Mary heard about the gray gelding and immediately checked him out on Face Book. Her favorite horse color, and handsome to boot! Just 6 years old, so probably not lame from overuse. Perfect! He had received no bids at the New Jersey auction and was headed for what is called “the feed lot.” The old, not so nice, name for that was the killer pen. He would stay there for up to a week. If there were no offers to buy him for the set price, he would be put on the next truck to Canada or Mexico. That’s a one way trip.
Mary read all the instructions on the auction site, contacted the agent at the feed lot and bought him with plastic. She made calls to boarding barns near her and soon had a stall reserved. Ten minutes later she had transportation arranged and paid for. Within one hour May was a horse owner. Rescue horses are very, very easy to obtain. A week later the gelding was unloaded at the barn. Mary was there when the truck pulled in. The gelding came off calm, cool, and collected. Everything she had hoped for. He didn’t come with a name, but there was a tag on his right hip with the number 010, so Mary started calling him “Ten.” Wow, the perfect Ten! Mary was excited.
It was a 12 stall barn, and two were open. The barn owner thought it would be wise to put him next to one of the empty stalls as a protection against any disease he might be carrying. Ten settled right in and when Mary left an hour later he was eating hay. She took that next week off and was at the barn Monday and Tuesday, getting to know him. She purred as she groomed him and went about the business of getting him fitted with tack. He was turned out for a few hours every day with an empty paddock between him and the other horses.
Wednesday morning Mary arrived at the barn at 9 AM and was greeted by the barn owner: “Ten didn’t eat his grain this morning, and he seems kind of mopey.” Mary borrowed a digital thermometer from the stable first aid kit and took his temperature. 104 degrees! My office was called to check him out. When I heard where he came from, I told Mary that I thought Ten’s illness might be contagious and that I would come out, but it would be the last call of the day. I arrived at the farm at 5:30 that evening, and found Ten depressed, his temperature now 105 degrees. He had a snotty nose and was starting to swell under his jaw. I drew a blood sample and took a swab from way back in his nose. My recommendation was that he be totally isolated from the rest of the barn, hoping that he wouldn’t infect the others. The barn owner put him in a round pen 30 feet from the barn and turn outs. I gave instructions on how and when to handle him.
The isolation and my recommendations came too late. On Friday morning a mare two stalls down from Ten started to cough. Ten’s lab tests came in the next day and confirmed my suspicion of strangles. Typical of this messy upper respiratory disease is its slow march through a barn. Over the next two weeks three other horses in the barn got just as sick as Ten. A week later three others ran a fever with minor throat swellings and an occasional cough. Three others seemed unaffected, and looking into their history we learned that two had been vaccinated for strangles a year ago, and the other had strangles years before. The once busy barn became a hospital ward.
When one of the respiratory diseases hits, no one wants your horse (or you) at any equine activities. For a good two weeks after the last horse has recovered barn visits and new horses should be banned. The barn owner that took Ten in told me a year later that her active barn was essentially cut off from the rest of the horse world for four long months. The show season for them did not happen that year. I will never forget a large dressage barn a few miles west of me that had a strangles outbreak several years ago. There was a split down the middle of the 8 boarders as to how the epidemic and use of the indoor, etc was to be handled. There were many arguments, barn meetings, and hard feelings, and a couple of boarders left (when they could).
Strangles and influenza are two highly contagious diseases of horses. The virus of Influenza is easily spread through the air as an aerosol, and absolute quarantine with large distances from other horses is important. Strangles is a bacterial disease and is usually spread by nose to nose contact. However, as in this case, it can travel through a barn even with the precautions that were taken. Neither disease is fatal, but both make affected horses miserable and on the sick list for a long time.
I have never seen a time when horses have been moved as much as they are today. Equines with unknown histories are picked up at and by rescues. They are then trucked long distances with other horses from different locations. The confusion of an auction and mixing with strange horses is stressful, making them highly susceptible to infections. They may catch a bug, but may not show symptoms for a week. We should be super vigilant in guarding our horses’ health when a new one is brought onto the farm. If you are bringing in outside horses, it’s a good idea to talk to your veterinarian about what you might consider vaccinating against long before a new horse arrives.
I have a client with a lot of in and out horse traffic, and some are rescues like Ten. She learned how to handle the new horse problem while working at a stable that had a strangles episode. She was determined that it would never happen at her barn. There a new horse is put in a round pen located 50 feet away from other paddocks and the barn. No one is permitted within 10 feet of the round pen except her. There is a 3 sided shelter within the pen. In the morning she feeds by throwing hay over the top of the pen into the enclosure. The horse gets no grain in the morning. She fills the water pail with a hose running from an outside hydrant which is a few feet from the pen. She doesn’t touch the horse or even get within two feet of the enclosure all day. In the evening, after she has left her barn, she goes straight for the pen, wearing high rubber boots. She enters the pen and gives the new horse his grain then, from a bag kept in a secure metal container in the shelter. After he has finished his grain, she grooms and fusses over him. All grooming equipment and tack for that animal stays in the shelter. After giving him lots of attention, she heads for the house, takes a shower, and puts all her clothes into the washing machine. The boots get scrubbed and disinfected. This isolation lasts for 2 weeks. Her idea is that if symptoms were to develop it would likely be within that time. If the new horse does get sick, the outside stay is extended until he is symptom free for another 2 weeks. You will read various times for isolation, but I consider 2 weeks a reasonable time. It’s a quarantine system that I call solitary confinement. It works.
It is natural to want to introduce your new horse to all the horses in the barn and integrate them quickly into the barn routine. Be smart. Put them into solitary for 2 weeks and in the long haul you will save yourself all the worry and expense.