Horses that come out of the auctions and the killpens have been exposed to many other horses. In addition, they are more likely to get sick due to the stress of being shuffled around and underfed. Rescuing horses is hard and risky, but it’s worth the hard work and risks. Don’t let your fear of disease, deter you from helping horses. They are easily managed and mitigated.

I have found that there really are just two health worries when rescuing horses: Pneumonia & Strangles. Every other health ailment you encounter in quarantining will pale in comparison.

The good news about Pneumonia is it is not contagious. The bad news is it can be fatal.
I have had a terrible time rescuing donkeys. For a period of time half of the donkeys we rescued would die from pneumonia, until we finally figured out the root of the problem. Lungworms!

(Merek Veterinary Manual, 2016).

Lungworms are easily treated with a dose of Ivermectin (dewormer). Ivermectin is sold at most farm stores, and available online for as little as $1.99. Despite the price, it is best to assume that many of the donkeys who are dropped at the killpens in Texas have NEVER BEEN DEWORMED.

Donkeys are a natural host of this parasite because they tolerate a large infestation of lungworms without apparent signs. Therefore, their lungs are likely to be infested with lungworms that lie dormant until the stress of killpen-life weakens the donkey’s immune system.
Horses are less tolerant of lungworms and will demonstrate a cough once in contact with the parasite. Most horses are dewormed regularly – or at least far more regularly than the donkeys we see in killpens. This may explain why instances of pneumonia are less frequent in the horses we save.

Either way – we worm donkeys and horses usually at the killpen (if they are healthy) and give them a dose of Exceed (antibiotics). Most killpens offer this service for a small fee.


The dreaded Strangles – although it can be fatal, it rarely is more than a messy nuisance. I have been rescuing horses for so long and have seen enough Strangles that I don’t panic anymore when the symptoms appear. I just prepare myself for “lock down” for an extra 60 days. Clinical signs include stiff neck, fever, heavy nasal discharge, and swollen or enlarged lymph nodes under the throatlatch.

The good news is that Strangles is not airborne and therefore only spreads through direct contact between horses, or indirectly through tack, buckets, shoes, equipment, or handlers. The virus is reported to live 28 days on surfaces.

You can go ‘OCD-crazy’ cleaning, scrubbing and worrying – but in my experience, as long as your other horses are healthy and up to date on their strangles vaccinations, you don’t need to panic.

Strangles is a very cagey virus. In 99% of the cases, horses will come down with symptoms 3 to 14 days after being exposed to the virus. In rare cases, the virus can lie dormant for longer periods of time. Other extreme and rare cases include Bastard Strangles and horses that are “carriers” of the virus.

Rather than worry about the extreme cases, I recommend vaccinating all of your horses (and donkeys) for strangles. The intranasal strangles vaccine is given as a series of two doses spaced 2-3 weeks apart. After an initial series of two immunizations, a horse should receive a booster annually.

In my personal experience, horses with the nasal vaccine do not come down with strangles. I inadvertently proved this test when a horse came down with strangles while living in a paddock and sharing a water tub with three others who were vaccinated. Strangles did not spread to the other three horses, however the donkey who roamed freely on the property was not vaccinated, so Mary-the-Donkey came down with strangles.

Some vets will suggest antibiotics; others will not. I tend to just let it run its course, keep the wounds clean and feed bran mash if it appears the horse is having difficulty eating.

After all the symptoms disappear, allow an isolation period of 28-60 days to ensure that the disease is not still incubating before reintegrating the horse with others. If you choose to integrate earlier than 60 days, ask your vet to perform a nasal swab test for strangles. If it is negative, I recommend a disinfectant shampoo as an added precaution before integration with others. Rather than scrubbing and disinfecting after an infected horses has recovered, I opt to leave the paddock, stall and equipment idle/vacant for 60 days.

The good news is once your horse has had strangles, they are immuned from strangles for upto 10 years.

Other things to worry about:

Some horses arriving at the quarantine barn will have a temperature, will appear depressed or off their feed. It does take several days for a horse to rebound with your good care. If they don’t have lumps under their throat or a stiff neck, don’t worry too much over slight temperatures or decreased appetite.  It is helpful to be reminded of the vital signs of a healthy horse and making sure you are prepared with a fully appropriately stocked First Aid Kit.

Vital signs of a healthy horse.
• breathing rate of 8-16 breaths per minute
• heart rate of 24–45 beats per minute
• temperature of 36.5–38.5°C
• capillary refill time of 1-2 seconds
• hydration (pinch test) time of 1-2 seconds.

First Aid Kit
• Disinfectant
• Antiseptic Swabs and Scrubs
• Wound Powder/Ointment
• Antibiotic Aerosol
• Fly Repellent
• Sterile Bandages
• Regular Bandages
• Vet Wrap
• Duct Tape
• Epsom Salts (soaking hoof abcess)
• Scissors
• Thermometer:
• Vaseline/petroleum jelly
• Bute (phenylbutazone)
• Banamine
• Mineral Oil
• Ivermectin
• Bran Mash – Molasses to help the medicine go down
• SMZ (Sulfamethoxazole and Trimethoprim antibiotic)

Procedures and Protocol

Ideally your quarantine barn will be at a completely separate location from any other equines. However, if you don’t have that luxury, then 35 feet away is sufficient. Make sure you use a whole set off everything for the quarantine barn….including clothes and shoes. I recommend also a shower before you go from the quarantine barn to the healthy barn.

I am a bit on the OCD side when it comes to quarantine. I assume that whatever arrives from the auction or killpen is highly contagious (which rarely is the case).

Many times horses arrive completely healthy. Other times they arrive completely healthy and get sick days later. So regardless of the condition of the horses when they arrive, treat them as if they are contagious for 30 days just to be safe. If they get sick, keep them quarantined for 30 after the last symptoms disappear.

For the first few days in quarantine, you should monitor the horses closely. Ideally keep records of each horse’s temperature, food and water intake, and manure output.

Turnout is tricky, because a virus like Strangles can live in the soil. Therefore, unless you have separate designated paddocks for each horse, hand-walking is best. Should a paddock at some point contain an infected horse, be prepared (depending on the disease) to leave the paddock vacant for a period of time (depending on climate and disease) and/or disinfect the soil.

The best way to manage sick horses is to manage them LAST. Always start feeding and caring for healthy horses first and work your way down to the unhealthy horses. Here are some additional tips:

  • NEVER dunk the hose in a bucket in a quarantine barn
  • Clean your trailer after transporting horses from auctions or killpens
  • Clean and disinfect all surfaces, including doors and walls.
  • Use flyspray sparingly to minimize the spread of disease by flies through barn.
  • Color coded buckets, muck forks, lead ropes, tack and so on can make it much easier to keep track of what belongs solely to the quarantine area and/or each specific horse.
  • Use disposable gloves and chlorinated footbaths or shoe covers.
  • Nothing should move from the quarantine barn to any other barn. This includes everything – brushes, blankets, tack, ….. Not even a bale of hay!
  • Don’t use the same thermometer on horses without properly sterilizing in between.
  • It is recommend to wear coveralls or scrubs and change entirely before leaving the quarantine facility and heading to your car.
  • Keep a bottle of Purell Hand Sanitizer in your barn and in your car. Apply before you leave (before you touch the door handle of your car).
  • Be sure to post a sign to make sure that all visitors understand that the barn is under quarantine
  • Make sure all of the volunteers and visitors read your quarantine instructions (preferably required contract with sign-0ff)

Learn how you can help unwanted horses by reading “Lost Horses: A guide for horse lovers to make a difference.”