The healthy athlete: how to keep competition horses infection-free *H&H Plus*

  • From grassroots to championships, keeping competitors infection-free requires a robust routine. Lesley Barwise-Munro MRCVS explains

    TRAVELLING to and staying away at shows again is an exciting prospect. To ensure a healthy, infection-free season, however, we must undertake thorough preparation to protect our competition horses from a variety of potential health threats.

    The outbreak of the equine herpes virus-1 (EHV-1) paralytic strain this year in Europe was an extreme example, highlighting the risk of rapid spread of an infectious disease at a show.

    Biosecurity – the term for the good hygiene practices that prevent disease transmission – must start at home. This means every yard should have an isolation system for newly purchased horses and short-stay visitors. Ideally, each incoming horse should undergo testing for strangles, equine influenza (flu) and EHV, prior to integration.

    Currently, there is a health declaration form to complete for all competitions, to certify that horses arriving at a competition have no known signs of illness and have not had contact with any infectious diseases. This relies on the honesty and vigilance of owners in observing their horses in the run-up to the show, which should include temperature-taking at least once a day for a week or so in advance.

    travel, lorry. horsebox, loading

    Cleaning and disinfecting the lorry or trailer after a show is a good biosecurity measure

    International eventer Oliver Townend is a great advocate of biosecurity. Having recently travelled two horses to the Kentucky five-star in the US – Cooley Master Class and eventual winner Ballaghmor Class (pictured in action at Badminton, left) – the Townend team quite rightly prides itself on effective quarantine and preparation of horses for top-level competition.

    At home, Oliver runs a barn system where horses are stabled in small groups, so meticulous biosecurity measures can be applied and any health issues can be swiftly dealt with. Each barn has its own equipment, which is regularly disinfected, and grooms have a high standard of hygiene.

    “We are incredibly careful about the isolation of our horses,” he explains. “Visitors and any grooms other than the horses’ own have minimum contact with them, both at the yard and away. Temperatures are taken daily at home, and at least twice a day when away at competitions – and for 48 hours upon return.”


    WHILE international competition brings its own challenges, any kind of gathering of horses from different yards will increase the risk of infection spread.

    Make sure that your horse’s vaccinations comply with the requirements of your registered discipline. Plan ahead, as FEI rules stipulate that a horse should not be vaccinated for flu within seven days prior to entering the competition stables.

    Flu and EHV vaccinations will help to protect against these diseases. While there is no specific vaccination against the EHV-1 paralytic form, it is thought there is some protection for vaccinated horses through herd immunity.

    Keep the lorry well ventilated. It is advisable not to share transport with horses from different yards and, if possible, to travel to competitions daily to avoid the risk of cross-infection with others in show stabling.

    Infection is not only transmitted directly, through horse-to-horse contact, but also indirectly, on hands, tack or other equipment. While viral particles and bacteria can live in an environment for several days, they can be killed with disinfectant.

    Where an overnight stay is necessary, stringent hygiene measures are recommended. If your horse is the first into new temporary stabling, on grass, and the shavings bales provided are unopened, this should be fine in terms of biosecurity. Used bedding can be a disease transmission risk, however, in terms of nasal discharge or coughed aerosol droplets, so take your own if it is feasible to pack some in the lorry.

    A horse can lick or nuzzle anywhere, so treat the stable surfaces with an approved disinfectant such as Virkon. Prevent nose-to-nose contact with neighbours, either through or over the top of stable walls – secure some waterproof material with cable-ties, in the absence of anything specifically designed.

    Use your own equipment, and clean your hands regularly with antibacterial gel. Since communal hose pipes potentially harbour infection, take a supply of water with you. If you must use a shared hose pipe, disinfect the end regularly.

    Oliver Townend + Ballaghmor Class at the Devouocoux Quad Bar

    Ballaghmor Class


    ADDITIONAL health issues can crop up. To reduce the risk of the muscle condition exertional rhabdomyolysis (known as tying up, or azoturia), make a work plan right up to the day of travel – and during the away stay.

    There are sometimes “easy days” at shows, but maintain a horse’s work and dietary balance. Follow a proper warm-up and cool-down routine to assist muscle recovery and repair.

    “We kept the two horses that were travelling to Kentucky as fit as possible, right up to the point of setting off, knowing that they had to go into quarantine where the work level and feed would be reduced,” Oliver reports.

    Some horses do not like a change of water, so encourage a poor drinker to stay hydrated to avoid impaction colic.

    Biosecurity measures should continue at home, where thorough disinfecting of all equipment – including the lorry or trailer – is recommended. Isolate a returning competitor for a minimum of two weeks, where possible, monitoring for a raised temperature or signs of sickness, to lessen the risk of infecting other horses.

    2F4E4Y9 Temporary stables for horses with equipment hanging on exterior,

    Prevent nose-to-nose contact with other horses at show stabling

    Bust stress to boost immunity

    SOME horses travel well, while others become stressed by the experience. Stress is thought to have some impact on the immune system, making a horse more susceptible to infectious disease. By maintaining his routine and minimising the effects of stress, the better the chances that he will compete to his full potential.

    In the run-up to a show, gradually introduce the haylage a horse will be eating while away. This may mean changing from a big bale to smaller, more convenient bales Or, as the Townend team does, take small bales with you made from the same haylage as the big bales.

    Ballaghmor Class in Equi Trek lorry

    Oliver helps protect his horses from the effects of stress by feeding probiotics prior to travelling and competing, which are thought to maintain healthy gut function, and veterinary-prescribed omeprazole to guard against gastric ulcers – which can also be triggered by stress. Electrolytes, given under veterinary guidance and always with free access to fresh water, are particularly beneficial in hot weather or when horses are working hard, to replace salts lost through sweat.

    Horses arriving at a venue after a long trip, especially in the summer heat, can be more vulnerable to infection. Reduce journey stress by setting off in good time, and allow for some recovery time upon arrival. Hand-grazing is good for gut function, as well as enabling any fluid that has collected in the airways during travel to drain from the nostrils, but does pose an infection risk. It is imperative to find clean grass, which can be difficult at competition centres that have a high turnover of shows.

    The vet

    LESLEY BARWISE-MUNRO MRCVS, from Alnorthumbria Veterinary Group in Northumberland, attended the London and Rio Olympics – and hopes to travel to Tokyo – as an FEI treating vet. 01670 897597, alnorthumbriavets.co.uk

    You can also read this feature in the 27 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine.

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