Deadly virus hits horse circuit
Competitions canceled, millions at stake as herpes variant spreads in West
By Alex Johnson
Alice Rieckman has spent most of her life as a horsewoman. She runs Rieckman's Arabians, a horse farm in Kennewick, Wash. Horses are constantly being brought in for training sessions and care or heading out for shows, but right now, none are being allowed into or out of the farm.
Washington is one of nine Western states where equine herpes virus 1, or EHV-1, has spread since it was first detected in early May at the National Cutting Horse Association Western National Championship show in Ogden, Utah. So far 75 horses have been infected, 12 of which have been put down, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
None of the horses are at Rieckman's Arabians, but Rieckman is taking no chances. She has quarantined the farm to make sure no horse that could have been at the show or exposed to one of them can endanger her animals.
"It really would be devastating to lose one or to have them get sick, because they can't help themselves," she said. "You know, they depend on us to keep them well."
With the opening of the summer horse season under way, breeders, owners and exhibitors are deeply concerned. The National Cutting Horse Association has canceled all events nationwide through mid-June, hoping to to keep the virus in check.
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Horse cutting — the horses don't actually cut anything; they're trained to track cows, or "cut" them away," in championship competitions — is a fast-growing sport, and the cancellations and related fallout threaten to take a big economic toll.
The association said its shows offer total purses of nearly $40 million a year. Bruce King, the Utah state veterinarian, said it wasn't uncommon for owners of top-flight horses to spend more than $100,000 a year on training and upkeep.
"These are horses that are extreme — they are professional athletes in their industry," King said. "They're worth a lot of money. The horse industry out there is extremely upset about this, and rightfully so."
EHV-1 swells the blood vessels in the brain, leading to symptoms somewhat similar to those that accompany bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. The good news is it is not transmissible to people. The bad news is "there's not a vaccine that will protect against this aberrant form of the virus," King said.
Horses with EHV-1 "get really unsteady on their hind legs," said Marla Foreman, an equine veterinarian in Pasco, Wash. "They can't control their bladders, so they're dribbling urine, and then they'll end up going down.
"It's really bad to see horses that go down and can't get up," she said. "Possibly up to half or 60 percent of those horses may die."
The 2011 Half Arabian Horse Show in Salem, Ore., was canceled last week after at least 20 Oregon horses were confirmed to have been exposed to the virus at the Utah show. That put the Oregon Cutting Horse Association on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in entry fee refunds.
"It's very serious," said Jack Holt, the organization's director. "Five years ago, people began to prepare to go to this show — and they cancel it, and that's done."
Wayne Schmotzer, a veterinarian, said phones have been ringing off the hook at the Bend Equine Medical Clinic, because "people are very, very concerned asking should they even bring their horses into Oregon."
Organizers are still hoping they can go ahead with the Sisters Rodeo in the nearby town of Sisters beginning June 10, "but you don't really know until enough time has passed," Schmotzer said.
"These are high-quality animals, and this is an investment that people make," he said. "It's competition that could be affected, so the dollars are huge."
In Denton, Texas, the Sliding K Ranch likewise has put operations on hold.
"People are e-mailing me left and right whether they should even come for lessons, whether they should bring their horses, whether they should do anything," said Kim Ferguson, the ranch's owner
Ferguson said that while "of course it impacts your business," show organizers are the biggest losers.
"They are losing tons of money," she said. "Tons of money."
So with millions of dollars and the joy of thousands of competitors on the line, it's better to cancel events now, said King, the Utah state veterinarian.
"If we just say business as usual and it gets to some of these events that are scheduled out here and it gets circulating in the general populations of horses, I would see the whole summer being lost," he said.
Ladies, mount your sticks
Like many other competitions, the Mounted Posse Junior Queen competition for girls in Farmngton, Utah, was postponed last month, as the organizers, the Davis County Sheriff's Department, hoped to wait out the virus. But with no sign that the outbreak is slowing, they did manage to put on a show last week — just without any horses.
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