Secondhand Tack and Disease
Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor
Buying used tack can be a boon for your pocketbook, giving you a chance to own that perfect saddle or bridle for a lot less than it would cost new. The downside is that secondhand equipment can sometimes harbor the causative agents for contagious illnesses that can affect you or your horse. Here's what to watch for the next time that bargain is too good to pass up.
The Creeping Crud And The Flu
For a horse that's generally healthy, the good news is that a few precautions can prevent most disease transmission. The key is in knowing what's contagious via equipment, how it's transmitted, and what you can do to contain the spread.
"In terms of the most common skin problems horses can catch from tack and equipment, it's mainly diseases such as ringworm and rain rot, which can be spread through direct contact," says Tracy Norman, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, a clinical assistant professor of equine internal medicine and ultrasound at Texas A&M University (TAMU) College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. "Respiratory diseases such as equine influenza virus, equine herpesvirus, and Streptococcus equi (which causes strangles) are mainly transmissible via aerosolized droplets among horses in the same airspace, such as in the same barn or trailer, or in adjoining stalls separated only by bars or grilles."
However, Norman says both types of diseases can also be transmitted via fomites, including saddles, grooming utensils, and other types of tack and equipment.
Fomites are objects or substances that are capable of carrying infectious organisms or pathogens, such as germs or parasites, from a primary host to another individual. A fomite can be a bucket, a brush, a saddle pad, or another piece of equipment.
The Fungus Among Us
The skin and respiratory conditions transmissible by way of used tack and equipment (primarily viral, fungal, or bacterial) are typically curable and also largely preventable. Here's an overview of the most common ones; visit TheHorse.com for comprehensive descriptions of clinical signs and treatment protocols. Be sure to consult your equine veterinarian about signs you suspect as evidence of contagious disease in your horse.
Dermatophytosis (ringworm) can be caused by several different varieties of fungi. Infection results in a round, scaly, itchy area with hair loss. It's zoonotic, meaning it is transmissible to humans. And, since it spreads readily and is challenging and time-consuming to eradicate, prevention is always preferable.
Dermatophilosis (also known as rain rot or dew scald) is a crusty, scabby skin condition caused by the bacterium Dermatophilus congolensis. Once these bacteria enter a site where the skin has been compromised, they send out threadlike tentacles into the skin's outer layer (epidermis), causing an inflammatory response.
Lice and Mites are other organisms that can hitch a ride on tack. Horse lice thrive in cold weather and long winter coats; they're also different from those affecting humans. Horses with lice infestations often have greasy skin, heavy dandruff, and hair that comes out easily. While lice are classified as insects, mites are parasites similar to ticks. Mites can cause mange, and different mite types feed on everything from hair follicles to lymph fluid.
Equine influenza is not contagious to humans, but we can transfer it between horses. This virus can live for a short period of time on a number of surfaces, such as skin, fabric, and tack, although it's easily killed with commonly used soaps and disinfectants.
Equine herpesvirus is not a single virus; there are eight different types of equine herpesviruses that cause problems ranging from respiratory illness, to neurologic syndromes, to abortions in pregnant mares. Three of them, EHV-1, EHV-3, and EHV-4, are the types causing the most clinically significant issues.
Streptococcus equi (which causes strangles) can spread very rapidly within a horse population via fomite transmission, environmental contamination, and direct nose-to-nose contact. Nasal discharges contain high numbers of the bacteria within the mucus, which sticks to surfaces the horse touches with his nose.
According to Scott Weese, DVM, DVSc, Dipl. ACVIM, an associate professor at the University of Guelph, whether or not your horse catches these bugs depends a great deal on the timing of contact or exposure. "Theoretically, many bacteria, viruses, and fungi are transmissible via tack," he says. "If a piece of tack is moved quickly from one horse to another, such as on the same farm or facility, the chance of exposure or infection is much greater than if there's a contact buffer of days or weeks."
Through his work at Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College in the Department of Pathobiology, Weese helps coordinate the EquIDblog (www.equidblog.com), an equine infectious disease (EID) and infection control information resource. He says skin diseases are of greater concern when you've purchased used equipment due to the longer "shelf life" of the causative agents. "Ringworm can survive for weeks if the conditions are right," he cautions.
Both Norman and Weese report that skin breaks, whether they are insect bites or skin abrasions from tack, typically precipitate infection. "The skin normally is a highly efficient barrier to infection," says Weese. "When that barrier is compromised through damage of any type, it allows contagious agents to enter."
