What Vaccines Does My Horse Need?

When it comes to horse care, there are so many routine practices to keep our horses healthy for long periods of time. Amongst the periodic vet checkups, farrier appointments, worming schedules, and teeth floating, vaccinations rank high on the list of things that can keep your horse healthy for years to come.

Making a vaccination plan is imperative for your horse’s preventative care, but not all vaccines are necessary. So what vaccines does my horse need?

Every horse owner needs to weigh the necessity of each vaccine against the rare yet possible dangerous side effects, such as allergic reactions and bacterial infections.

In order to make an effective long-term vaccine plan, you need all the facts first, both from your farrier and your own research.

How A Vaccine Works

How A Vaccine Works

Vaccines are made in a variety of ways, but the commonality is that they create a mock infection or disease, which is administered into your horse’s body to create an immune boost.

Your horse’s white blood cells will start to form antibodies against the antigen (the threatening virus or bacteria) so that your horse’s immune system is armed and ready to fight off the disease.

Vaccines need about two weeks to respond to a specific antigen if the horse has already been vaccinated against it before.

They may need more lead time if this is their first time receiving the immunization. Depending on the type of vaccine, your horse may need booster shots at your vet’s discretion.

While the risks of vaccines are rare, they commonly cause soreness around the injection site, and sometimes a fever.

Core Vaccines

Core horse Vaccines

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), who sets the standards for horse welfare and health in the United States, recommends specific “core” vaccines for every horse to receive. The following are the core vaccines:


Rabies is a commonly known virus, as it affects other pets and wild animals. Rabies affects the central nervous system and is transmitted through the saliva.

Although horses rarely contract it, it is always fatal, and therefore highly recommended for every horse.


Tetanus is an extremely dangerous bacteria that lives everywhere. Horses encounter it most often as spores in the dirt.

Horses are very susceptible to it, especially when they have open wounds.

It is also referred to as “lockjaw”, because the bacteria causes muscle rigidity as it progresses through the body, ultimately stiffening the face muscles which prevents the horse from being able to eat.

West Nile Virus

Transmitted by mosquitoes from affected birds, the West Nile Virus affects the horse’s central nervous system, causing a host of issues, including stumbling, staggering, loss of appetite, and paralysis.

While up to 60% of affected horses recover from the virus, some still live with side effects for the rest of their lives.

Eastern Equine Encephalitis/Western Equine Encephalitis

Otherwise known as “sleeping sickness”, encephalitis is a virus that is also transmitted by mosquitoes from infected rodents and birds.

The virus causes the brain to degenerate, causing staggering and possibly paralysis. Another related virus, the Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis, has not been a threat in the US, but has made an appearance in Mexico.

Thankfully, there is a “four-way” vaccine that combine Eastern & Western Equine Encephalitis, West Nile Virus, and Tetanus vaccines.

Additional Vaccinations

Additional horse Vaccinations

In addition to these core vaccine recommendations, there are other common vaccines that you should consider based on your horse’s geographical location and lifestyle.


If your horse is exposed to new horses often, this injection comes highly recommended. The flu is one of the most common respiratory diseases in horses and highly contagious. Symptoms include coughing, fever, nasal discharge, and loss of appetite.

Equine Herpesvirus/Rhinopneumonitis

This is another virus that can cause flu-like symptoms, including respiratory issues, fever, and, in the worst cases, neurological damage and death.


Strangles in horses is essentially an abscess of the lymph nodes. Typically, it is not life-threatening, but it can cause a fever, pus draining from the nostrils, and labored breathing that sounds like the horse is being strangled. Strangles spreads easily between horses as well.

Less-common diseases with available vaccines include the Potomac Horse Fever, Equine Viral Arteritis, Rotaviral Diarrhea, Botulism and Anthrax.

More recently, vaccine developers have even released a Snakebite vaccine that is supposed to protect against Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes for horses who are more likely to encounter them.

Many of these are only needed in certain regions of the world, so consult with your vet to rule out any unnecessary ones.

Horses At Greater Risk

In addition to geographical location, other risk factors can impact horses depending on their age and lifestyle.

For example, horses who travel to shows or trail meet-ups are at a higher risk for communicable equine diseases, as are horses who live in barns with a high turnover rate.

Additionally, mares who are pregnant run the risk of catching a certain strain of Rhinopneumonitis that can cause an abortion of their foal.

The vaccine is administered three times throughout the pregnancy to prevent her foal’s undue death from this virus.

Antibodies in the vaccine, when given at the right times, can also help boost foal’s immune system through the mare’s milk once born.

Young horses (under 5) and older horses may also be at a higher risk to certain viruses, simply because of their inferior immune systems in the more vulnerable stages of life.

Should I Vaccinate On My Own?

Should I Vaccinate On My Own

Many horse owners these days opt to give their horses vaccinations on their own. While this saves money on a vet visit, another upside is the added comfort of your horse receiving the injection from someone they already know and trust.

Of course, you should always discuss your vaccination action plan with your vet to make sure you know the best vaccines to administer, as well as the optimal times of year.

The most common injection site is in the neck triangle. While there are other regions, this is often the safest spot to inject with the least risk of being bitten or kicked.

Make A Plan

When deciding on your horse’s vaccination plan, any action is better than no action. Do your research and consult with your vet to create a plan that best fits your horse’s lifestyle.

Knowing the risks and benefits of immunizing your horse is the best way to make an informed decision about their health plan going forward.

As with everything, you alone know what is best for your horse, and you are ultimately the only one who can decide that.

Frequently Asked Questions

what vaccines does my horse need Frequently Asked Questions
1. Do all horses need the same vaccines?

No, a horse’s age, activity level, medical history and geographic location play major roles in determining the correct vaccinations for the individual animal. Always consult with your vet when planning your horses’ vaccination regimen.

2. If my horse never goes anywhere, do I have to vaccinate him?

Even stay-at-home horses need the basic vaccinations (rabies, tetanus, West Nile virus and Eastern & Western encephomyelitis). These diseases are brought to your horse by non-equine sources and vectors.

3. Why do horses need vaccinations every year?

Horses’ immunological memory (immune cells) seem to decrease significantly only a few months after vaccination. Additionally, horses in a barn or stable setting have a greater chance of exposure to viral vectors and respiratory viruses than do humans, household pets and even wild horses living on the open prairie.

4. Are killed vaccines better than modified-live vaccines (MLV)?

Killed vaccines are inactivated pathogens. This type of vaccine is traditional and has been proven effective to a point. Killed vaccines tend to induce robust but limited response for a short period of time. MLV is a newer technology consisting of weakly viable pathogens which trigger many arms of the immune system. When this type of vaccination works, it is more effective and long lasting than traditional killed vaccines. Discuss your choices with your vet.

5. Do horses need vaccine boosters before shipping or competing?

It’s a good idea (and often a requirement) that horses receive boosters against airborne viruses within two weeks of shipping or competing.


  1. https://practicalhorsemanmag.com/health-archive/shots-21447
  2. https://www.valleyvet.com/library/si_horse_vaccine.html
  3. https://www.irongateequine.com/education/what-vaccines-do-my-horses-need

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