Stable scare

Horseowners in Boulder County on alert for equine herpesvirus

Katherine Creel | Boulder Weekly

Since she heard the news that a potentially fatal virus had made its way from a horse show in Utah to stables in Colorado, Haley Burns has been waiting.

Burns boards her 11-year-old horse Justin at Green Tree Equestrian Center, and while the outbreak of equine herpesvirus-1 (EVH-1) is going around, she can’t take him riding on trails or out with other horses without risking him becoming infected with a potentially fatal disease — and spreading it to other horses.

“I really wouldn’t want to bring that back in, just like I wouldn’t want anyone else to go out and bring it back in,” she says.

And while Justin is healthy and safe for now, the waiting isn’t easy. So far, the Colorado Department of Agriculture has reported nine confirmed cases in Colorado, including one in Boulder County, as well as 22 suspected cases throughout the state. Two horses in Colorado have been euthanized after showing severe neurological symptoms due to EHV-1.

Because the disease is highly contagious and can lead to complications such as abortions in pregnant mares, EVH-1 has always been a worrying disease for owners and riders. What makes this outbreak potentially more serious, though, is an apparent increase in the neurological symptoms associated with this strain, according to Dr. Steve Benscheidt, a veterinarian with Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic in Longmont.

“This [strain] seems to have more of a predisposition for the spinal cord. It’s causing more neurological [illnesses],” Benscheidt says.

While in many cases the EVH virus causes flu-like symptoms such as coughing and nasal discharge, in a small percentage of cases, it can lead to the neurological disease equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy (EHM), which can cause decreased coordination, lethargy, paralysis and death.

Because the disease spreads through horse-to-horse contact, contact with shared objects such as feeding buckets or brushes, and to some extent through the air, fighting the outbreak depends largely on prevention and isolating sick horses.

“The best thing is just keep your horse at home.

It’s like the flu outbreak when it’s really bad. Just stay at home unless you really have to be out,” Benscheidt says.

Despite the severity of the disease, Randy Eubanks, owner of Green Tree Equestrian Center, is trying to stay positive about the outbreak.

“The vets I’ve been talking to have been telling me it seems like it’s nipped it in the bud,” he says. That’s thanks in large part to effective quarantines, sanitation and education.

Eubanks is still urging caution, however. Horses boarding at Green Tree either have to stay on the premises or, if they do leave, stay out until the scare has passed, and visiting farriers and veterinarians have to disinfect before entering the barns.

“If you go to a trailhead and happen to have a hitching rail there to tie up to, that hitching rail might have had a horse there a few hours ago that had a bug,” he says.

And while the outbreak is hopefully on its way to being contained, for many, it has already put a damper on the summer.

“I feel sad for the youngsters, because the kids just love doing shows,” Eubanks says, adding that it is doubtful there will be any equine events this summer. “I think everybody will still be a little leery of doing shows.”

As of now at least, that seems to be the case. So far, Colorado Sate Fair organizers have rescheduled three events. The Zamora Roping event, originally slated for May 20-22, has been postponed, with a new date still to be determined. The Mounted Shooting Regional, originally scheduled for May 27-30, has been rescheduled for Oct. 7-10, and the Sagebrush Slide Cow Horse Show has been rescheduled from June 1-5 to Aug. 10-14.

Boulder County Fairground Manager Joe LaFollette says the fairground facilities will be closed not only to horses, but also to camels, llamas and alpacas, which are also susceptible to EHV-1, for at least two more weeks. At that time, fairground organizers will reassess the outbreak level and decide whether to extend the closure. The fairground normally is open daily to the public for riding and exercising horses.

In the event of an emergency, however, LaFollete says the fairgrounds would accept horses and other large animals if absolutely necessary, although a veterinarian would be on hand to screen for any potentially infected animals. He adds, though, that most of the horse owners in potential flood or fire areas have already been contacted and have made other arrangements for their animals in the event of an emergency.