Protecting your horse from becoming ill or injured is most owners top priority and fortunately, there are various management methods that can reduce the risk of either, both as an individual and as part of a larger herd. Giving their expert advice, Head of Orthopaedics Dr Sue Dyson and Head of Bacteriology Dr Andrew Waller, both from the Animal Health Trust (AHT), discuss prevention methods.
The Animal Health Trust (AHT) is the charity fighting disease and injury in horses. Disease and injury are a far bigger threat to animals than neglect, and the AHT clinicians work around the clock to provide care for those animals in need now, in addition to the scientists taking steps to prevent these in the future. Just as the AHT brings their clinical research and treatments together, as horse owners we too should work together to protect the wider equine community.
Protecting your horse from injury is fundamental for ensuring a long and healthy ridden career, as well as a sound retirement. Dr Sue Dyson, Head of Orthopaedics, starts by explaining the most crucial, yet overlooked part of exercise: the warm-up.
Don’t forget to warm-up
“Exercise-induced injuries can be avoided by warming up adequately,” begins Sue. “In a warm-up, you are physically warming up your horse’s muscles, tendons and ligaments so that everything is ready to exercise and protected from injury.
“Spend 10-15 minutes on basic exercise – that’s slow walk, trot and canter. While your horse needs to be warmed up, try not to over-exercise in your warm-up. There’s no good in exhausting your horse before you start training or a competition. You need to find a balance that suits you both.
“We conducted a recent study into the biomechanics of showjumpers. We went to a training yard in order to acquire video footage of the horses jumping under controlled conditions. The riders were told that they had a 20 minute warm-up period, but that they could say when they were ready to start jumping. The mean warm-up was seven minutes, and nobody used the full 20 minutes. This may be typical of their day-to-day work pattern. There are a lot of showjumpers that are not fit enough for the work that they’re going to do, and because they also are not warmed up adequately before they’re asked to perform, are at risk of injury.”
Remember to cool down
Just like the warm-up, the cool down is vital, as Sue explains, “It is essential to spend time cooling your horse down after activity to prevent injury. Don’t just put the horse back on the lorry or in its stable, and, if needed, make sure you have the right rugs so he doesn’t get cold standing around. Cold muscles when a horse starts exercising and cold muscles afterwards will result in bad long-term consequences for the horse.”
The type of surface a horse is exercised on must also be considered, as each will behave differently under the hoof and provide the horse with different levels of support. Sue adds, “Recent research conducted by the AHT and partners has shown that surfaces behave differently depending on the surfaces’ composition and type of maintenance, and consequently affect the biomechanics of the horse. For example, waxed sand with fibre surfaces will be more stable than sand with rubber and will therefore provide a firmer platform for internal structures during take-off and landing.
“Exposing horses to multiple variable surfaces is important in ensuring the structures within the limb can withstand the forces of peak loading on the different surface types and for proprioceptive conditioning, as you’re not going to have the same surface at every competition or within one venue. For example, Hickstead’s grass course with the famous bank obstacle is now different to Windsor which now has purpose-built arenas with an ‘artificial surface’. At the Dublin International Horse Show, horses warm up on an artificial surface and compete on grass. The horse therefore, has got to have been accommodated to working in different environments and on various surfaces so it is accustomed to them. If you normally run on grass and you suddenly run two miles on the road, you’re going to be sore – the same applies to your horse. Maintaining your surface is also vital; results showed that regular maintenance reduced the risk of injury to horses working on them.”
Know your horse’s legs
“Tendon injuries are common in sport horses and detection of early signs of injury is crucial to prevent more serious injury,” explains Sue. “It is therefore important to know how your horse’s legs look and feel on a daily basis. Get in the habit of trotting the horse up in hand on the day after fast work and checking that the horse is sound. Correct foot balance and appropriate trimming and shoeing are important to minimise the risks of foot-related injuries; make sure that you have a regular appointment with your farrier at least every five weeks.”
The right fit
Ill-fitting tack will impede on performance and over time, cause pain. “Amongst showjumpers in particular, there is a high prevalence of back pain,” describes Sue. “Showjumpers are notorious for not having saddles properly fitted, and for using their favourite saddle on several different horses, irrespective of fit. In a survey of 506 sports horses we assessed saddle-fit; there was a far higher prevalence of ill-fitting saddles among the showjumpers, and they were also much less likely to have their saddle-fit checked regularly, compared with other disciplines. The pressures under the front of the saddle are markedly increased when a horse lands over a fence, even with a well-fitting saddle. Performance could be improved if showjumpers were more aware of the importance of correct saddle fit – and this applies to a rider at any level.”
