More than 13,000 horses reside in Sonoma County, Calif., making the equine industry there second only to its world-famous wine. But the Sonoma horse community is far from a united front against the outbreak of equine herpes virus (EHV-1).
Reactions run the gamut with few people sitting on the fence.
Two Sonoma County horses attended the National Cutting Horse Association Western National Championship, held April 28-May 8 in Ogden, Utah, which has been pinpointed as the source of the potentially lethal virus. These two horses haven’t yet shown symptoms of the disease.
However, most county horse people are locked into their position on the infection.
On one side a barn owner scoffed at the dramatically out of proportion reaction to the virus, commenting, “It’s not like Quarter Horses are running down the street spreading the virus.” Another facility has left the eight trainers on the property to do what they think prudent.
On the other side, facilities have closed to any movement of horses. One barn has locked its entry gate to cars and decorated it with a can of Lysol and a container of hand sanitizer for those who will have to walk in. Woodbridge Farm, a dressage facility, canceled its upcoming schooling show. Veterinarians are not allowed on the property except in the case of “dire” emergency. Farriers and other horse care professionals are not allowed in until further notice.
Riverside Equestrian Center in Petaluma, home to more than 200 horses, leased its Sonoma Horse Park last weekend to the HMI Equestrian Challenge, which attracted 300 hunter/jumper horses. Thirty-five entries chose to stay home.
Most of the 300 either had attended a show at the same facility the weekend before or arrived Monday morning, May 16, the day word got out about the cutting horses from Utah. Several of the hunter/jumper horses couldn’t return to their home barns, which had locked their doors or were requiring the horses have bloods test before they could return. A few local horses stayed at home because they couldn’t return until an unknown time if they attended the show.
The horses that cannot return home are staying on the showgrounds. REC, which abuts the showgrounds, has not closed to horses traveling in or going out.
“These are healthy horses,” says Sally Hudson, show manager. “Many have passports that require them to have vaccines every six months. It’s only cutting horses. People need to take care of their horses, but there are no western horses here. I blame the Internet for the hysteria.”
The annual Rose Parade, held in Santa Rosa last Saturday, is usually heavily laden with horses, but this time about 70 percent of those entered dropped out. Three barns did show up. Conscious of the health risks, parade organizers provided three separate staging areas and kept the horses at least one block apart in the parade lineup.
Ron Malone, owner of Circle Oak Equine, president of the Sonoma Horse Council and a cutting horse rider, locked down his rehabilitation and retirement facility and registered veterinary hospital in Petaluma to new residents and horses trailered in. Owners are discouraged from visiting their horses, especially if they have visited other barns. Farriers are asked not to visit the facility within the next two weeks. If they must, they’re required to step into disinfectant baths, wear coveralls provided by the facility over their clothes, and wash their hands with soap before touching horses.
“If we are careful for the next two weeks to a month, if everyone just stays home, and we don’t have horse to horse contact, the disease will blow over. If it continues to spread secondarily, we’ll probably extend our lockdown,” says Malone.
“I was scheduled to go to a cutting show,” he added. “I was ready to show; my horse was ready to show. Sure I’m disappointed, but it’s better than a dead horse. It’s a hardship for the show, but it’s a hardship if you have an epidemic on your hands.”
Small private barn owners Terry and Tony Benedetti have their own seven dressage and endurance horses and lease a separate barn on their property to a western trainer who teaches around the county. Their veterinarian has recommended that the lessee shower and change clothes before working horses on their ranch.
The Benedettis plan to “hunker down” for the next few weeks. They put off the farrier’s visit for two weeks when they will request that they be his first appointment of the day.
“Why take the risk if you don’t have to? Let’s not have the disease spread. No ribbon means that much to me,” says Terry, who chose to cancel her weekly lessons at a nearby facility. Though she trusts that the place is virus free, “I don’t want boarders coming after me with a broom.”
Santa Rosa Equestrian Center houses about 50 eventing and dressage horses. Concern from her boarders caused owner Tracy Underwood to cancel a jumper schooling show and reschedule the California Dressage Society amateur clinic. A select few outside horses are allowed in for lessons.
“I know where their horses have been,” she said.
Social pressure is also part of the picture. A SREC boarder plans to attend an event at The Horse Park in Woodside this weekend. Because she received so many adverse emails, she plans to take her horse to a friend’s for 10 days after the show.
Underwood also curses the Internet, particularly Facebook, for the hysterical tone that has seeped into some reactions to the virus. Others are thankful for the communication and the increased attention the horse community is receiving. The local newspaper, which rarely writes about horses, ran two articles on the virus in less than a week.
Equestrian professionals have reacted for the most part with caution. Mehrdad Baghai, owner of JRD saddles, set up a bleach footbath outside his saddle shop. He wears gloves to saddle fittings at barns because cleaning his hands with hand sanitizer so often has left them raw.
Laundries have told clients to hold off sending in winter blankets. Farriers are disinfecting their shoes before they step out of their vehicles.
Most county veterinarians have urged vigilance. As he set up precautions and protocols for his clients, Dr. Don Smith of Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery wrote, “Panic is not necessary. People are an important part of the spread of the disease, so common sense is of utmost value. The current outbreak of equine herpes virus is urgent, but has caused unwarranted angst and misinformation across the country.”
At a meeting of Barn and Ranch Owners of Northern California, Malone, an attorney, pointed out: “If you take a sick horse to a show knowing the horse is sick, the person whose horse gets sick has a claim against you for negligence. As a barn owner you know that an epidemic is taking place, and you don’t take any measures to protect your horses from new ones coming in, and a horse gets infected because you were oblivious, you are potentially liable for all vet costs and the value of the horse if it dies.”
The Sonoma County Horse Council has issued a statement describing the state of the virus and applauding the horsemen and facilities that have voluntarily taken precautions in this early stage of impending epidemic. “We applaud the restraint of the horsemen that decided to stay home and show promoters that have chosen to cancel or reschedule and barns that have voluntarily restricted movement in or out.”