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Tuesday, 17 September 2019

OPINION: British Dressage Equine Influenza Rule

Isn't it great that we participate in a sport that is constantly assessing its rules, guideline and safety measures? I think so... However, I was recently surprised to see the high number of upset members of British Dressage over the introduction of six monthly boosters against Equine Influenza on the Facebook group (By the way, if you're into dressage in anyway, make sure you've joined the British Dressage group on Facebook - it's a really good discussion and support group)

At the start of 2019, there was an exceptionally high number of outbreaks of Equine Influenza, so much so that it made the national press. I had people in my office asking me about it who usually couldn't tell the head from a tail of a horse... It was fairly big news. It broke just before Louie and I were due to go to the Winter Regionals, where we were stabling overnight, surrounding by 100 or so other horses, and in contact with a lot of other people.

As soon as BD released their statement at the start of February, announcing that they were aligning with the BEF and recommending a booster if it was longer than six month since the horse's last vaccinations. I called my vet right away for advice and booked for Louie to have his in sufficient time to allow 7 days to pass before we competed. He agreed, told me it was already regulatory in FEI competition to vaccinate at six month intervals and that vaccines could actually be boosted every four months.

Equine Influenza side affects - my opinion 

I saw many videos on Facebook and heard the shared stories across social media of horrendous reactions that horses were having to the boosters. It did worry me. What if Louie reacted like some of these severe cases (& I'm not just talking about a stiff neck or haematoma in the chest), but where horses seemed disorientated, seemed to struggle to move and generally appearing fairly distressed.

That's was my emotional side.

The reality was there are always these risks when vaccinating for equine influenza, but they are VERY rare. Each of us vaccinate at our own time of the year, so an influx of horses being vaccinating & any suffering a side affect, would usually be share on social media in a much more dispersed manner. YES...my rational side is kicking in.

But there's more...Does everyone who doesn't compete vaccinate every year? Or, is it a case that there was a MASS influx on just vaccinations, not only boosters, on horses that were either completely not vaccinated previously or who had lapsed past the due date. Couple that with every competitor of British Dressage, British Eventing & British Showjumping who were making this recommendation and trigger a huge influx of boosters.

"We believe it is through the actions of responsible horse owners who have heeded the advice to vaccinate their animals in light of the increased infectious risk that has contributed to the decline in the number of outbreaks we are seeing now. However, Equine Influenza remains a threat to the horse population and therefore owners should continue to remain vigilant and follow the advice to boost their horse’s vaccination if it was given more than six months ago." - noted by Dr. Newton from the Animal Health Trust.

On top of this, a high number of equestrian venues also followed the BEF recommendation, and even hiring a venue, or taking a training session at one, would require a six month vaccination booster too. So in addition to waking up anyone who was out of date on their vaccinations and competing horses, general hobby horses were also now needing to vaccinate if they wish to carry on as they were.

With that influx comes a much higher awareness of the side affects - the chances of being exposed to someone who knew a horse that had one or have one happen to your own horse increases significantly.

That's my opinion on where and how the fear factor of giving these injections comes from.

The costs of an Equine Influenza booster

Firstly, it's important to stress that this is my opinion and is not based on any medical fact. 

My booster for Louie in February cost £35.64, and the same in August when I've given him another booster. Both were ProTec Flu. Both is the total invoice cost as I booked them on free visit days. I find it VERY difficult to understand the perspective that the introduction of the six months boosters is therefore a money making tactic. 

There were not many people who held this opinion, but there were some. 

Sure, we're in an expensive sport, but even if I wanted to go and hire my local cross country training course, or local arena, or even go on some pleasure rides, I'd need to ensure that my horse had his six month booster. I don't agree it is fair to say it's another £70 a year on top of competing BECAUSE the likelihood is that if you are competing, you'll be going to other venues to train too. And even if British Dressage didn't make the six monthly boosters mandatory, venues have.

Proving your horse is vaccinated against Equine Influenza

When I used to go Eventing, you'd arrive at a venue, head to the Secretary's tent with your horse's passport & start fee (& maybe a hat for tagging if it was new). There, it would be looked at, checked that it was in date and you'd be given your number.

Flaw no.1

While you've been doing all that, your helper has given your horse a stretch of his legs, but because you've forgotten your vaccination booster, your horse is already on the premise "un-vaccinated". 

So should the check be done at the entry gate to parking? 

Well, firstly, in some places, this will hugely block main roads, so isn't always practical. 

But it also brings about flaw no.2

How many of us have had a passport checked for the Equine Influenza log being up to date AND it be matched against the horse you brought with you? I'd be lucky if anyone reading this has had this done.

