Portsmouth Equine Strangles Causes Social Media Stampede

The placid world of horse owning doesn’t usually find itself in the eye of an abusive social media storm. But Portsmouth equestrian Alice Lawrence’s experience was particularly unusual…

Strangles. Maybe we should change the name. Would that stop the panic the word causes every horse owner?

Back in March my horse Blue was confirmed to have equine strangles, a contagious bacterial infection that kills ten per cent of the horses that catch it. At first he just had a cough and a slight temperature, so I called the vet. The tests came up positive.

The yard where Blue lived was immediately closed. He was referred to Liphook Equine Hospital, put onto drips and given 24 hour care. Slowly but surely he made improvements, but a week and a half later I got the phone call that no owner wants to ever receive. I’d owned Blue for twelve years and now he was gone forever. How could that be? He was due to come home in the next few days. With him gone a part of me died.

The news about Blue soon reached the yard, and everyone was mortified. The staff and liveries at the yard organised a BBQ and fun show to raise money, and I set up a fundraising page. Overall we raised nearly £2000. As Blue’s vet bills were double the amount my insurance would cover, this was an amazing help.

During Blue’s time at Liphook, two other horses at the yard were confirmed to have strangles. They were moved to a new isolation block 250 metres from the main yard. There didn’t seem to be any correlation between the confirmed horses; they were all in different herds and stabled on different parts of the yard. Blue had not been on site for two weeks and before that he was in strict isolation. Clinical signs of strangles usually occur within 4-14 days of them being infected. Blue had also lived indoors for most of the winter, only going into a field every few days for a leg stretch with one other horse who had shown no signs of the disease.

Business started to pick up once the other two confirmed cases were given the all-clear. But when the public heard about a positive routine blood result from a horse that was due to leave the yard, Facebook went crazy.

Blood tests are usually taken to screen new horses when entering premises or when ascertaining which horses may need further investigation when trying to identify a carrier. A positive blood test simply indicates that a horse has been exposed to the bacteria either recently or in the past but does not necessarily mean a horse is actively infectious. It simply informs us that further investigations are needed to discover whether the horse has raised antibody levels from an infection in the past or whether a horse is a ‘healthy’ carrier of the disease. The horse in question was confirmed to be a carrier and treated straight away with antibiotics. Many people don’t realise a carrier could even be treated. Although the procedure of scoping is expensive, it is the only way to treat and cure a carrier.

The insults fired at us were extraordinary. We were accused of lying and hiding information. Bullies targeted the staff’s personal Facebook pages. I received ‘hate speech’ regarding the loss of my beloved best friend; I was called greedy, heartless and a money grabber. I spent most nights in tears. Why were we being treated this way when any horse anywhere could be positive?

As you can imagine, all this uninformed condemnation hurt the yard’s business badly.

Later there were ignorant remarks from people who refused to buy feed. Others commented on not wanting to have rugs washed at the yard. Even some rugs that had already been washed were never collected as their owners were too terrified to come to the yard. What they didn’t understand is that strangles can only be spread by direct contact with an infected horse, or by objects that are contaminated with infectious material. Isolation of infected animals and implementation of simple hygiene measures prevent further transmission. The carrier onsite was not ill with strangles, therefore there was nothing to be passed on through contact by any staff or liveries using the shop.

The carrier was, however, put into isolation immediately, although we didn’t know for sure if she was shedding. (Carriers can shed intermittently). We moved her whilst she received her treatment. The yard encouraged owners to have all horses blood tested and any new horses entering in the future would undergo the same procedures. After blood testing each and every horse on site, the results were emailed to me. Less than 50 per cent came back positive, but still a higher number than what we had hoped for. The ones we predicted would show a positive result were negative and horses that we guessed would be negative came back positive! It’s a complicated disease.

Somehow our results were published on social media yet again; this wasn’t a problem because we had nothing to be ashamed about. During the outbreak only three out of 50 horses contracted the disease, demonstrating that good management had prevented further spread. All horses with positive or inconclusive results were booked in immediately for a guttural pouch wash in order to establish whether any of them were carrying.

We were all on edge waiting for the news. The results trickled in. The first few looked good. Then there were more. Surely they couldn’t all come back negative? They did! We were finally out the other side. The last few months had been almost impossible. Without the support and kindness of both liveries and staff, I don’t know where we’d be today. Bankrupt probably.

I want to emphasise the nasty effects that social media can have on both individuals and businesses. Rude and thoughtless comments, based on no evidence at all, almost destroyed a business that brings happiness to so many people. We survived the storm because we always took the view that we should be upfront and honest about strangles. We all have horses for the same reason – because we love them – and it’s crucial that we all work together. Nobody is at fault and personal blame should not be directed at owners or individuals.

We are pleased to announce that we are now running as normal and have competitions and clinics on the calendar for the coming months. I’m pleased to say that online criticism is a lot more constructive now.

Photography by Alice Lawrence.