SALT LAKE CITY — An outbreak of a new strain of equine herpes — diagnosed among competitors in a cutting horse event in Ogden — has led to the voluntary cancellation of dozens of horse shows in the United States and in Alberta, Canada.
The National Cutting Horse Association said all of its approved shows for May 20-22 have been canceled by affiliates or show producers and other horse associations are voluntarily shutting down events to discourage the interstate transportation of potentially infected horses.
There are two confirmed cases in Colorado, and one in southern Alberta, Canada, according to veterinary officials.
Six horses from Utah County to Box Elder County are showing clinical symptoms of the new strain of the viral disease, which attacks the animals' central nervous system and can lead to death.
Suspicion that the highly contagious disease is making the rounds at corrals and stalls in Utah prompted the cancellation of a Memorial Day weekend event in Salt Lake County that draws hundreds of participants and is among the biggest in the region for paint horse enthusiasts.
While some horse events in Utah have already been canceled voluntarily, dozens more are in limbo as show organizers and arena managers weigh their options. The outbreak calls into question the potential impacts to horse-heavy events that are a tradition in Utah, such as the Days of ’47 parade, rodeo or the annual All Horse Parade this summer.
Kathi Izatt, a member of the Days of ′47 board of directors, said she is hopeful that the spread of the virus has ended.
"That is what we are crossing our fingers over, that the horses that are impacted are the only ones and that the crisis has passed," Izatt said. "If it has not, however, we will be the first to say that we want the animals and owners to come out with the best results and that may mean reducing or eliminating horses in some of our events."
State veterinarian Dr. Bruce King stressed horse owners need to know the disease is treatable and animals can recover if veterinarians are involved early on in medical treatments that include administration of anti-inflammatories.
The disease does not spread to humans and is not sexually transmitted, but rather horses get it by touching noses or through contact with infected tack or equipment.
White said three private facilities are on a "hold order," which is just shy of a quarantine because of suspicion of infection. When diagnostic results come back, any confirmation of the disease would lead to a full-blown quarantine.
King said he would then recommend all events involving horses, burros and mules be canceled in Utah until it runs its course.
Concern over equine herpes (EHV-1) surfaced in Utah because horses from surrounding states came down with the disease after participating in the National Cutting Horse Association's Western National Championships in Ogden from April 29 to May 8.
Word of the virus led to the cancellation of the Utah Bureau of Land Management's premiere wild horse and burro adoption event slated for May 20-21. It has been rescheduled for Aug. 26-27.
Gus Warr, head of the state program for the federal agency, said the risk is too great for the horses under the BLM's care or to visiting horses that were scheduled to come to Salt Lake County.
Carol Campbell, president of the Utah Paint Horse Club, also canceled at regional show slated for Memorial Day weekend at the Salt Lake County Equestrian Center.
"None of our members has it, but we canceled as a precaution. We'd rather err on the side of caution." The show is one of the tops in the nation in terms of size, drawing horses and their owners, trainers and riders from California, Texas, Oregon, Washington and other regional states.
In Davis County, the Legacy horse arena also canceled one of its own weekend horse shows and other equine events have been delayed, said director Dave Hansen.
"We'd rather be safe than sorry."
Hansen said beyond the obvious economic benefits equestrian events bring with hotel stays and visits to restaurants, there's a ripple effect that spreads throughout the community in terms of financial impacts.
"I'm no longer ordering food from Sam's Club or US Foods for the concession stands and the people who were going to work them now have the weekend off," he said, adding that vendors who supply the arena with shavings for the stalls just lost out on some business as well.
"There's these events all along the Wasatch Front. These shows do not make a profit, but the money that comes in with these events spreads farther out into the community than people can see."
Meanwhile, in Weber County, officials at the Golden Spike Events Center are doing what they can to calm any fears of spooked horse owners.
Jim Harvey, the center's general manager, said a disinfectant and anti-microbial virus neutralizer has been applied to all equine areas of the arena. He said he has been told by King and the Colorado State veterinarian, Dr. Keith Roehr, that the Weber County center was not the source of the virus and that the virus had been brought to the show.
Much like herpes simplex 1 in humans — which is a common virus that causes cold sores — equine herpes is common to horses, White said.
"Almost any horse 2 years or older has been exposed."
This, however, is a new or emergent strain that exhibits severe symptoms, which include fever, decreased coordination, nasal discharge, lethargy, inability to rise and leaning against a wall or fence to maintain balance.
White says the central nervous system of a horse can swell to such an extent that the animal will actually lose mobility of its hindquarters and have to sit like a dog.
Symptoms typically appear within six days of exposure, and within about three weeks the horse is no longer a contagious carrier of the strain. But without early treatment the horse could die.
White said horse owners with any suspicions of their animals having the virus should contact their veterinarian. There are also resources available that will provide owners with information, he said.