Laughton Training and Sales is a busy riding, boarding and show facility located in Puslinch, Ontario, owned and operated by Tessa Laughton. After a successful summer teaching clients and travelling with a large group of riders to local shows, business – and life as Tessa and her crew knew it – ground to a sudden, shocking halt with the appearance of a small lump and a diagnosis of strangles.

Strangles is a highly contagious respiratory disease of horses and other equids caused by a Streptococcus equi bacterium. Symptoms include fever, nasal discharge and enlarged lymph nodes under the jaw, causing difficulty swallowing and breathing. Infected nodes can rupture into the guttural pouches in a horse’s head under its ears and drain out though the nasal passages.

While strangles is most often contracted through close contact with an infected horse, contaminated buckets, fences, halters, equipment or even humans can aid the spread, and the bacteria can survive for a month. As a result, aggressive biosecurity protocols must be put in place which include sterilizing surfaces and isolating and testing animals.

This is Tessa’s account of this lengthy, stressful (and expensive) experience.

 

A quarantine sign

The Timeline

Sept. 4 – We get home from the Angelstone Silver Series 5 show, everything seems great and we are planning and excited for the 25 members of our team qualified for the playoffs at the end of the month.

Sept. 5 – Bailey, a six-year-old Thoroughbred mare, gets a lump on her chin. The vet is called in immediately and the farm is put on lockdown just in case. Bailey is not on the competitive team, has not left our property, was tested for strangles and quarantines prior to arriving at our farm in the spring, and has been on private turnout previous to displaying symptoms, which gives us hope that we will be able to keep this isolated.

Sept. 6 – We get the dreaded result back… patient zero is positive on the strangles PCR test. Our entire farm and lesson program is put ON HOLD and the horses put in a strict lockdown; wherever they are at the moment they are locked in place. This means that if they are in a stall they stay put, or if outside in a paddock they stay there, rain or shine.

I decide I am going public. I am not embarrassed we got this, nor do I think it’s right to “hide it.” It is active in Ontario and people need to know we are taking it seriously. So I type up the post and send it live immediately. The response was wonderful from the equine community. The support and love we received was unlike anything I expected. Here is where I started the hashtag #StopTheStigma. So many barn owners are ashamed or want to hide it. Why? It’s no one’s fault.

Two people performing a test on a horse.

Performing a nasal flush. (photo courtesy Tessa Laughton)

Sept. 7 – We set up the zones on the farm:

GREEN = no symptoms, no direct contact with patient zero (Bailey)
YELLOW = possible contact with patient zero (in a lesson, or as pasture-mate)
AMBER = swollen lymph nodes, no fever, but no positive test result yet
RED = positive result, or abscess formed, or fever.

Sept. 8 – Entire day is dedicated to posting zone signs, scrubbing the barn with Virkon (a disinfectant with virucidal, bactericidal and fungicidal properties), removing all bits off bridles of academy horses, removing all hay nets from stalls to be washed, blankets, saddle pads, blankets. Number of laundry loads? No exaggeration – 40!

A team of LTS volunteers (boarders, parents, lesson riders) come up and start gutting all stalls. We threw out all shavings, all hay in their nets, all hay in their big feeders outside, all went to the muck pile. We did not know where the bacteria was and were taking zero chances. A loss of about $500 in hay alone.

Added in the #LTSstrong hashtag. We at LTS have a wonderful barn family and community, and these types of struggles are what bring our bonds tighter or some will leave… some clients will not wait this out.

Sept. 12 – We do PCR tests (swab up nostril) and received negative cultures (2) on Bailey (patient zero with abscesses on her face) but positive PCR. All others tested (2) at this time, negative, but still suspicious as they were Bailey’s direct pasture-mates.

Sept. 18 – 25 nasal flushes (tests) done with Dr. Kim Kalteis from Ferguson Equine (I do want to say she has been amazing, so supportive, informative and checking in even during off hours like evenings, weekends, etc.)

