Biosecurity for Horse Owners

equine biosecurity, equine guelph, preventing horse diseases, protecting horses public

Alicia Skelding, Equine Guelph

The term biosecurity refers to management practices that reduce the chance of infectious disease being carried onto a farm by animals or people, as well as the spread of infectious disease on farms. All infectious diseases of the horse result from interactions between the animal and its environment, and depend upon the animal’s ability to resist disease (immunity) and the infectious agent (bacteria, viruses, and parasites). These interactions provide opportunities for preventing or reducing infectious diseases.

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Before being introduced to other horses, the new arrival should be isolated for 30 days, and checked daily for signs of illness. Photo: Thinkstock/Athuristock


New Arrivals – Infectious diseases are most commonly spread when a new horse that is carrying the disease arrives at a property. A veterinary examination of the horse is recommended prior to its arrival. Depending on where the horse originated from, the veterinarian may call for specific tests to be conducted to rule out infectious diseases.

New horses should be isolated from resident horses for 30 days. The horse should be checked daily for signs of illness, including monitoring temperature and intake of food and water. Separate stable/yard equipment, buckets, grooming supplies, tack, etc., should be used for new horses and marked with red tape. The new horse should be handled last, morning and night, and the caregiver should wash their hands upon leaving the horse’s stall or paddock.

Vaccination – Vaccination can be a critical aspect of controlling infectious diseases because in many instances owners cannot prevent exposure. It is important to remember that vaccination cannot prevent disease. Vaccines perform best if the disease challenge is minimized. In some instances, vaccination does not provide protection against infection but merely decreases the severity of clinical disease. Vaccination serves to increase resistance against certain diseases in individual horses as well as in horse populations.

A vaccination program is most effective when it is planned to meet the particular needs of a farm.

Setting up a strategic vaccination program means:

  • Determining what diseases to vaccinate against;
  • Identifying which animals will most benefit from vaccination; and
  • Finding out when the animals will most need the protection that vaccines provide.

equine biosecurity, equine guelph, preventing horse diseases, protecting horses public

Infectious diseases are commonly spread when a new horse that is carrying the disease arrives at the property. Photo: S. Carter/Flickr

Your veterinarian will provide guidelines for a vaccination program that suits your needs.

Quarantine – Quarantine, or completely separating the horse from contact with other horses, is a smart strategy for limiting the transmission of disease. A sick horse should be separated from his apparently healthy barn mates. A new arrival should be quarantined from resident horses. When setting up a quarantine facility, whether it is one stall or many, consider how you will best limit the spread of infection.

  • Limit the amount of shared airspace between quarantined horses and the general population, ideally by placing the isolation stalls in a separate building.
  • Limit movement of insects by screening doors and windows and using insecticidal sprays.
  • Equip the quarantine facility with separate feeding, mucking, and grooming equipment.
  • If possible, your quarantine barn should be downwind of your main barn.

Quarantine is not strictly for sick or new horses. Horses that have left the farm for showing or breeding purposes also have the potential to bring germs home. These horses should be isolated for at least two weeks and there should be no nose-to-nose contact with other horses.


Personnel – Assign specific individual(s) to care for affected horses. Ideally a caretaker should not be responsible for both healthy and exposed/affected horses but if this is unavoidable, care of healthy animals should be completed first, exposed animals next, affected animals last. Disposable gloves, plastic booties, and barrier clothing should be used when working with sick horses.

After handling sick horses, gloves and booties should be disposed of in a sealed trash container and clothing placed in a covered hamper. Hands must be washed under running water with liquid soap for a minimum of 15 seconds.

Visitors – Ideally there should be only one entrance/exit into your farm, marked as the main entrance. Parking should be away from horses to help keep disease-carrying organisms from being tracked from car floors or tires to your horses. If the farrier or veterinarian needs to park closer, be sure their tires and shoes have been disinfected. Ask all visitors to wear clean clothes and shoes. Give visitors plastic shoe covers, or brush dirt off their shoes and spray with disinfectant. If you have many visitors, such as a farm tour or open house, make a footbath for them to walk through.

Keep records of visitors to your farm with date, time, name, and purpose of the visit. On larger properties, record details of the horses each visitor came in contact with.

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The quarantine facility should be equipped with separate grooming supplies, tack, buckets and stable equipment. Photo: David Blaine/Flickr

Away From Farm – Coming into contact with a diseased horse at an event or activity is another way in which horses can be infected with a disease. When attending events, take your own equipment (buckets, tack, grooming supplies) and do not share equipment or use communal water troughs. Closely monitor your horse’s health while at the event. To minimize direct contact, avoid tying or turning your horse out with other horses, and always wash your hands if you have touched other horses. Good records of horse movement should be kept, and on returning home from the event your equipment, tack and transport vehicles should be disinfected. 

Management Practices

Manure and Bedding – Waste management procedures are not limited to organisms shed in feces but are applicable to all infectious agents. Manure on wheelbarrow tires, tractor tires, etc., is a potential source of the infectious agent, and can be tracked everywhere on the grounds if tires are not properly cleaned and disinfected. Do not put waste material from the stalls of affected horses onto open-air manure piles or pits, and do not spread manure from affected horses on pastures.