Safe from illness
Keeping our horses safe from preventable illness is part of our duty of care as owners. Regular vaccinations and taking necessary precautions will ensure that our horses remain protected from potentially life threatening illnesses as Dr Andrew Waller, Head of Bacteriology explains. “Vaccination is one of the most effective methods of preventing equine influenza. Several different vaccines are available in the UK, but the overall principles apply to all of them. Booster vaccinations given once or twice a year maintain a strong immune response that will significantly reduce the clinical signs of disease. Vaccination also improves speed of recovery and reduces the amount of virus shedding to minimise the risk of transmission and spread of disease to other horses.”
Yet vaccinations shouldn’t be given on a selective basis, they ought to be given to all horses and ponies, no matter their use. “Vaccination of companion ponies and older horses should also be considered, as even if they don’t leave the yard themselves, they are at risk of being infected by other horses that do travel,” Andrew continues. “Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine available to protect against strangles, but we are confident that a new strangles vaccine will be available for use within the next two years.
Keep your germs to yourself
“Disease spreads very quickly and horses can be infected before they show any signs, so if you suspect a horse has an infection it is important to isolate it from other horses,” describes Andrew. “If it is possible, it is also sensible to isolate horses that have been in contact with the infected individual in case they are now incubating the disease. Be vigilant when attending events (avoid your horse sharing drinking water with another horse and nose-to-nose contact) as this can help reduce the risk of bringing infections like Strangles back to your yard. A drop of pus from an infected horse contains as many as two million bacteria. Around one thousand bacteria are enough to set up an infection in a horse that could, in time, lead to the development of Strangles – so one drop, or cough could in theory infect two thousand horses!”
When a new horse enters a yard, its presence puts others at risk, as although it may not be presenting active symptoms of illness, it may be carrying an infection that will infect others. “As horses can be incubating or carrying infections such as Strangles before showing any signs of disease, it is good practice to isolate and quarantine new arrivals to the yard,” advises Andrew. “It is advised that all new horses entering a yard should be quarantined for a minimum of three weeks. The temperatures of new horses should be taken daily and any clinical signs of disease noted and reported immediately to the attending veterinary surgeon. Any signs of infection should become apparent during this time and will therefore reduce the risk of spreading the disease to other resident horses. Strangles can be a huge threat to a yard or business, so quarantining new arrivals and testing them to make sure they are not carriers of Strangles is a good way to protect existing residents.”
As viruses and bacteria can survive outside of the horse, it is important that a horse’s environment remains sanitary, as does any equipment used on it. Andrew explains, “Objects such as head collars, tack, grooming kits and feed and water buckets can also be sources of infection. The Strangles bug can survive on grass, tack and fence posts for up to a week (less if the sun is shining and more if the weather is cold and wet) and in drinking water for up to a month! Most disinfectants are sufficient to destroy the virus or bacteria, but avoid sharing tack and equipment between horses because the bacteria could be waiting to jump to its next host.”
A second too late
When it comes to infection, the faster you recognise the illness and act, the early treatment can be provided. “The spread of infection can happen within the blink of an eye and you can only control the biosecurity measures you put in place, where others may not be so vigilant. If you identify an infection, especially for a disease as contagious and potentially debilitating to both horses and businesses as Strangles, you should act immediately and call your veterinary surgeon,” urges Andrew. “It is important to act quickly in quarantining infected animals to prevent further spread, so it is advisable to identify a suitable area on the yard for isolating animals if you ever needed to. Collect potentially infected equipment and tack for thorough disinfecting and clearly sign post the quarantined area to be sure no contamination occurs back on the main yard.”
For further details of the steps that can be taken to prevent strangles, please see: https://www.aht.org.uk/strangles.org/pdf/steps.pdf
Keeping our horses safe from injury and protected against infection are both fundamentals we must provide as responsible horse owners. While accidents are often unavoidable, taking steps to ensure our horses stay safe in situations under our control will ensure they lead happy and healthy lives, and we can enjoy our time with them fully.