their horses’ temperature daily as an increased figure can be the first sign of disease, and early intervention is key in minimising spread.

    In Connie’s case, the affected horse, and another who showed signs, were immediately isolated.

    “We got them off the yard straight away, to be on the safe side,” she said. “That was before we got the results back; it could have been just a bacterial infection but just in case. When the tests came back positive, the vets swabbed the rest of the yard.”

    Under veterinary advice, the infected horses were kept out, far from the others, and the team put meticulous biosecurity measures in place, such as keeping other horses separate until they tested negative and having “foot baths everywhere”. All their efforts paid off, as no other horses became ill.

    “We’ve been very lucky,” Connie said. “The worry is that it’s so, so contagious, so it’s about doing everything you can, and using common sense.”

    Connie praised her “phenomenal” vets at Oakham, and the understanding of her horses’ owners.

    “They’ve been brilliant,” she said. “It’s not the nicest phone call to make but they were all very understanding. It threw a real spanner in the works as we shut everything down straight away and the last thing on our minds was going eventing.

    “The priority is the horses’ health, and what can we do to make them get better, and protect the ones who are clean. The girls who work with me on the yard have been super.”

    Another key, Connie said, is being open; she immediately told everyone who might need to come to the yard.

    “I think there is a bit of a stigma about it, and a sense that if you keep quiet, you can just keep going,” she said. “And there’s nothing stopping you. We didn’t, of course, no horses have come in or gone out, as otherwise you end up being part of the problem, not the solution.

    “That’s how it keeps spreading, and the last thing you want is for someone else to get what we’ve had because of negligence.”

    Once Connie had the veterinary green light to take the horses out again, she could start to plan the rest of her season. She hopes that by talking about her experience, others may be encouraged to do the same.

    “Just be very honest about it,” she said. “It is what it is and you’ve almost got to own it rather than trying to sweep it under the rug. It’s frustrating but horse welfare has to come first and that’s what it boils down to. If you have Covid, you don’t go out; it’s not just the person who might catch it from you, it’s the older or poorly relative they might pass it on to, and it’s the same for horses.

    “We’ve got to be responsible. I think it should be a notifiable disease, as there was nothing stopping me from going out and keeping my mouth shut, which would have been totally wrong.”

    Connie also thanked the “amazing” Equine Bio Genie, which came to “disinfect everything” in the yard, and cited the need to rest paddocks on which infected horses have grazed.

    “If no one talks about strangles, it will carry on having a stigma,” she added. “If anything’s going to change, people need to start talking about it.”

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