Equipment/Supplies – Horse-specific equipment such as feed tubs, water buckets, halters, etc., should be clearly identified as belonging to an individual horse and used only by that horse. Shared equipment such as lead shanks, lip chains, bits, twitches, thermometers, etc., should be cleaned of organic debris and disinfected before contact with another horse.

All equipment should be thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned with detergent and water, rinsed, disinfected, and then rinsed again.  This should be done in an area with minimal foot and traffic flow that can be cleaned and disinfected after this procedure. Cloth items such as saddle pads, towels, and bandages should be laundered and thoroughly dried between each use (disinfectant may be added to the rinse water). Equipment that cannot be effectively disinfected such as sponges and brushes should not be shared between horses. Multiple dose medications should be labeled for use by a specific horse and not shared.

Disinfecting – The number one rule for disease control is cleaning. This means the removal of all manure and feed, followed by washing, scrubbing, rinsing or pressure washing all surfaces with hot water and detergent.

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Ensure staff, boarders, and visitors to your barn understand and follow biosecurity practices. Photo: Thinkstock/George Doyle

This is followed by the use of a disinfectant. There are three steps in order for this process to be effective.

  • Step 1: Remove loose material. Surfaces must first be cleaned in order for disinfectants to be effective. Ensure all manure and dirt is brushed off the surface.
  • Step 2: Wash. Wash the item or surface with warm soapy water and rinse thoroughly and dry.
  • Step 3: Disinfect. Once the item or surface is dry, disinfectant can be applied.

Tack items and footwear can be wiped with a disinfectant wipe, or sprayed with disinfectant and wiped over with a clean dry cloth. Horse transport vehicles and floors of stables can be sprayed with disinfectant made up in a spray bottle or large surface sprayer. When choosing a disinfectant, it is also important to refer to the specific product claim including the spectrum of activity. It is important to read the labels carefully and to follow the directions including accurately calculating the dilutions and respecting the recommended contact time.

Environment – Vermin control is critical, as pests can transmit a number of diseases. Rodent, bird, and insect control should be evaluated and upgraded as necessary. Stall windows should have screens installed. A control program may include the use of traps, repellants, and/or insecticides and rodenticides. Non-equines (goats, cats, dogs) should not be permitted within the primary perimeter.

Horse owners need to do everything they can to reduce the risk of an infectious disease being introduced to their property and horses. Taking basic precautions is common sense and once you’re in the habit, they are quite easy to implement. Reducing the incidence of infectious disease in our animals saves time and money, and enhances quality of life of both horses and owners. Prevention is always easier than cleanup.

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When attending shows, closely monitor your horse’s health and do not share tack or equipment. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

Equine Biosecurity and Access Management

A crucial aspect of your biosecurity plan is managing access or controlling how horses, humans, and equipment are able to move into and around your farm. Access management is the use of physical barriers and/or procedural barriers to reduce transmission of pathogens onto, within, and between horse farms and facilities by people, horses, equipment, materials, and vehicles.

Proper access management will help you to:

  • Identify and block pathways for disease transmission
  • Control unwanted and unnecessary access to the facility and horses
  • Manage movement of people, horses, equipment, materials, and vehicles
  • Reduce the risk of spreading disease in the event of an outbreak

Establishing biosecure zones will allow for the separation and protection of horses, humans, and areas within a facility. There are two types of zones – controlled access zones and restricted access zones.

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A controlled access zone contains facilities that are indirectly involved in caring for horses, and areas such as laneways and storage buildings. A restricted access zone is an area within a controlled access zone where horses commonly reside, such as barns, paddocks, and quarantine areas. Restricted access zones will have stricter biosecurity measures and will restrict access to horses. Controlled access points are entry points to each zone.

Best Practices for Horse and Facility Access

  • Review the facility to determine biosecurity risks and create controlled access and restricted access zones.
  • Create segregated areas for new arrivals, horses returning from off property, and for treatment of sick horses.
  • Keep all zones free of debris and manure which may pose a potential disease risk.
  • Ensure all biosecurity equipment, such as hand sanitizer and disinfectant, are provided at designated access points.
  • Post signage to direct people and inform them of biosecurity zones and measures.
  • Allow outside equipment, tools, and vehicles into controlled access zones only when doing so is unavoidable.

equine biosecurity, equine guelph, preventing horse diseases, protecting horses public

The manure on wheelbarrow and tractor tires is a potential source of infection and be tracked everywhere. Photo: Canstock/Ingrid Deelen

Best Practices for People Access

  • Ensure staff, boarders, and outside professionals such as vets and farriers understand and follow biosecurity practices, including the use of zones.
  • Limit nonessential traffic, especially to restricted access zones.
  • Visitors should not be allowed into controlled access zones if they have had recent contact (less than 48 hours) with horses known to be or suspected of being infected with a contagious disease, or if they have recently returned (less than five days) from a foreign country where they had contact with equines or other livestock.
  • Visitors should be informed of biosecurity practices before entering the facility. A visitor log can be used to document visitor access, which can be helpful in the event of a disease outbreak.

Published with the kind permission of Equine Guelph

Main article photo: iStock/Virgonira