In case there is anyone who has... here's the next flaw.

You have a brown horse, all over, not a single marking on it. How can you identify that horse against his passport? You can't without a micro chip scanner.

The system to check booster is full of flaws, but I don't agree that this means we should therefore not improve in the health guidelines that we have across our sport. Just like safety, these should be permanently be breaking boundaries to improve regulation.

Non-vaccinated horses are the problem

This was an opinion I saw a couple of times... No, they aren't as a whole group. 

Usually people don't vaccinate their horses because they never leave their farm, never have horses coming in, and never interact with horses from outside their farm area. I see no problem with leaving horses in these situations not receiving a vaccination. 

However, there are people who don't see it the same, and because their horse never leaves their yard, they don't vaccinate. What they fail to see is the other competition horses or horses going out & about on the same yard. Those ones are likely to be vaccinated and could carry equine influenza without it affecting them, meaning they can bring it home and expose that non-vaccinated horse. These are problem factors in the vaccination programme in my opinion.

If anyone on your yard is coming and going to places with their own horses, you should vaccinate. In fact, most livery contracts or yard rules will stipulate it as a standard requirement. And for those yard that police it and ensure everyone's vaccinations & boosters are up to date, good on you for doing so!

British Dressage introduce mandatory six month boosters for all members

So, here we are in September with the recent addition from British Dressage to introduce six monthly boosters, and for that, I congratulate British Dressage for seeing a situation early in the year and being one of the group of affiliated bodies that took a step to aim to reduce the risk of it happening in future.

The rule comes into effect on 1st December 2019, and despite receiving much criticism for their decision, British Dressage have not taken the change lightly. Their latest statement was released early September, specifically in response to questions raised about the new rule, and neatly articulates the alignment with the BEF High Health Steering Group, the Equine Infectious Disease Advisory Group and the Animal Health Trust (AHT).

Openly in this statement, they have recognised the differences that is now in place with some venues accepting annual boosters, but with others enforcing stricter 6 monthly ones. By introducing this equine influenza vaccination rule they have instantaneously standardised the requirement at all affiliated venues. Over the last six months, I would have needed to ask three to four venues their policies on vaccination boosters. I haven't, because I just took the six month booster option.

What does the wording of the Equine Influenza rule say exactly?

Lifted straight from the British Dressage handbook:

To protect the health of the other competing horses and the biosecurity of the venue, a valid passport must accompany the horse to all competitions and be produced on request. Failure to comply is a disciplinary offence and will debar the horse from competing at the event for which it has been entered. A horse will not be permitted to compete unless it has a current vaccination against equine influenza which complies with the following conditions:

  • An initial course of two injections for primary vaccination, not less than 21 days and not more than 92 days apart, are required before being eligible to compete
  • A first booster injection must be given between 150 and 215 days after the second injection of primary vaccination
  • Subsequent booster injections must be given at regular intervals of not more than 12 months, commencing after the first booster injection
  • The most recent booster injection must have been given within six calendar months prior to the horse competing
  • The full course or booster must have been administered at least seven days before the competition

The vaccination record(s) in the horse’s passport, must be completed, signed and stamped line by line, by an appropriate veterinary surgeon (who is neither the owner nor the rider of the horse). For those competing under FEI rules, please refer to FEI rules. The responsibility to comply with this rule lies with the competitor, who should consult with their veterinarian.

Horses being found without adequate and up to date vaccinations will not be allowed to compete and will be barred from competing until such a time that they have been given their first and second vaccinations. Membership and Horse Registration will be suspended for any horses and their owners in breach of this rule.

In conclusion of my opinion surrounding the new equine influenza rule...

Firstly, I accept that the whole of this post (except the above section outlining the exact wording of the rule) is my opinion. It is not based on facts, science or detailed understanding. It is exactly what it says...my opinion.

Secondly, and crucially, you don't have to agree with it. I won't be offended. But if you have a difference of opinion, why not add it into the comments below to get a conversation started.

My thoughts are:
  • It's a logical introduction with equine welfare and health at the core
  • It is well aligned with the "powers that be" that drive research and development in equine health, well-being and welfare
  • It is by no means a money making exercise
  • It standardises requirements at affiliated competitions, even for non-affiliated activities
  • It is aligned with other governing bodies in our sport which is a positive move for competitors in multiple affiliations
  • Non-vaccination horses are not the problem as a whole group, but ones which are not vaccinated and still indirectly exposed to unknown horses could be
  • Despite all the hard work done towards reducing the outbreak of equine influenza, the checking systems or processes are flawed
  • Any rule around vaccinations reduces risk; it doesn't mean it is impossible to pass or contract

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