Outbreak of deadly virus concerns equine community

This year's San Benito County Saddle Horse Show & Rodeo activities are scheduled to start June 18 with the annual Memorial Roping at Bolado Park.

The Covered Bridge Equestrian Center has imposed a quarantine
until July 1, telling owners they can’t take their horses out for a
ride. The Redwood Riders canceled the May gymkhana in Boulder
Creek, and the Santa Cruz County Horsemen’s Association called off
a two-day event at the Graham Hill showgrounds.
Jondi Gumz

The Covered Bridge Equestrian Center has imposed a quarantine until July 1, telling owners they can’t take their horses out for a ride. The Redwood Riders canceled the May gymkhana in Boulder Creek, and the Santa Cruz County Horsemen’s Association called off a two-day event at the Graham Hill showgrounds.

All those precautions are being taken to prevent the outbreak of a deadly disease triggered by a contagious virus traced to the National Cutting Horse Association’s Western National Championships April 30 to May 8 in Ogden, Utah.

More than 300 horses from 18 states were exposed to the virus at that event.

Seven horses in five states have died from equine herpes myeloencephalopathy or been euthanized, with one fatality in Bakersfield.

California officials said Tuesday 18 horses in 12 counties are infected; that is the same number as on Monday. Sixteen of the 18 attended the Utah competition; two attended a show in Bakersfield on May 13.

So far Santa Cruz County appears virus-free and the local horse community wants to keep it that way.

“It’s a virulent virus,” said Patrick Boole, who owns the facility by the Felton Covered Bridge where 75 horses board.

“People are trying to prevent it from spreading,” said Claudia Goodman, president of the Santa Cruz County Horsemen’s Association, which canceled a show that could have brought 75 to 100 horses to the Graham Hill Showgrounds May 21-22.

“It sure put the scare of God into everyone I know,” said Boulder Creek resident Rebekah Crill, who owns three horses and boards one more. “It’s most concerning because it’s in the West. We hadn’t seen it much out here, and never to this extent.”

Crill believes horses from Santa Cruz and San Benito counties were among the 54 California entries at the championship event.

She canceled the Redwood Riders’ May 22 gymkhana at Eddy Ranch, she said, before the California Gymkana Association asked her to do so. The association asked all 33 gymkhana districts in the state to cancel events and canceled its four-day Memorial Day weekend gymkhana, citing overwhelming concerns of its members.

Rodeos and horse shows scheduled for May have been canceled not only in California but also in Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and Idaho.

For groups that count on events to raise money, the financial impact is big.

Horse owners, however, do not have many options to protect their animals. Treatment for the disease is expensive, requiring a horse to be hospitalized and kept in a sling, Crill said.

Even worse, there is no guarantee of recovery.

“I hope they will work harder on a vaccine,” Crill said.

For now, the basic strategy is to keep the horse at home rather than interact with horses that might be contagious.

“Many believe the best way to fight this disease is to keep horses home until it blows over,” said Kristi Locatelli, owner of Zayante Creek Equestrian Center, a boarding and training facility in Felton. “Hopefully, if everyone is cautious, it won’t spread beyond the horses from the show and possibly horses in their respective barns.”

Symptoms of infection include nasal discharge, lack of coordination, hind-end weakness, lethargy and urine dribbling.

Cori Phinn, a local veterinarian, advises horse owners to monitor their animal’s temperature twice a day and call if it reaches 102 degrees.

Nearly 1,000 horses have been exposed to the virus either at the championship or through contact with horses exposed at the event, according to the American Veterinary Medicine Association.

California had 54 horses at the championship, more than any other state, according to the USDA.

It is not easy to figure out where those horses came from, however. Qualifying entries are listed with the name of the horse, the owner and rider rather than the name of the stable or city.

“Those places would be blackballed,” said Crill. “People are that scared.”

An early quarantine alert may have helped stem the spread of the disease.

“Within a week of the show in Utah, they asked everyone who was at the show to quarantine their horse,” Crill said.

The virus can be spread from horse to horse through nasal secretions and through contact with contaminated equipment, trailers, wipe rags, feed and water buckets, and human hands and clothing.

The virus is so common almost all horses experience it as a kind of sneezy cold but some develop the neurologic strain — Crill describes it as a mutation — that can be fatal.

The reason is not known, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, which has posted information for horse owners on its website.

The group, which consists of nearly 10,000 veterinarians and veterinary students, recommends isolating horses exposed to the virus for 28 days along with cleaning, rinsing and disinfecting equipment, and washing hands with soap and water or sanitizer.

“We hope in a month we won’t have any new cases,” said Goodman, who heads the Horsemen’s Association.

The state Department of Food and Agriculture reports affected horses are in Amador, Glenn, Kern, Los Angeles, Marin, Napa, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, Shasta, Stanislaus and Ventura counties.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports two fatalities each in Colorado and Idaho, and one in California, Arizona, and New Mexico as of May 19. Another update is expected to be posted Thursday.

Phinn said the UC Davis Veterinary School recommends a herpes vaccine “to reduce viral shedding” from sneezing if the horse has not been vaccinated in the past six months. She considers that a worthwhile step though there’s no evidence it’s effective for the neurologic disease.

“If there’s a chance it would help, why not?” she asked.

She said the cost is about $22.

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