Alice’s horse sadly contracted Strangles

Strangles… Maybe we should change the name? Would that stop the panic that sets in with every horse owner? – We need to stop the stigma!

The last four months have been hell. My horse was confirmed to have strangles on 6 March. At first he was ok in himself, just a slight temperature. I called the vet, as my horse had also been coughing for about a week, and it just hadn’t shifted. I got the results on the Tuesday and from there it all went downhill. The yard made a public announcement and closed instantly.

At the time my horse was confirmed, I was working part time at a local racing yard. I called them straight away to let them know the situation. Much to my surprise, they told me to take extra precautions and wear clean clothes when going to work there. They were the most understanding people I have come across yet.

He was referred to Liphook, put onto drips and needed 24-hour care. Slowly but surely he made improvements, but a week and a half later I got the phone call that no owner wants to ever receive. My horse had passed away. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing… surely not? He was due to come home in the next few days. My heart stopped; and a part of me died. I later realised he would live on in the memories I would cherish forever. The news about my horse soon reached the yard, and everyone was mortified. The staff and liveries at the yard organised a BBQ and fun show to raise money, I also set up a fundraising page. Overall we raised nearly £2000. As my vet bills were double the amount my insurance would cover, this was an amazing help.

Having owned my horse for 12 years this was the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with, but with the help and support of everyone at the yard, liveries and staff included, I managed to keep going. During his time at Liphook, two other horses at the yard were confirmed to have strangles. They were moved to a new isolation block over 250 metres from the main yard. There didn’t seem to be any correlation between the confirmed horses, they were all in different herds and stabled on different parts of the yard. The hardest thing to get our heads around was that he had not been on site for two weeks and before that he was in strict isolation. Clinical signs of strangles usually occur within 4-14 days of them being infected. My horse had also lived in for most of the winter, as he would stand by the gate all day. Therefore I only turned him out every few days for a leg stretch with one other horse. (Who was showing no signs) So how was this possible?

After everything that had gone on, much to my disappointment, I decided the right thing to do would be to leave the racing yard and stick with the familiarity of the riding school and the people that had been like my family for the last four years.

I got in into my head it was a bad omen, as every phone call I had received regarding my horse was on my drive home from there! Although it sounds silly I am glad I made that decision as the next few months continued to be a struggle. The business slowly started to pick up once the other two confirmed cases had been scoped clear and things were looking like they would improve for all of us.

Then, the wonderful world of social media came crashing down on us. It definitely has a lot to answer for! When the public came across a positive blood result from a horse that was due to leave the yard the world of Facebook went crazy! (Blood tests are usually taken to screen new horses when entering premises or when looking into which horses may need further investigation when trying to identify a carrier. It seemed we were hated by all, and seemed to be in the wrong the entire time. The insults fired at us were unbelievable! It got to the point where I didn’t even want to look at the Riding School Facebook page. I had ‘hate speech’ regarding the loss of my beloved best friend; called a money grabber, as well as greedy and heartless. I couldn’t sit down in the evening without bursting into tears. Why were we being treated this way when any horse anywhere could be positive? As well as grieving for my horse I was all of a sudden left with managing the Riding School and livery yard as other staff had recently left having given no notice.

A positive blood test simply indicates that a horse has been exposed to the bacteria either recently or in the past but does not necessarily mean a horse is actively infectious. A positive blood result simply informs us that further investigations are needed to discover whether the horse just has raised antibody levels from an infection in the past or whether a horse is a ‘healthy’ carrier of the disease. The horse in question was confirmed to be a carrier and treated straight away with antibiotics. Many people did not realise a carrier could even be treated. Although the procedure of scoping is expensive, it is the only way to treat and cure a carrier.

The online abuse was out of control we had been accused of lying and hiding information. Bullying was taking place on the staffs private Facebook pages. It was never ending. The yard had opened up again as normal and business was beginning to build up and now it was all hitting rock bottom again. The tack shop on site also suffered dramatically due to people’s lack of knowledge and miss-understanding of the disease. We had remarks made about buying feed, more than a few people commenting about not wanting to have rugs washed there. Even some that had been washed and owners who were too ‘terrified’ to collect them. Strangles can only be spread by direct contact with an infected horse, or by objects that are contaminated with infectious material such as water buckets or clothing. Isolation of infected animals and implementation of simple hygiene measures prevent further transmission. Not only that the carrier onsite was not ill with strangles, therefore there was nothing to be passed on through contact by any staff or liveries using the shop. The carrier was however put into isolation immediately, although we did not know for sure if she was shedding. (Carriers can shed intermittently) We moved her whilst she received her treatment.

The yard made the executive decision to encourage owners to have all horses blood tested and any new horses entering in the future would undergo the same procedures. After blood testing each and every horse on site the results began to reach my email account… Less than 50% came back positive but still, a higher number than what we had hoped for. The ones we predicted may show a positive result were negative and horses that we thought to be negative came back positive! It’s such a complicated disease!

Somehow our results were published on social media yet again; this was not a problem as we were not ashamed. During the outbreak only three out of 50 horses contracted the disease demonstrating that good management had prevented further spread. All horses with positive or inconclusive results were booked in immediately for a guttural pouch wash in order to establish whether any of these horses were carrying the disease in their guttural pouches. Waiting for the results seemed to take a life time, really it was only a few days, but we were all on edge waiting for the news. The results trickled in… looking good so far… surely they couldn’t all come back negative? They had! We were finally out the other side!

The last few months had been almost impossible. Without the support and kindness of both liveries and staff at the yard I don’t know where we would be today. I would just like people to know the effects that social media can have on both individuals and businesses. Lack of knowledge and thoughtlessness had such a big impact on all of us at the Equestrian centre. The riding school have been happy to answer any questions regarding the situation and will be happy to do so in the future. We need to be upfront and honest about strangles! We all have horses for many of the same reasons and it is important that we all work together. It is important that nobody is at fault and blame is not directed at owners/individuals. We need to stop the stigma!

The hate speech and slander the Equestrian centre was subjected to, I feel would not encourage anyone to speak out in the future about something like this, so we all need to work together. We have had support and kind words from many people in the surrounding area, some of which rang the riding school direct. Positive comments on social media have also been published by individuals, and for this we are very grateful. We are pleased to announce that we are now running as normal and have competitions and clinics on the calendar for the coming months. Lessons are getting busier, and we are ready to enjoy the summer!