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Safety Measures Vets Should Take Around Horses

From injuries to zoonotic disease, why veterinarians need to take certain safety measures around horses.


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If you are reading this story, you’re probably deeply embedded in the equine industry and already know that horses and humans go together like peas and carrots. Although the relationship between the two species has changed dramatically over the past century, shifting from a working relationship to one based primarily on companionship in many parts of the world, the bond between the two remains strong.

In addition to the good feelings horses create in horse lovers’ souls, horses create jobs and support the economy. A recent economic report on the equine market, the direct economic impact of the U.S. equine industry alone is a whopping 39 billion dollars.

To put this value in context, the tobacco manufacturing industry is an estimated 34 billion dollars, the apparel manufacturing industry is almost 30 billion dollars, and the golf course/country club industry is 18 billion dollars. Further, the American Horse Council’s data suggest that when both direct (the horses and trainers, handlers, etc.) and indirect costs (e.g., manufactured items for the equine industry) are considered, the total equine U.S. industry is worth a cool $100 billion and counting.

Worldwide, there are approximately 60 million horses. Those horses participate in vast and varied activities including racing and other athletic endeavors, pony clubs, entertainment, therapy, law enforcement, and agriculture. While many humans involved in equine-based activities for pure pleasure, others rely on horses and horse-related activities for income, including veterinarians, trainers, grooms/handlers, farriers, coaches, transporters, etc.

But did you know that whatever role you play in this enormous and exciting industry, any contact between humans and horses is like a game of Russian roulette? Odds are, eventually you are going to get sick or hurt.

So Much for a Gift Horse

Laurence Sterne, an 18th century author once penned, “Pain and pleasure, like light and darkness, succeed each other.”

When it comes to horses, he couldn’t be truer.

Many of us are inexplicably drawn to horses (almost as strongly as a demonic possession), feeling both the excitement and calm these animals inspire. Yet the latest data regarding safety around horses is alarming.

For example, one in five riders will be injured after falling from a horse, sustaining severe injuries to the head and torso. Veterinarians have even better odds of injury than casual riders.

According to the British Equine Veterinary Association’s 2014 safety survey, equine veterinarians:

  • Can expect to be injured and require time off from work approximately 7 to 8 times over a 30-year career;
  • Most frequently suffer bruising, fractures, and lacerations when they are injured;
  • Will hurt their legs and heads after sustaining a horse-related injury;
  • Are kicked by horses’ hind limbs or struck with their forelimbs most often;
  • Lose consciousness in 7 percent of injuries caused by horses; and,
  • Can be killed in potentially avoidable workplace injuries involving horses.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing (read: disturbing) facts about horse-related injuries is that equine veterinarians have higher rates of injury than other civilian occupations, including those in construction, the prison service, and firefighters. Further, a study by an Australian research duo published in Animals in 2016 reported that while “significant” decreases in injury and death in workplaces traditionally viewed as dangerous (e.g., mining, construction) have occurred over the past several decades, absolutely no change in the rate of injury or death for humans interacting with horses have ensued.

Beyond Injury

As if the injury data aren’t frustrating (and fear-inducing for family and friends of those involved in the equine industry) enough, we haven’t even addressed the risk of zoonotic diseases.

Together with Scott Weese, DVM, MSc, Dipl. ACVIM, a professor in the Department of Pathobiology at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have created an online resources called “Healthy Pets Healthy People.” The pages provide information regarding the spread of disease from horses, which in the U.S. are predominantly considered companion animals, to humans.

Luckily, the list of disease shared between horses and humans is relatively small. Classic examples include ringworm, salmonellosis, and even more rarely, rabies, anthrax, and cryptosporidiosis. Disease requiring a vector (tick, mosquito) to spread disease from horses to humans include the viral encephalitides, such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease (caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi).

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), also frequently shared between horses and humans, began to cause quite a stir in the equine industry beginning in the early 2000s. Recall MRSA can cause serious morbidity and even mortality due to skin/soft-tissue infections, pneumonia, and joint infections. Today, MRSA is one of the most important nosocomial (one derived in a hospital setting) pathogens affecting equine veterinary hospitals, according to a recent study.

Not to be bested by MRSA, the bacterium Streptococcus equi subspecies zooepidemicus recently reared its ugly head, proving it too can wreak havoc in both horses and humans. Earlier this year, Step zoo was identified as the cause of death of one woman after handling both sick and healthy horses infected with the bacterium.

Although unfortunate, this case highlights the facts that a) even apparently healthy horses can carry potentially fatal pathogens and b) many people throughout the industry are not particularly concerned about their own health when handling sick horses.

Can’t Fix Crazy (Or Can You?)

Evel Knievel, yes the famous motorcycle daredevil, sustained multiple serious injuries during the span of his career. Self-inflicted, avoidable injuries from performing crazy stunts…similar to some of the procedures that equine veterinarians and technicians perform each and every day.

Just like Mr. Knievel chose to perform his crazy stunts despite his long and colorful history of near-death experiences, equine veterinarians and associated staff could be considered daredevils as well. Medical daredevils. After all, many diseases and injuries could be prevented through the use of basic hand hygiene, appropriate biosecurity measures, the use of personal protective equipment, and the national and global institution of Workplace Health and Safety Framework that already exist for most other workplaces throughout the world.

Highlighting this fact is the “Think Ahead” concept spearheaded by Jill Butterworth, BVetMed, MRCVS, from Village Veterinary Surgery in Herfordshire, UK. The premise is simple: all veterinarians, nurses/technicians, and handlers should embrace the use of protective safety helmets (not to be lumped in with riding helmets)

Okay cowboys and cowgirls, I can feel you rolling your eyes. Like Austin Powers, “Danger” is your middle name, right? According to Butterworth, common reasons equine veterinarians don’t wear protective personal wear are similar to the reason teenagers fail to dress appropriately in extreme weather:

  • Vanity;
  • Fashion;
  • Peer pressure;
  • Resistance to change; and,
  • Fear of showing weakness.

Butterworth and other workplace safety organizations and advocates strongly encourage all personnel involved in the equine industry to prevent avoidable injuries and protect themselves when dealing with large, unpredictable animals to finally reduce life-threatening injuries to humans.

Alternatively, we can stay the path, relying on archaic modes of personal protection like coal miners using canaries to warn them of the presence of toxic gasses.

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