Whether you keep your horses in your backyard or a boarding facility, spring and fall are the typical seasons for equine vaccinations. In some busy show barns and stables that regularly have temporary visitors passing through, vaccines may be required on an even more frequent basis. Manufacturers’ recommendation may be for annual use, but they are generally referring to healthy horses who don’t travel excessively and who are not likely to be exposed to animals that may put them in a compromised situation.
Some owners prefer to have their vet come on site to administer the shots, though many horse owners (especially if they keep multiple horses) have learned to give the vaccinations to their own animals.
If you do feel comfortable taking on the task of vaccinating your own horses, you can purchase vaccinations from your favorite veterinary clinic (in Utah, South Jordan’s South Valley Large Animal Clinic is a good resource), at most large tack and feed outlets (Salt Lake City’s AA Callister or IFA, for example) or even order them online from a reputable equine supply store, such as Jeffer’s Equine or Valley Vet. If you do order online, be sure to pay for overnight shipping and shell out the extra dollar or two for extra ice packs. You MUST KEEP THE VACCINATIONS COOL! When you transport vaccines to the barn, keep them in a cooler or a container with an ice pack to make sure they do not get warm.
In the springtime, most horses get a 5-way and West Nile (in the mountain states). If you’re not sure what your horse needs, consult with your equine veterinarian. If the horse is pregnant or has other health concerns, your vet should be involved in any decisions made regarding their vaccination requirements.
If administering the shots on your own, there are a few important tips that will help provide a safe, healthy experience for your horses and add to your peace of mind:
If this is your first time giving a shot, have a very experienced, equine-savvy friend or your veterinarian help show you how. It is very important that you locate the proper placement for an intramuscular injection, typically on the neck, not too close to the nuchal ligament but also not too low. Make sure too that you are not too close to the base of the neck, near the shoulder. Take the time to learn how to do this well, working first-hand with someone who has successfully done so many times before. Don’t rely only on online how-to advice, YouTube videos or read an article and try to wing it on your own. Educating yourself thoroughly and correctly is the first vital step; your horse’s life depends on it.
Give your vaccinations on a weekday morning at the beginning or middle of the week. Never plan to give your shots on a weekend or holiday. Why? Because if something is to go wrong (any horse can have an unexpected reaction) Murphy’s Law dictates that it’s far more likely to go wrong if you can’t get a hold of your vet or anytime you’ll have to pay for an after-hours/weekend/holiday call. It’s also a good idea to vaccinate when the weather is pleasant (not too cold or too hot and definitely not stormy); you want your horse to be as calm and content as possible.
Get organized. Have everything in place before you put your horse in the cross ties. Make sure you work area is reasonably sanitary and that your hands are clean. Some people will slip on a pair of thin (surgical-type) rubber gloves. However; do not remove the cover from the needle until it’s time to actually put it into your horse. You want to avoid any possibility of contamination.
If your horse is accustomed to standing calmly in cross ties, this is a great spot to put him when you give the shots, as it limits his ability to fidget about. Fidgeting and needles aren’t a good combination. If cross ties aren’t an option, tie the horse as you would normally, wherever he is most comfortable. If you do have someone hold him, make sure it’s someone calm and knowledgeable, with whom the horse is familiar.
Clean the injection site. After grooming the horse, simply wipe the area with alcohol-soaked cotton balls until they come away as clean as possible. Marking out a little triangular swath in the correct region is also a good way to remind yourself where to place the injection.
Before gently placing the needle into the skin, some horses are helped by a few light taps on the neck, at the site, just to prepare them for the entry. When you do insert the needle use a steady pressure with a smooth and gentle motion. You don’t want to place it in so timidly that you have to retry 5 times before it pierces the skin (no horse will appreciate that degree of pain and irritation), but you also want to avoid an abrupt stabbing motion that makes you look like the knife wielder in a slasher film. Technique is everything.
Do NOT inject the vaccine into the horse immediately after inserting the needle. It is important that you aspirate the injection site to make sure you are not in a vein. Simply draw back just a little on the plunger; if there is no blood pulled into the cartridge, go ahead and smoothly inject the vaccine into your horse’s muscle. If there IS blood, it just means you’ve entered a vein. Take the needle out; an IM vaccination can NOT be injected into a vein. No reason to panic; place the needle into a better location and aspirate again. Then, when you’re sure you’re not in a vein (no blood) proceed to administer the vaccination as directed above.
When you’re done with the injection, swiftly (with a smooth and gentle motion) remove the needle from the horse. Put light pressure on the site with a clean, alcohol-soaked cotton ball. If the horse bleeds a little, you may need to use a few cotton balls. That’s not entirely abnormal. Some bleed a bit, some do not. Give the horse a peppermint or treat of his liking to reward his cooperation. The entire process takes about 6 minutes per horse.
Next (yes, there’s more), if your horse generally lives in a stall, put him in turn out for about an hour and encourage him to move around a bit. He can just walk around; no need for any extreme exercise. You do want him to move a little though, to help the vaccination work its way through his system. Don’t just stick him back in his stall.
After returning the horse to her usual enclosure, giving some soaked hay cubes or pellets mixed with a small dose of aspirin or Bute can aid in fending off any discomfort and may alleviate a minor reaction.
Be sure to check on the horse either later that day or the next morning to make sure he’s feeling and acting normal. Don’t worry; it’s unlikely that your horses will react to their shots, but it can happen once in a while and it’s always a good idea to be aware and prepared, just in case.
If your horse does seem a bit off, feel and look closely at the injection site to make sure there is no swelling, signs of infection or allergic reaction. If the horse acts listless, take his temperature. If he’s running a little fever you can either call the vet immediately, or, if you’re comfortable with waiting for a short time and certain the horse is not in extreme distress, you may try administering some Bute on your own. If she seems unwell for more than a day, you absolutely do want to consult your veterinarian.
Vaccinations are an important part of your horse’s healthcare. Getting comfortable with the process will help you both establish an easy, stress-free routine.