Proximity of a fomite to an infection site is another variable. "If there's live equine influenza virus on a saddle pad, but it doesn't go near your horse's nose or mouth, it's less likely to cause a problem," he notes. "That's different than having influenza on a bit or in a bucket, which are more likely to come into contact with those infection sites."
Hands require constant vigilance, especially during outbreaks. "We always worry about our hands," says Norman. "Viruses, bacteria, and fungi can all be spread through direct contact. It's common sense and good hygiene to wash your hands in between horses, or at least after you've been handling a sick horse."
The Parts of The Whole
Knowing the history of used tack and equipment--where it came from and who used it on what horses--is always helpful. But, if you've bought something online or at a used tack sale, you might be on your own in assessing contagion risks. We'll break it down by category to provide you some guidelines on how to sanitize tack before you use it.
Metal can be easily disinfected. Bits, lead chains, hay racks or feed equipment (either metal or plastic), and stall cleaning tools should be cleaned with soap and water, then they can be sprayed with or immersed in a bleach or disinfectant solution, such as a 10-to-1 ratio of water to household bleach. After 10 to 30 minutes they should be rinsed off. For bits and feeding/watering equipment, go a step further and wash with mild soap and water to remove any disinfectant smell or taste.
Leather is more problematic since it's not easily sterilized. Weese says removing any debris, such as accumulations of dirt, sweat, and dried skin cells, plus a thorough cleaning with a nondestructive cleaning agent, is the best thing you can do. Norman agrees, and she adds that using a leather sealant can provide an extra layer of protection.
Fabric items, such as blankets, saddle pads, coolers, and string girths, should be washed or dry-cleaned whenever possible. This can even extend to nylon or rope halters, lead ropes, and leg wraps or bandages. Items should be dried with hot air in a clothes dryer, if possible. Hot air is much more effective at killing bacteria than air drying. If a fabric item can't be laundered, putting it in the dryer for a cycle can kill germs, as well as mites and lice, according to Norman.
Combination equipment requires a different approach. Take a Western saddle, for instance. Cleaning the leather is one thing, but how do you decontaminate the fleece? Norman and Weese advise putting a saddle (or other hard-to- sanitize pieces of equipment) out in the sun, since ultraviolet (UV) rays are excellent disinfectants.
All of this is good in theory, but how does it work in real life? Denielle Gallagher-LeGriffon, Grand Prix dressage rider at Suffern, N.Y.-based Ramapo Equestrian Center and a former groom for Olympian Ashley Holzer, offers some experience-based guidance for other horse owners.
"If tack is being shared between horses, we give it a quick clean between each ride, using water and saddle soap and wiping it down with a towel," she says. "However, if we notice any symptoms, right away we completely quarantine all of that horse's equipment, from tack to brushes, and even towels."
Farm staff members used this approach successfully with an acquired horse already infected with ringworm. "We sprayed our hands every time we touched or patted the horse, plus we washed his brushes every day so we wouldn't reinfect him the next day," recalls Gallagher.
If your horse or his stablemates come down with something unusual, calling in an expert can be warranted. "If you have something that's not super-straightforward, or it doesn't resolve quickly, there's always a risk of it becoming more virulent," says Norman. In her role as internal medicine specialist, she's on the front line at TAMU's treatment clinic, often seeing "mystery cases" and diagnostic challenges. "Your veterinarian can always take a skin scraping, or use other diagnostic tests, to determine exactly what the problem is and the best treatment protocol."
A Minute of Prevention
Basic precautions combined with common sense go a long way in preventing contagion-swapping via pre-owned equipment and switching tack between horses. Weese says it's about decreasing the avenues for infectious agents to reach your horse.
"Removing dirt and debris, and improving cleanliness, are important," says Weese. "Be sure to consider how things are transmitted, and the various parts of used tack that could harbor contaminants."
Many bacteria can survive in sheltered, moist environments for several weeks. That means any new-to-you tack should have a quarantine period before introducing it to your own horses.
Since full disclosure isn't always available with a secondhand or consigned tack purchase, Norman advises keeping an attentive ear and listening for tales of illness that might be linked to the equipment. Weese seconds that approach, adding that it's always best to know the history of a piece of equipment. And no matter where something came from, a deep clean is always a sound idea.
In the long run, the old clichï¿½ "healthy as a horse" might just be in our favor. "For the most part, horses are healthy," says Norman. That's good for us, good for our horses, and good for our checkbooks when bargains are afoot at a used tack sale.
About the Author
POLL: Saddle Fitting