I recently got an early morning phone call from Jennifer, my vet. She was giving me an update on the current outbreak of the dreaded neurological strain of the equine herpes virus (EHV-1). A gelding in my region, Riverside County, had just been euthanized. A necropsy confirmed the disease.
It was last spring when the mutant strain of the more familiar rhinopneumonitis virus spread through a group of American Quarter horses. They’d all competed at a major cutting championship. State and local veterinarians worked quickly to identify the horses that had been exposed. Horse show managers throughout the western states voluntarily cancelled events, including those that had nothing to do with cutting or western riding. And horse owners like me became extra cautious. Even though the chances of Wally or Danny contracting the virus were next to none in my town, I wasn’t taking any chances. I reined them in from sniffing noses with other horses. I rode alone on the trails. Sipping from community water troughs was out of the question.
This time the herpes health scare has the potential to be even more devastating.
Rather than being clearly confined to one breed and one riding discipline, Ground Zero for this year’s outbreak is a sprawling boarding facility in nearby Orange County. A variety of professionals, from ones with international credentials to part-time riding instructors, train at the site. The equine residents range from pet quality trail horses to world class contenders in jumping, dressage, and reining. In other words, it’s a potpourri of horses. Every day they share arenas, wash racks, cross-ties and bridle paths. Plus, they come and go a lot, whether it’s for an overnight trail adventure or a weeklong competition. In every respect it’s the typical high-end, high-density Southern California public stable.
At last count, the stable had more than a dozen confirmed cases and four were critically ill. Since the neurological form of equine herpes has an incubation period of up to two weeks, it’s hard to know how many horses from that stable seemed perfectly healthy but were actually carriers, unwittingly spreading the virus to other horses at other stables that may yet become sick.
Needless to say, that stable is fully quarantined. No horses are allowed in or out. State vets are conducting an epidemiological study to see if they can trace the illness back to a particular ranch or equine host. Meanwhile, can you imagine how the owners of the horses stabled there must feel? Personally, I’d be worried sick.
To make matters even worse, the ill horse that was euthanized in my county was stabled at the Empire Polo Grounds near Palm Springs, a desert resort town. That’s a short hop from one of the biggest hunter/jumper shows in the United States: HITS (Horse Shows in the Sun), which is held in the tiny town of Thermal. What’s the connection? Several of the major hunter/jumper trainers whose clients are showing at HITS rent space at the polo grounds. That enables them to practice in much more serene surroundings. Then they trailer their horses to the HITS site just for their classes and return to the polo grounds each day.
That practice has come to an abrupt halt. According to the state veterinarian’s mandate, every horse that arrives on the show grounds must pass a health exam. And then once it’s there, it stays. Period. For just how long I’m not sure, but the logistics of this arrangement seem staggering. The HITS show grounds is enormous, much like a self-contained horsey haven with endless rows of stabling and countless arenas. But at some point it will reach maximum density. The exhibitors caught in the snafu have been informed that they’re responsible for taking their horse’s temperature twice a day. They also must adhere to strict guidelines to (hopefully) thwart any possible spread of the virus.
Kind of puts a grim spin on showing. Usually my biggest concern when I showed at HITS was finding an unsuspecting person to pull my skintight field boots off my sweaty legs.
Honestly, if this particular horse show was on my competitive calendar I’d elect to just stay home. And I think the most prudent decision would be to cancel the remaining weeks of the show. I understand it’d be a financial hardship. Everyone from the show management staff to the judges, grooms, stall muckers, braiders, ring crew, on-site farriers, trainers and coaches, catch-riders and vendors depend on this multi-week horse show festival for a chunk of their annual income. But as stewards of our horses, we are ultimately responsible for their welfare. Until the state vets proclaim this current herpes outbreak contained, I’d rather be safe than sorry.
Quite frankly, I expect to see a whole slew of horse shows cancelled up and down the west coast for the next month or so. And that includes two that I’ve been contracted to judge.
In conclusion, if you happen to see me riding on the trails during the next couple of weeks, it’s perfectly fine if you just wave from a distance. I don’t even mind if you call me neurotic, paranoid or a little bit over-reactive. That’s fine. We’ll ride together again once our irreplaceable horses are out of danger.
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