Sept. 20 – Another 8 positives (all asymptomatic) test results received. Off to the Red Zone they go for a minimum of 21 days with no symptoms required BEFORE we can do another test.

Sept. 21 – We have now tested EVERY SINGLE horse, donkey and mini on the farm – all 51 of them. Note this is not required under OMAFRA guidelines, but we tested all even though after weeks of daily temperature checks, no one spiked a fever. We received a lot of positives, all asymptomatic horses. Only two horses ever showed symptoms: Bailey had the abscess under the jaw and Wally, an aged academy horse, had very odd symptoms and kept testing negative until October.

Additional testing took place Oct. 19, Oct. 26, Nov. 2, Nov. 9, Nov. 16 and continues to this day (Nov 29). Tessa said, “We still had six still there [in the Red Zone] until last Friday. Testing is $500-600 per horse per week; $500 per horse if we are just flushing the guttural pouches weekly, $600 if we add the test in. So each week we are at $3,600 approx. per testing day. We are now down to four horses, so $2,400 per week.”

The Cost

A rough estimate of costs looks like this:

  • Total spent on testing: 51 x $160 = $8,160 for original test
  • Total spent on testing for 15 positives if they are all negative (which was not the case) = $7200; likely closer to $10,000
  • Over $25,000 on vet bills in three months alone.

On September 24, Tessa launched a LTSstrong clothing line to help raise money for the expenses of testing. “We raised $2,000 through donations and clothing sales. I was overwhelmed with the generosity.” When asked why she didn’t create a GoFundMe campaign* to help with expenses, Tessa explained, “I hate asking people for money! We have done some fundraising within LTS and selling our #LTSstrong sweatshirts to raise money, but we may have to [crowdfund] if this keeps up longer then it already has – we are now starting our fourth month.”

*UPDATE: A GoFundMe campaign was launched on December 6th “to help pay off our vet bills … and my coaching staff who lost income during this hard time.  I’d also like to start helping other farms going through this once we surpass our goal, who also handle this responsibly and go public.”

A woman wearing rubber gloves.

If you don’t laugh, you might cry … Tessa keeps her spirits up despite the endless hard work. (photo courtesy Tessa Laughton)

Lessons resumed Monday, October 23rd, after an almost two-month break. “This did not just affect me, it affected my coaching and staffing team. It was a financial nightmare,” said Tessa. “Maybe OMAFRA can provide a grant to help barn owners not just cover some of their vet bills, but also help keep the staff and coaches more financially comfortable through an outbreak. Its not just mentally and physically exhausting to deal with this, but the financial worry can be very overwhelming.”

Tessa was also more than a bit surprised at the quarantine procedures (or lack thereof) required by OMAFRA. “The guidelines online are very casual and not very helpful. It states ‘unless you are a racing barn you are not required to quarantine.’ This I find very strange – if it is so contagious and hard to recognize, as many positives are asymptomatic and it is easy to spread at shows of 500-plus horses if not required to quarantine. It is a reportable disease, but there is no mandatory ‘stay at home’ order. We need to stop spreading it around Ontario – I am one of five barns that have had positive cases that I know of this summer alone.”

What positives can Tessa possibly see coming from this negative experience, which not surprisingly saw her lose some clients? “How about I try to help other barn owners in the industry try to be more comfortable being more open and public when they get such an event (ie. outbreak) at their farm?” she suggested. “I wanted to get the industry involved in discussions, see what dealing with an outbreak looks like, and help debunk some myths.”

Tessa remains deeply grateful for how the team at the farm pitched in and helped in so many ways, from scrubbing stalls to testing to taking vitals. “Overall, the support from the LTS family was unreal and amazing. The endless hours of volunteering, the helping care for the horses, the daily physical and temp checks on all 51 horses – all volunteered – was more than I ever expected. So that is what I focus on, these amazing individuals that supported me through a very difficult time. I will never forget what they have done for me and my horses.”

***

Ed. note: Anyone interested in ordering #LTSstrong sweatshirts or gift certificates, email [email protected]