Close up of an horse eye

General Horse Health and Warning Signs

Ensure that all horses on the property (who are able to be vaccinated) are vaccinated on a regular basis by requiring owners to provide you with vaccination records.

Parasite control is also a necessary measure to promote biosecurity. Offer a parasite control program to the boarders, in which the horses will be routinely tested for parasites and treated, if necessary, according to your veterinarian’s recommendations. If the horse owners want to do their own parasite control, require them to provide you with records to ensure they are complying.

Some owners may not be aware of the normal vital sign values for horses. As a reference for owners and barn staff, post signs around the barn with the healthy temperature, pulse, respiratory rate, mucous membrane color/feel, and capillary refill time values. Have the staff check over each horse at least once daily (this can be done while cleaning, feeding or performing other barn chores).

It is important to know what a healthy horse appears and behaves so that you can recognize a sick horse quickly. Normal rectal temperature is 99-101.5ºF and anything above that would be considered a fever. Horses normally take 10-24 breaths per minute and the nostrils do not contain excessive mucus. Clear liquid may come out of the nostrils, but any fluids thicker or with a color can suggest respiratory disease. A normal equine heart rate is 28-44 beats per minute. Check the mucous membranes (gums), which should be pink and moist, and the capillary refill time (time for color to return after firmly pressing finger against gums), which should be <2 seconds. Generally, the warning signs for disease include fever, a recumbent or weak horse, neurologic signs including aggression and stupor, diarrhea, vesicular or ulcerative lesions of the mouth or coronary band, enlarged lymph nodes, and respiratory signs including cough and increased respiratory rate. Have a written protocol for barn staff and owners to follow about when to contact a veterinarian.


General Horse Health Key Points

  • Require vaccination records from owners. Consider organizing a veterinarian to provide vaccinations for the whole farm.
  • Reduce stress on the horses. Feed high quality food to keep the horses in good nutritional health.
  • Offer a parasite control program to boarders (guided by a veterinarian). Otherwise, require parasite control program records.
  • Post signs with healthy horse vital signs.
  • Staff should be checking over each horse, at least daily, for any health changes.
  • Learn healthy vital sign values and teach them to staff. Temperature: 99-101.5ºF; respiratory rate: 10-24 breaths per minute; heart rate: 28-44 beats per minute; mucous membranes: pink and moist; capillary refill time (CRT): <2 seconds
  • Look for health issues, such as respiratory, gastrointestinal, and neurologic signs of disease.

Single Sick Horse

When you, barn staff, or an owner notice a sick horse, quarantine the horse immediately. Take its temperature and continue logging it every two hours if the horse has a fever. If the horse doesn’t have a fever, check the temperature every 12 hours. Take note of any clinical signs and any changes. Call a veterinarian if the owner hasn’t already, who can help you develop the quarantine plan. Do not put waste from the sick horse in the manure pile; use a large plastic bag, seal tightly and dispose of it in the trash to be hauled away. Write out your protocol for managing contagious disease cases ahead for time, and post it in a visible place in the barn for horse owners and barn staff to reference.

While the horse is in quarantine, fully clean and disinfect his/her stall and equipment, as well as any other surfaces, equipment, etc. that the horse uses or touches. Take note of which other horses have or may have had contact with the sick horse. This could include stall or paddock neighbors/mates, horses that traveled or were off property with the sick one, horses that were in the arena at the same time, horses with the same owner or caretaker or shared equipment, and any others you are able to trace back for the previous 14 days. Don’t forget to consider anyone or horse that trailers in for lessons or training. Notify these owners and all horse owners at your farm of the illness once it has been confirmed by the veterinarian. Monitor the horses with potential contact for fever (every 12 hours) and any clinical signs of illness until it is known whether the disease is contagious.

Restrict movement on and off the farm until the nature of the disease and level of spread is determined. Consult your veterinarian and/or an animal health official to determine how long this restriction should last.

A Single Sick Horse Key Points

  • Quarantine the horse as soon as you/its owner/barn staff are suspicious that s/he is sick.
  • Disinfect everything the horse has touched, including its stall and equipment.
  • Note at-risk horses: neighbors, in the arena at the same time, have the same caretaker, any horse who had contact with the affected horse for the previous 14 days. Notify all of these horses’ owners.
  • Restrict movement on and off the farm.

Outbreak Control

If an infectious disease spreads to more than one horse, you may have an outbreak on your farm. Monitor all at-risk horses and all other horses on the farm, to a lesser degree, for at least 7 to 10 days. Quarantine any horse that shows clinical signs of the disease or has a fever. If the quarantine area becomes full, separate the barn into a quarantine section and a healthy section, with very clear signs and barriers of which is which. Contact owners of all at-risk animals so they are aware of the situation.

Make sure to contact your veterinarian as soon as you notice more horses getting sick, even if you already notified him/her of the original horse with symptoms. Your veterinarian will be able to help you contact animal health officials who may need to be involved. Follow all guidance that your veterinarian and the animal health officials give because it will help the horses recover faster and may be required by law.

Restrict movement on and off the farm while potentially infected horses are being monitored. Once the last horse on the farm develops clinical signs, your veterinarian can help determine when the quarantine period and restricted movement can end. This will be based on the incubation period of the disease and/or the horse testing negative for the disease. Do not allow dogs or unnecessary visitors onto the property during a disease outbreak.

Extra precautions must be taken in terms of cleaning and disinfection. Ideally, different employees should take care of healthy and sick horses. If that is not possible, have employees take care of healthy horses first, exposed horses next, and finally infected horses.

Controlling Outbreaks Key Points

  • If the infectious disease spreads beyond the first sick horse, monitor the at-risk horses and all other horses for at least 7-10 days.
  • Quarantine any horse with fever or clinical signs.
  • Contact your veterinarian as soon as possible, who will help contact any animal health officials.
  • Restrict movement on and off the farm, including dogs and visitors. Take extra precautions for cleaning and disinfection.
  • Ideally, assign separate people to care for sick and healthy animals.

Medical and Travel Records

Keep medical records for all horses on the property. This will allow you to check that horses are regularly receiving vaccinations and medical visits. You will also be able to see if horses have been exposed to or have contracted diseases in the past. This can help figure out which horses are at higher risk. Travel records are also essential to require from owners and to keep for 6 months or longer after the travel has occurred. In the event of a disease outbreak, the travel records may help you piece together where the disease originated. Vaccination records additionally can help trace back the disease or guide containment plans.

It is very useful to have a map of your farm, including stall and paddock locations for each horse. Other helpful information could include property and fence lines and water sources.

Medical Records Key Points

  • Keep medical records for all horses on the property.
  • Keep travel records from owners to allow for tracebacks in the event of a disease outbreak.
  • Map your farm, with locations of stalls and paddocks for each horse.