It started in May 2011 with a single horse. Then a few more. Then multiple horses a day. Before long, horses all over the Western U.S. and Canada were testing positive for equine herpesvirus-1 (EHV-1)—some suffering from devastating neurologic signs. And I, six months into my time working for The Horse, was wondering what on earth I’d gotten myself into, communicating with veterinarians and animal health officials daily and trying to accurately pin down facts about and report on a constantly evolving situation.
This EHV-1 outbreak, which stemmed from the National Cutting Horse Association’s Western National Championship, in Ogden, Utah, is an example of how quickly, easily, and quietly equine infectious disease can spread. The more than 400 horses in attendance dispersed before vets identified the first cases and anyone realized they might have had a viral tagalong for their return trip. Once those horses got home they mingled with other resident equids, exposing them to the pathogen. Those equids exposed others, and the virus spread.
All told, officials believe more than 2,100 horses were exposed to EHV-1 following that horse show. They confirmed 90 cases of EHV-1 or its neurologic form in 10 states; 13 horses died (TheHorse.com/19924).
This outbreak scared me as a horse owner into examining if I was taking the appropriate steps to protect my horse, Dorado, from disease. There’s always room for improvement, but I’ve since adopted several easy biosecurity and health care practices to reduce the chances of my family’s small herd contracting infectious diseases:
- Our veterinarian vaccinates our horses against the appropriate infectious diseases. Dorado travels to competitions, inherently putting him at a greater risk for infection.
- Yes, we even vaccinate the two that rarely leave the farm, as they could still be exposed to disease via Dorado. Plus, I don’t know the neighbor mare’s vaccination or health history. While she can’t touch noses with our herd, her pasture is close enough that she could be an infection risk.
- I no longer let Dorado touch noses with other horses at shows.
- I avoid using stalls at horse shows, if possible, as properly cleaning and disinfecting them before putting a horse inside isn’t always easy. Instead, I do my best to park near some shade and plant a haynet and water bucket underneath.
- Now, seven years later, I’ve covered more disease outbreaks, large and small, than I can count. You can read about some of the most significant in Christa Lesté-Lasserre’s feature, “Legendary Equine Disease Outbreaks.” Each one is different, yet they have similarities: Someone’s horse gets sick or dies, and equestrians vow to take vaccinations and biosecurity more seriously. They do for a time but eventually might get lax again, leaving their horses vulnerable to infection.
Don’t learn the hard way or wait for another outbreak to make disease risk reduction a priority on your farm. Do it now. Your horse’s life might depend upon it.
This column originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care.